Black Footballers Celebrate the Life of a World War 1 Black British Hero

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

By Kick it Out
Tuesday, 16 April 2013.
Bolton Wanderers striker Marvin Sordell and Manchester City legend Alex Williams were among the theatre audience who recently watched a production dedicated to Britain’s first Black army officer. Lieutenant Walter Tull was a Black Briton who fought heroically in World War 1 but was denied a Military Cross for heroism even though his commanding officer recommended him for one. Lieutenant Tull was also an inside forward for Tottenham Hotspur during the early 1900s.The Octagon Theatre, based in Bolton, launched the new piece of theatre in the wake of an English Defence League (EDL) rally in Manchester City Centre. The production has been touring schools, community centres and football academies addressing the issues of racism that still exist today. The performance was followed by a question and answer session that gave the audience, made up of young people from nine local youth organisations across the region, the opportunity to ask Sordell and Williams about their experiences of racism on and off the pitch. Keeley Temple, Kick It Out’s Professional Clubs Development Officer, was also in attendance to provide an insight into the work the campaign does to address discrimination within the game.
The Octagon Theatre’s Learning and Participation Department organised the event as part of their wider campaign to educate young people across the North West about the issues of racism. Using verbatim responses from consultation workshops held with local young people, two touring pieces of theatre have been created that are currently on a four-week tour across the region. The touring pieces are aimed at primary and secondary school ages and are followed by a facilitated workshop to discuss the themes of the play immediately after each performance. 
The project was inspired by the themes in the Octagon’s main auditorium production of ‘Tull’ written by official biographer and Manchester United football scout Phil Vasili. ‘Tull’ tells the story of Walter Tull; World War I hero and the first black outfield player in the First Division of the Football League. The victim of extreme racism on the pitch and an unrewarded hero in the army, it is a momentous story that has been left unexplored in our history books. Despite some developments, we are confronted almost on a daily basis with news stories about racism on the football pitch. An issue that is extremely prevalent for young people today.
Lisa O’Neill-Rogan, Associate Director of the Learning and Participation Department, commented: “Walter Tull was a remarkable individual and his story is a complex one that involved him overcoming many challenges and facing much prejudice. “With the Tull touring pieces we have chosen aspects of his life to focus on that are poignant in the play, addressing the prejudice Tull faced as a black footballer and the fact that despite all his bravery Tull was never recognised for all that he did for this country as a war hero. “At the Octagon we believe that the Tull story needs to go beyond the walls of the auditorium to create a real legacy for the future that will be carried forward by the young people of today. “Events such as the one attended by Marvin Sordell and Alex Williams are vital to help raise awareness, and by sharing their experiences with young people they are inspiring a generation to address difficult issues and have the courage to know that racism is never acceptable in our society.”

Marvin Sordell and Alex Williams share their experiences with the audience at the Octagon Theatre
HELP RIGHT THE WRONG OF MILITARY CROSS SNUB A campaign is being waged to win recognition for Walter Tull’s achievements.
Author Phil Vasili has launched a petition to posthumously award Tull a Military Cross – and is looking for East Enders to sign up.
The campaign is to make sure Tull is rewarded for heroism on the Western Front. According to letters sent to his family after he was killed in 1918, he displayed “gallantry and coolness under fire“ during bloody battles in the trenches of Europe.
Despite military regulations forbidding “any negro or person of colour” becoming an infantry officer, Tull’s heroics in battle were rewarded in May 1917 and he was allegedly recommended for the Military Cross. But he went to the grave a hero without ever getting his prized medal.
It fuelled speculation that he had been overlooked because of rules prohibiting officers of non-European descent leading white troops.
Mr Vasili said: “The campaign is focussed on getting 100,000 signatures for the e-petition and we’re going to keep going until we reach our target.”
The campaign is backed by Brian Binley, MP for Northampton South, where Tull lived later in life; Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse, whose new novel, A Medal For Leroy, draws heavily on Tull’s story, and members of the soldier’s family.
Mr Morpurgo said: “We don’t know why this medal was not awarded. I think the medal commendation somehow got misplaced. But now is the right moment to be putting this right.”
To support the campaign, please click here.

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