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What a tale he has to Tull

WalterTull276Groundbreaking footballer and World War One hero Walter Tull remains a towering figure in British black history, says Richard Sudan

At Operation Black Vote’s Celebrating Black History Month event just over a week ago, the guest speakers were invited to talk about a person who had inspired them. Among the list of impressive names included were Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks.

But there is one name which does not always get mentioned among the ranks of true battle axes of equality. The name is Walter Tull.

Being a Crystal Palace fan (former season ticket holder, guilty as charged, Holmesdale stand, upper tier) it is hard for me to write this. But the second best football team in London, Tottenham, once upon a time noted among it’s ranks a man who achieved prestige by not only being one of the first ever black professional footballers, but also by being the first black soldier to be promoted to officer in the First World War.

Richard-Sudan

Richard Sudan

These achievements when viewed from the time he lived in, and when viewed against the conduct and wealth of today’s professional footballers, are simply awe-inspiring.

How humbling it would be to talk to this man today. His skill on the pitch, his bravery on the battlefield, and his determination to rise above incalculable odds reflect all that is best in the unshakable spirit of human kind.

Like Paul Robeson, Tull was put simply a miracle of his circumstances.

Born in Kent in 1888, Walter and his brother Edward were orphaned as children, and grew up in a children’s home in Bethnal Green, East London.

As a footballer in the early years leading up to the outbreak of war, Tull enjoyed success with a number of teams. He encountered racist abuse from so many fronts in ways most of us could not imagine, and that would have broken most spirits. But not Walter. Walter dug his heels in. And like with everything else he did Walter persevered.

He became the first black player to play in Latin America, making history and immortalising his name.

The outbreak of the First World War saw Tull like thousands of other black people from Britain, and from every corner of the Empire, enlist to fight to defend a system which largely did not see them as human beings.

Walter fought with bravery for an army which would allow him to die for Britain, but by its own rules would not allow ‘negroes’ or ‘mulattos’ to have authority over white soldiers as Officers.

Despite a hurdle which was part of military law, Walter’s efforts saw him rise through the ranks first as a Lieutenant, and then on to the title of Officer.

That Tull was nominated to these positions by officers of superior rank, and by officers with a perceived superior colour, says something about the magnitude of his achievements.

Of course there are countless others who fought and died for freedom’s causes, whose names are lost but who we remember, because they fought for our own sons and daughters. Among the names we remember, Tull for me is up there with the best of them.

He received the military cross, and was admired among his white contemporaries for his ‘gallantry and coolness’

Walter paid the ultimate sacrifice on March 23rd in 1918 aged 29 in Pas De Calais, northern France, for freedom’s cause.

His life personifies what fighting for equality really means. Not just because of how he died, but how he lived. Walter Tull we remember you. Walter Tull, thank you.

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