Black History Month series - part 1

16 October 2020

October is Black History Month and Jason, a member of Independent Futures, our consultants with lived experience, is exploring what it means and shares the stories he has picked up along the way.

I, myself, am on a journey of learning and understanding. I hope my words stimulate interest in your own journey of discovery. 

Every October is Black History Month,and despite this being my history and having a strong interest in equalities and diversity, I am always learning something new. So for this month, every week, I will be sharing some of the stories I hear with you.

Black History Month aims to celebrate and highlight the stories of prominent black people, who may have been left out of mainstream, white-centric history. Originating in the USA, the idea of Black History Month started in 1969 at Kent State University, and was  first celebrated from 2nd January to 28th February 1970.

It was initiated in the UK in October 1987 by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a Ghanaian analyst and the coordinator at the time of special projects for the Greater London Council -who was. 

I remember growing up and choosing role models from those available on TV - diversity was few and far between then. Shaft, The Desmonds and Daly Thompson were the ones that looked like me and stand out in my memory to this day.

Today I want to tell you about a young Rugby Union player, who, although not Bristol born and bred, started out on an astonishing part of his career in rugby here in Bristol. 

James Peters, originally from Saltford, was born on the 7th of August 1879 to a Jamacian father and a Shropshire mother. A carpenter and printer by trade, work brought him to Bristol. One of his passions was rugby, and once here he was quick to continue playing as a fly-half, first for the Dings Crusaders (just down the road from me) and then for Knowle and Bristol Rugby Club.  

Some in the local and rugby community openly opposed his place on the team. The local paper described him as a “palid blackamoor who was ‘keeping a white man out of the side.” I wonder what those who opposed him thought when he went on to achieve great success nationally - hindsight is great, innit!

It is amazing to think of all the barriers James would have had to overcome in order to become the first black man to play rugby union for England. 

He earned his England cap in 1906, and I was surprised to learn he remained the only black man to play for England’s rugby union team until 1988 - 82 years later!

James Peter made his debut for England against ‘the old enemy’ Scotland on 17th March 1906 he first black man to play in Rugby Union in England was a scotchman, funnily enough, as my son is half Scottish and as his mum says, we are better up there! 

The Yorkshire Post announced “his selection is by no means popular on racial grounds” while The Sportsman wrote “dusky Plymouth man did many good things, especially in passing” after James set up two tries in that first match. 

Controversy followed throughout his rugby career, including him being unable to represent England on the international stage, when South Africia objected to him playing against their team at the end of 1906 on racial grounds. He was also one of a number of players suspended by the RFC for accepting a retirement payment from Devon Rugby club. He did however go on to earn three more caps for England between 1907 and 1908 before swapping to rugby league.

He played rugby league until he retired from the sport in 1914 and James Peters passed away in March 1954.

I didn’t want to end his story there -I wanted to know what he did from 1914 to 1954. After a brilliant landmark achievement, was he a happy man?, a family man?, what work did he do? 

But other than the fact he returned to the Northwest I couldn’t find out any more information, until I spotted some comments under an article about him on blackhistorymonth.org.uk. A ‘stint’ at the Devonport Dockyard and a great grand dad among other things. If you wanna know more, look the man up yourself, maybe have a look at Jamie Robertson too, the first known black rugby union player!