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Why Walter Tull is still a hero today

Tre Ventour reflects on the continuing impact of Walter Tull…

Three months into 2018 and evidence of the importance of Black history is everywhere. From the success of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther to this summer marking seventy years since The Windrush, the migrants that came from the West Indies in 1948. However, it would be a lie to say that the Windrush Generation were the first Black people to settle, live and work in Britain. There were Black people here in Georgian times and Victorian times, and they weren’t all slaves. They were free people, like the father of footballer Walter Tull.

Daniel Tull was a man from Barbados who came to England in pursuit of a better life. By 1876, he had made the same trip my grandparents and great-grandparents made in the 1960s – they being members of second influx of Windrush migrants from the Caribbean, more specifically the islands of Grenada and Jamaica.

As a child, learning about Walter Tull from my mother, it filled me up with a pride in the sense that Black British people were more than slaves, servants and poor immigrants. Before meeting Walter, I had been led to believe that Black British history was simply slavery and Windrush.

Walter Tull

Walter Tull, one of Britain’s first black footballers who played for Northampton Town and Tottenham Hotspur. He was also the first black officer in the British Army as well as the first black officer to lead white troops into battle in the First World War. For his bravery, he was recommended the Military Cross and died a hero in the last Battle of the Somme in 1918 aged 29.

The discovery of Black Britons like him begs the question: “What does it mean to be British? What does it mean to be Black and British?”, as discussed in David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History and Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), both important reads that discuss the history and heritage of Black people in Britain and the British Empire among other things. British history has been whitewashed.

And when Black History Month rolls on in October, a lot of the figures that are celebrated are American. I have no problem with that but we are in Britain, where Black British figures should be celebrated too. And here, we have Walter Tull, a Black Briton. He was born in Folkestone and he played football for Northampton Town and Tottenham Hotspur. He gave his life for this country during the First World War. He was a patriot. Can you get more British than pledging your allegiance to the flag?

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Being at the memorial service, I met a number of people, like local poet Nairobi Thompson. Also, I met Walter’s biographer, Phil Vasili who gave a fantastic talk on Walter’s life and achievements. Moreover, I met the illustrator of Vasili’s book Walter Tull, (1888-1918), Officer, Footballer: All the Guns in France Couldn’t Wake Me. I found myself being photographed by him because I have an uncanny resemblance to Walter Tull, apparently!

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However, to me, being there was more than just remembering Walter. It was about celebrating history and acknowledging the contribution of Black people to this small island, to the United Kingdom. It was joining together as a community, and that family spans wide, not just Northamptonshire. The descendants of Edward Tull (Walter’s brother) were there too. They came all the way from Scotland. Black history is everyone’s history. I shouldn’t have to call it Black history because it’s just history but I do, simply because non-white history isn’t mainstream.

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Nonetheless, this is the community of Britain and that community spans thousands of miles. It got me thinking about the Tulls and how Walter’s grandparents were slaves. British history is a story that happened in all corners of the world. This is a country whose story is written in black as well as white. It’s the story of the Romans. It’s about empire and colonialism: India, Australia, Canada, Afghanistan, Botswana, America, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Scotland. That’s just a few.

I am descended from slaves and I recently found out that my paternal great-great grandfather was a white man from Ireland. It’s the story of slavery and the money it made for places like Bristol and Manchester. It’s the story of immigration and Windrush, people like my grandparents and so many other families who came here after the Second World War. It’s the Black Georgians and Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter. It’s the story of a people who were brought here by force. It’s a history written into this earth and the faces of the people who live here.

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Northamptonshire is a town with many interesting ties to historical figures like Thomas Beckett and Elizabeth Woodville, and connections to Britain’s colonial past. Spending the day listening to the interesting talks about Walter and racism brought all these feelings about history up. And due to this story being whitewashed, how many Walter Tulls have been lost? How many Jonathan Strongs? How many Black Britons?

Celebrating the life of Walter Tull was needed. It marked one hundred years since his death and this November marks one hundred years since the end of the First World War. Will society acknowledge the contribution of the colonies to the war effort or will we continue like everyone who fought was white and European?

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There are many points of view to every story, simply telling one is selfish. Walter Tull is me, Tré Ventour, and many other young, black, British men. If I was born in 1885 instead of 1995, that could have been me. It’s high time he received his military cross. To not award to him, even posthumously, is the ultimate offence, to: Black Britain, to his legacy and his descendants that walk among us today. We are all remnants of our ancestors. It runs in the blood.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Marcus Garvey

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