On the streets of Ghana’s capital, Accra, the names of English Premier League stars fly off the tongues of soccer-crazed youths. However, a pioneer of the sport who broke down racial barriers is familiar to few.
That may soon change for Arthur Wharton, the first black soccer player to play professionally in Britain. A foundation including Ghanaian and British soccer enthusiasts as well as artists are seeking to resurrect Wharton’s name, both as a symbol of hope for the impoverished area he grew up in and as a stand against racism in the sport.
“If you look at his story, you realize that he must have gone through a lot in order to play whatever sport that he was playing,” said Kofi Bawuah, the Arthur Wharton Foundation’s representative in Ghana.
“If he could overcome all these things to achieve what he achieved, then we in this present era have no excuse but to push the agenda that racism will not be tolerated,” he said.
The foundation hopes to convince the Ghana Football Association to name the stadium in nearby Tema after Wharton and to adopt the Jamestown Declaration, a statement against racism in soccer bearing the name of his old neighborhood.
Born in 1865 to a Ghanaian mother and a father of Scottish and Grenadian descent, Wharton spent his early years in Jamestown, one of the oldest districts in Accra before moving to Britain to train as a missionary teacher.
However, Wharton proved better at athletics than education, and as a competitive runner he set a 10-second record for the 100-yard sprint (91.4m) in a tournament that at the time was essentially the world championship of the sport, biographer Phil Vasili said.
Wharton later found his way to professional soccer, joining one of the best clubs of the era, Preston North End, he said.
Being the first black player to compete professionally was a burden for him, both on and off the field.
“He became a paid sportsman, and that’s a short career,” Vasili said. “The prejudice against his color was held against him quite largely.”
He struggled with alcohol, eventually dropping out of the sport for life as a miner, and died in poverty in 1930 at the age of 65.
Since Wharton’s widow chose not to buy a tombstone for him — perhaps because she was poor or maybe because Wharton fathered children with her sister — he only received a proper gravestone in 1997, paid for by anti-racism group Football Unites, Racism Divides.
That group has since been leading a resurrection of sorts for Wharton’s name in Britain, Vasili said.
The foundation has held a soccer tournament on Wharton’s birthday and last year presented a statue of him to the Ghana Football Association.
“We felt that if we can use Arthur’s name to bring the plight of the Jamestown people to the fore, then we might be able to get some development in there and then at the same time be able to honor Arthur,” Bawuah said.