Black History Month: The Story of Walter Tull

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When we talk about Black History Month, we only seem to acknowledge Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Although they deserve all the respect and acknowledgment they get, it is important to remember that there are many others who deserve just as much respect, especially when celebrating their achievements during Black History Month. One of them is far closer to home, yet 100 years on from his death he remains widely unknown in the United Kingdom. This is the remarkable story of Walter Tull.

Who was he? What did he do?

Walter Tull was an English footballer and a British Army officer during World War I. Born in 1888, he lost both parents by the age of nine, becoming an orphan with his brother Edward. However soon after, he was separated from his brother, who was adopted by a Scottish family from Glasgow.

Now alone, Walter started to focus more on football, and joined amateur club Clapton FC in 1908. He was highly praised, and won three trophies during his time there. He was soon scouted by Tottenham Hotspur, and they signed him the next year when he was 21 years old. Unfortunately, his time at the club was hindered with horrible racial abuse from fans, which was condemned by some national newspapers.

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In 1911, he left Spurs to play for Northampton Town, where he made 111 appearances. Tull played for just three clubs during his short six year career, and was enjoying a fantastic career until the outbreak of the First World War while he was at Northampton Town. Within the first months of the War, Tull enlisted in the British Army, the first player at the club to do so.

He fought many battles across Europe during the War, including the infamous Battle of the Somme. He worked his way up the ranks, eventually being commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1917. Despite military regulations forbidding “any negro or person of colour” being an officer, Tull bravely overcame this racial prejudice. On 25 March 1918, Tull was shot and killed in action on the frontline in Northern France, less than eight months before the end of World War I. He was just 29 years old.

Why is he important?

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Walter Tull was one of the first ever black footballers in England, and the first ever black officer in the British Army to command white troops. Despite these outstanding achievements, he remains unknown and unrecognised. In a country where we reminisce about the great English players of the FA’s 155 year history and commemorate the fallen soldiers of centuries ago, there is near to no recognition for this great man.

Very few people know of his remarkable story, which really is a shame. I remember finding out when I did a research project about him five years ago. I was fascinated to find out about him and his life, yet I didn’t realise how few people knew about him. In fact, I would be largely without all of this article’s information where it not for the insightful research from Phil Vasili, a historian who wrote a biography about his life titled “Walter Tull – 1888 to 1918, Footballer and Officer”

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Walter Tull and his Tottenham team from 1911-12. Tull is in the second row, second from the right.

One of the things we always talk about when describing heroes of history is Courage, and I believe that Walter Tull epitomises this. He had the courage to take up football in a time when it was dominated purely by white men, with no players whatsoever of ethnic background. He had the courage to continue his passion, despite racial abuse being the norm for him when he stepped out onto the pitch. He had the courage to go and fight for his country, put his life on the line and eventually sacrifice his life in one of the bloodiest wars in human history. He was courageous in everything he did, and he persevered throughout a life of personal tragedy, racial abuse and total discrimination.

So, while you’re reflecting on Black History Month and who represents it for you, take a moment to think about the incredible story of Walter Tull, and the life he lived.

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