Much more to forgotten Clark than first black player at Wimbledon
Jamaican blazed a trail at SW19 in 1924 but his feats lit up a dizzying list of sports, says
ennis, alas, does not seem to be growing any more diverse. At least, not on the men’s side. This year’s ATP Finals at the O2 Arena – which start tomorrow – will be the 50th edition, and the first to feature an entirely European field. Every one of them is Caucasian.
But if next week’s tournament will be entirely monochrome, the All England Club’s historians have recently uncovered an exception to the rule – and he dates back almost a century.
It now seems that Bertrand Milbourne Clark, a civil servant from Jamaica, became the first black participant at Wimbledon, when he took on Britain’s Vincent Burr in 1924.
The discovery was made by Anne Clark, who is married to one of Bertrand’s descendants. Or perhaps we should say rediscovery, for he was a well-known figure at the time. On Clark’s passing in 1958,
The Gleaner in Jamaica ran an obituary that occupied half a broadsheet page.
His dizzying list of accomplishments in sport included winning 19 titles at Jamaica’s tennis championships, as well as taking first place in the national golfing match play event in 1933. On top of this, Clark was a regular for Melbourne Cricket Club – a hugely distinguished team who have produced players including Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh – and is credited with “a great cover drive”.
From The Gleaner article, it is not clear whether he played football for Jamaica as a half-back, or merely in local leagues, although national captain Clarence Passailaigue told the paper that “I was never happier than when he was with me on the field”.
The final straw, for any readers feeling their self-esteem shrink by the paragraph, is the following: “He was also about the best writer on golf and tennis in the Caribbean with a literary style that has no peer among sportswriters.”
For heaven’s sake, Bertrand, take the day off. He did manage to progress from a humble Treasury clerk to retire as secretary of the Island
Medical Office, so it cannot all have been chips, putts and serves.
Clark sounds like the invention of a wishfulfilling fiction writer – a tennis equivalent of comic-book character Wilson of The Wizard, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s devastating lob bowler Tom Spedegue. But he was entirely real and genuinely significant.
Until Wimbledon’s librarian Robert Mcnicol publicised the find last month, it was assumed that Althea Gibson – a trailblazer to rank alongside Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters – had been the first black player to appear at the Championships in 1951.
The details are sketchy, so anyone hoping to film the Clark story will have to use their imagination. According to an interview with Anne Clark in Who Do You Think You Are?
magazine, he was the son of a dentist. The question of how he funded his overseas trips – some by first-class steamer ship, others by air – remains an intriguing and unanswered one.
But the man clearly earned much goodwill in his 62 years – as well as enough trophies to fill a
bathtub. As his Gleaner obituary concluded, “When the Great Scorer comes to write against your name, he writes not ‘won’ or ‘lost’ but how you played the game.”
Trailblazer: Bertrand Clark was a sportsman par excellence