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John Archer Project
John Richard Archer (8 June 1863 – 14 July 1932) was a British politician and political activist. In 1913 he was elected Mayor of Battersea, becoming the first black mayor in London. He was a notable Pan-Africanist and the founding president of the African Progress Union.
Archer was born in Liverpool to Richard Archer, from Barbados, and Mary Theresa Burns, from Ireland. He travelled the world as a seaman, living in the US and Canada, before he settled in Battersea with his wife, Bertha, a black Canadian, in the 1890s. He started to study medicine and then ran a small photographic studio.
Archer became involved in local politics; he was a supporter of the radical Liberal John Burns and friendly with London radicals. In 1906 he was elected as a Progressive (Liberal) to Battersea Borough Council for Latchmere ward; at the same time, West Indian Henry Sylvester Williams won in Marylebone. He successfully campaigned for a minimum wage of 32 shillings a week for council workers but lost his seat in 1909; he was re-elected in 1912.
In 1913, he was nominated for the position of mayor (at that time a position implying that he was the political leader of the council, rather than the ceremonial role common in England from the 1920s). There were negative and racist aspects to the campaign, with allegations that he did not have British nationality. He won by 40 votes to 39 among his fellow councillors, and gave a notable victory speech:
"My election tonight means a new era. You have made history tonight. For the first time in the history of the English nation a man of colour has been elected as mayor of an English borough.
"That will go forth to the coloured nations of the world and they will look to Battersea and say Battersea has done many things in the past, but the greatest thing it has done has been to show that it has no racial prejudice and that it recognises a man for the work he has done."
Archer in his mayoral robes, published in The Crisis, March 1914
His success was reported in the US journal The Crisis in January 1914.
Archer moved to the left during his years in Battersea and was re-elected to the council as a Labour representative in 1919. He stood without success for parliament the same year.[dubious – discuss] In 1918 he became the first president of the African Progress Union, working for "advanced African ideas in liberal education". In 1919 he was a British delegate to the Pan-African Congress in Paris and two years later, chaired the Pan-African Congress in London.
In 1922, he gave up his council seat to act as Labour Party election agent for Shapurji Saklatvala, a Communist Party activist standing for parliament in North Battersea. He convinced the Labour Party to endorse Saklatvala and he was duly elected one of the first Indian MPs in Britain. He and Saklatvala continued to work together, winning again in 1924 until the Communist and Labour parties split fully. In the 1929 general election, Archer was agent for the official Labour candidate who beat Saklatvala.
Archer served as a governor of Battersea Polytechnic, president of the Nine Elms Swimming Club, chair of the Whitley Council Staff Committee and a member of the Wandsworth Board of Guardians.
He was again elected in 1931, for the Nine Elms ward. At the time of his death in 1932, he was deputy leader of Battersea Council. He died on 14 July 1932, a few weeks after his 69th birthday. His funeral was held at the Church of Our Lady of Carmel in Battersea Park Road on 19 July, and he was buried in the council cemetery at Morden. The widow of the former president of Liberia Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Jane Roberts, lived with Archer and his wife until her death in 1914, aged 95.
Archer had been thought to be the first Black man to be elected as a mayor in Britain. However the American Negro Year Book 1914, in reporting Archer's election, also recorded that
In 1904, Mr. Allen Glaser Minns [sic], a colored man from the West Indies, was elected mayor of the borough of Thetford, Norfolk.