John Archer (1/2)
Source: Daily Mail, 11 November 1913 Reproduced with permission Wandsworth Heritage Service (2/2)
In November 1913, John Richard Archer (1863-1932), the son of a black Barbadian father and a white Irish Catholic mother, was elected mayor of the south London borough of Battersea.
Though Archer was born in Liverpool, he spent much time when a young man travelling the world, finally returning to England in the 1890s with Bertha, his black Canadian wife. Settling in Battersea, a deprived area of London, he began to take an interest in local politics and began establishing himself in left-wing circles. In 1906, Archer was elected as one of six Battersea borough councillors before making national headlines in 1913 when he became mayor of Battersea. Archer was also a key player in the black activist movement. Like his close friend Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, he was a Pan-Africanist, believing in a common bond between all people of black origin and the fight for the independence of African nations and racial equality worldwide.
Archer’s election to mayor was lauded by many, including Archer, as a progressive moment in British racial relations. Nevertheless, Archer faced racism and prejudice during and after his election, the South Western Star newspaper, for example, stating ‘it is not meet that the white man should be governed and controlled by a man of colour.’ Archer’s racial background was also the subject of intense media interest. The press seemed unaware of the longstanding ‘Liverpool-born Black Community’ and there was wild speculation about his racial background, with press reports claiming that he was ‘Burmese by birth’ and likening him to a ‘Hindu’ or ‘Parsee’ in appearance. In his election speech, Archer set the record straight: he was a ‘man of colour’ from Liverpool (‘Lancastrian born and bred’) – ‘the son of a man who was born in the West Indies’ and an Irish mother, a familiar union in parts of Liverpool though one that nevertheless attracted hostility. At a meeting at Battersea Town Hall one month after his election, Archer spoke of receiving vicious letters attacking his mother ‘because she married a man of colour’.
Such prejudice did not deter Archer, however. He served his term as mayor and went on to become a significant figure in the Battersea Labour Party movement until his death in 1932.
“It is not meet that the white man should be governed and controlled by a man of colour. It has always been that the white man ruled and it must always be so. lf not, goodbye to the prestige of Great Britain.’”
“Do you know that I have had letters since I have been Mayor calling my mother some of the foulest names that it is possible for a mother to be called. (“Shame”). Before I was Mayor I received no opposition on the Council. I have been made to feel my position more than any man who has ever occupied this chair, not because I am a member of the Council, but because I am a man of colour. My dead mother has been called in question because she married a coloured man. (“Shame”) Am I not a man, the same as any other man? Have I not got feelings the same as any other? I may be wrong when I come here and meet this opposition, but would not any other man in my position think the opposition was because of his colour? If it’s not then I say, as a man, I apologise to you.”