Hard Sport, Harder Man

By Tony McClean, BASN Editor In Chief
Updated: January 17, 2005

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) – Today’s focus on Black sports pioneers of the past takes us to the rugged sport of rugby. In a sport that at times looks like half-football, half-soccer, and full mayhem all over, James Peters became the first Black to master the grueling game. Born on August 7, 1979 in Salford, England, Peters’ father was a native of the West Indies and worked in a circus until he was killed in a lion’s cage. Young Peters played cricket and rugby at school. He was also an outstanding all-around athlete winning the 100 yards, mile, long jump, high jump and walking races in 1894. After leaving school, Peters would become a printer. He moved to Bristol in 1898 and in 1900 joined Knowle Rugby Club. Some white members objected to the inclusion of a Black man and resigned. In 1902, Peters moved to Plymouth, England and worked in the Devonport Dockyards as a carpenter. While playing for Devon in 1906, South African tourists refused to take the field when they discovered they had a Black man on the team. However when Devon won the County Championship, the public began to campaign for Peters to play for England. On March 17, 1907, Peters played for England against Scotland. It was here that he became the first Black man to play rugby in an international game. The newspapers at the time made no reference to this at all. Although “The Sportsman”, a local newspaper, commented that the “dusky Plymouth man did many good things, especially in passing.” The Yorkshire Post praised his performance but pointed out that “his selection is by no means popular on racial grounds.” In his next game against France, he scored a try in England’s 35-8 victory. Ironically, he was not picked on racial grounds for the next game against South Africa. Peters returned to the team for the next two games against Scotland and Wales. However, he was dropped for the game against Ireland. In 1910, the feisty Peters lost three fingers in a dockyard accident. He continued to play rugby until 1912 when he was suspended after it was discovered he had been paid by Devon Rugby Club. Peters then became a professional playing Rugby League games for Barrow and St. Helens before he passed away on March 26, 1954. It would be almost 80 years before another Black player (Glen Webbe of Wales in 1986) would play play the sport on an international level. In 2003, the National Museum of Rugby in Twickenham, England honored Peters’ career with an exhibit that chronicled his playing career. It also charts his childlife as a circus bare-back rider who was raised in a orphanage before becoming ?the best stand-off half-back? in the country. NOTE: The African-American Registry and the Rugby Football Union contributed to this story.