Exploring mixed race experiences
John Archer, born on 8th June 1963 in Liverpool to Richard, a black Barbadian ship steward and Mary Theresa Burns a white Irish Catholic, was once thought to have been the first black Mayor in the UK (it is now known that the first black Mayor was Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns, also mixed race, who was elected Mayor of Thetford, Norfolk in 1904). However Archer was the first black mayor in London.
Archer traveled the world as a seaman living in the USA and Canada before settling in the 1890’s at 55 Brynmaer Road, Battersea, south London with Bertha his black Canadian wife in his late 20’s. He worked as a photographer from a studio in Battersea Park Road. Archer later became involved in local politics and established himself within left wing circles. In 1906 he was elected as a Liberal to Battersea Borough Council for Latchmere ward, coming top of the poll with 1051 votes. He lost his seat in 1909, but won it again in 1912. Archer campaigned for and secured a minimum wage of 32 shillings a week for council workers and 30 shillings for employees of the Wandsworth Board of Guardians. In 1913 Archer was nominated for Mayor of Battersea and won the election by 40 votes to 39. At this time the position of Mayor was as political leader of the council, rather than a ceremonial role as became common in England in the 1920’s.
During the election campaign there was media interest in Archer with one newspaper reporting that his candidacy gave “a thrill to novelty-loving London.” Archer was also subjected to racialised scrutiny, including allegations that he did not have British nationality with the Daily Mail referring to Archer’s “keen contest with an Englishman.” The Daily Telegraph speculated that he was Burmese, born in Rangoon, “His features and colouring are eloquent of his origin, but his conversation shows no trace of accent, and he is a man of good education.” The News Chronicle speculated reported that he was Indian “the bronzed skin and black hair of a Hindu or Parsee – he laughingly declines to say to what race he belongs, but one might place his forebears among the lighter people of India – and his well-dressed, well-groomed appearance is that of a busy and prosperous business man.” In response to the speculation the Daily Mail reported that Archer remarked that “I am a man of colour. Many things have been said about me which are absolutely untrue. I think you ought to show the same respect for me as you would a white man. I am the son of a man who was born in the West Indies. I was born in a little obscure village in England that maybe you have never heard of – Liverpool. I am a Lancastrian bred and born”. Historian Mike Phillips states that this was an indication of his “pugnacious” character, I wouldn’t describe it as such, many mixed race people today will be able to relate to the experience of others not being able to identify your racial origins from the way you look and the resigned/here we go again feeling of addressing the ‘where are you from?’ question – with the inference that it can’t be ‘from here.’ Archer continued, “My mother [here Mr. Archer spoke with great emotion] was just my mother. She was not born in Burma, as some newspapers stated. She was not born in Rangoon. My mother was Irish. [ ] “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” [ ] “There is a still older phrase than this, ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of the earth to dwell.’ Surely it is just that if a man is born under the British flag he should have the same rights as a white man.”
A proto-fascist writing anonymously in a local paper stated “It is not meet that the white man should be governed and controlled by a man of colour. It has always been the white man riled and it must always be so. If not, good-bye to the prestige of Great Britain.”
On the night of his election win Archer made a speech declaring his pride in being a man of colour,
“It is a victory such as has never been gained before”, he declaimed. “I am a man of colour. I am proud to be. I would not change my colour if I could. My election to-night marks a new era. You have made history to-night…Battersea has done many things in the past, but the greatest thing it has done is to show that it has no racial prejudice and that it recognises a man for the work he has done.”
Archer was congratulated by black leaders in the United States and photographs of both Archer and his wife in their ceremonial robes were featured in DuBois’s journal The Crisis. Archer spoke of his pride in becoming the first black mayor in London, telling an American friend,
“Last week I attended a great function at the Guildhall when the twenty-eight London mayors were present with the lord mayor. It filled my heart with joy to walk in the procession of mayors in that old historic building – the first time that one of our race has done so as mayor.”
In 1918 the African Progress Union was formed and Archer was chosen as President, holding the post for three years. The African Progress Union’s members included students and business people who came from Africa, the West indies, British Guiana, Honduras and America. The organisation’s aims were “to promote the general welfare of Africans and Afro-Peoples’; to set up a social and residential club in London as a ‘home from home’; to spread ‘knowledge of the history and achievements of Africans and Afro-Peoples past and present’; and to create and maintain ‘a public sentiment in favour of brotherhood in its broadest sense’. In 1919 he was a British delegate to the Pan-African Congress in Paris and two years later chaired a session on colonial freedom at the event in London, calling on the British government to listen to the colonial people’s political demands.
Archer made a speech at the inaugural meeting of the African Progress Union, a few weeks after the end of the First World War, demanding equal treatment for black people within the British empire,
“The people in this country are sadly ignorant with reference to the darker races, and our object is to show to them that we have given up the idea of becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water, that we claim our rightful place within this Empire. That if we are god enough to be brought to fight the wars of the country we are good enough to receive the country. One of the objects of this association is to demand – not ask, demand; it will be ‘demand’ all the time that I am your President. I am not asking for anything, I am out demanding [ ].”
In 1919 Archer defended his Latchmere seat as a Labour candidate, again topping the poll. In the same year he stood for election to parliament but was unsuccessful. In December 1919 he supported Charlotte Despard, a socialist pre-war suffragette in her election campaign. In 1922 he became an election agent for Shapurji Saklatvala, a communist who ran as a Labour Party candidate, who was of Indian Parsi heritage. Sakaltvala went on to become the third ethnic Indian to be elected to the UK Parliament. In 1929 Archer was again the agent for the winning North Battersea candidate in the general election.
In 1931 Archer topped the poll in the Nine Elms ward and became deputy Labour leader on the council. He died on Thursday 14th July 1932 at the age of 69, his funeral was held at the Church of Our lady of Carmel in Battersea Park Road on Tuesday 19 July and was buried at the councils cemetery in Morden. Colleagues reflected on his extraordinary record of service to the community, he served on the council’s health, works, finance and valuation committees as well as the committees responsible for baths and wash-houses, unemployment and tuberculosis care. His colleagues noted that his record of attendance at committee and full council meetings was outstanding.
Archer also served as governor of Battersea Polytechnic, president of Nine Elms Swimming Club, chairman of the Whitley Staff Committee, trustee of the borough charities and served on the Wandsworth Board of Guardians.
You can watch a short BBC film about John Archer here http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/john-archer/3648.html
Fryer, Peter, Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1984
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