Remembering Gil Heron, The First Black Footballer To Play For Celtic
Nicknamed ‘The Black Arrow’ by his fans, Heron made a significant cultural impression on Scotland. That has been somewhat overshadowed by the exploits of his son, Gil Scott.
This article is part of our weekly history series. You can read previous entries here.
Since his death in 2011, the works of Gil Scott-Heron have only grown in artistic influence. With the outpouring of mourning that followed, his jazz poetry, political commentary and incipient rap music were given exposure the likes of which they had not seen since his heyday in the seventies and eighties. To the sound of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, his influence on contemporary rap and hip hop was eulogised by artists and musicians around the globe. He has been recognised as a true cultural icon, and celebrated as the king of 'bluesology'. Less recognised and less celebrated is his father, who was something of a cultural icon, too.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949, the son of an opera singer, née Bobbie Scott, and an aspiring Jamaican footballer, Gil Heron. His father had been born in Kingston 27 years earlier, but had moved to Canada as a young man, enlisted in the Canadian air force and, during his time in the armed services, made a name for himself both as a boxer and as a talent in track and field. He was also an increasingly promising footballer, using his natural pace to his advantage and making a name for himself as a lightning-fast centre forward. Having joined the Detroit Corinthians in the mid-forties, he was top scorer in the North American Soccer Football League in 1946. During his time in the United States, he met and married Bobbie, and soon enough Gil Scott-Heron had arrived on the scene.
With his son still in his early infancy, Gil Heron was about to find himself presented with the offer of a lifetime. While the club were on a tour of North America, Celtic happened to play a friendly against Heron's side, in which he impressed their coaching staff and scouts. Speaking to The New Yorker in 2010, Gil Scott-Heron explained it thus: "It was after the war, [he was] working for Western Electric. He also played for the Chicago Maroons, or something like that. A Scottish team came through, and he scored on them, which was not what they had come for. They was all white. He went to Scotland, and the legend goes he scored the day he arrived. He was dubbed 'The Black Arrow', and played professionally for three more years."
Speaking to an American publication, Gil Scott-Heron was not perhaps as effusive about football as he could have been. In the context of the interview, he can be forgiven for the rather throwaway description of Celtic as "a Scottish team." Celtic had, at the point his father joined them, won the Scottish First Division 19 times, as well as a multitude of domestic cups and silverware of all sorts. While they had not yet experienced their golden era under Jock Stein, they were still one of the biggest and best-supported clubs in Britain, and an offer to go and play for them overseas was not one which Gil Heron could resist.
Though this represented a huge professional coup for Heron, it also demolished his family life. He and Bobbie separated, and he would not see his son again until the then-musician was 26. While he was not necessarily to know it at the time, his move to Celtic would see him relegated to a relatively minor position in his son's life. Nonetheless, having been invited to Scotland for a trial, he signed permanently for the club in 1951.
On his debut against Morton, Heron scored for his new employers, instantly making an impression on the fans and earning himself his 'Black Arrow' moniker. The reference to race was significant, in that he was the first black footballer ever to play for Celtic at a time when there were few non-white faces in British football as a whole. Though it seems he was broadly welcomed by Celtic fans, and indeed given cult hero status, little is known about his reception from their opponents when he first turned out for the club. While there is little evidence of racial abuse regarding his time in Scotland, that may well be down to the realities of the fifties as opposed to a lack of vocal prejudice. It is possible that nobody batted an eyelid at racism, as much as it is possible that Heron's background was not so controversial as we might now imagine.
Regardless of his reception on the terraces, Heron's opportunities on the pitch soon dwindled. Celtic had a plethora of talent up front, which restricted their new acquisition to five appearances over the course of the season, in which he scored two goals overall. Come the end of the campaign, Heron's time at Celtic was over before it had even really begun. He was released by the club, and went on to play for Third Lanark. From there, he joined Kidderminster Harriers, before returning to the USA and the Detroit Corinthians in 1954.
Considering the effect it had on his family, Heron's tale might seem rather tragic. He tried to make his dream in football come true, sacrificed much and ultimately failed. That said, he clearly won over hearts and minds at Celtic, with his nickname telling in its evocation of grace, agility and lethal speed. Perhaps he wasn't ready for Scottish football, or perhaps Scottish football wasn't ready for him. Either way, in the long run, the cultural cachet he accrued at Celtic was far disproportionate to his number of games.
With few black players featuring for Scottish sides until the late eighties and early nineties, 'The Black Arrow' became a part of football folklore. Despite his relatively brief time at Celtic, he stood out markedly in a sea of white faces stretching from the inception of the Scottish league in 1890 until the latter part of the twentieth century. Then, when Gil Scott-Heron became a phenomenon in Britain and his vinyls started to fill the shelves, the legend of his father's Celtic career loomed even larger in the national consciousness. By the time that Scott-Heron was touring the United Kingdom, fans were turning up to his gigs in Celtic shirts in commemoration of the father who left him behind.
In the great Celtic tome An Alphabet of The Celts, published in the early nineties, Gil Heron is described as "a great and supremely interesting human being." By that point, Heron had been elevated to the point of a cult legend, even if he had only ever sported the green and white hoops on five occasions competitively. For his part, Heron always kept an eye on Celtic's fortunes, as attested by his son on his father's death in 2008. While he might not have had Gil Scott-Heron's creative success, he was nevertheless an idol and emblem. Indeed, upon seeing Celtic colours in the crowd of one of his gigs in Glasgow, his son is meant to have said: "There you go – overshadowed by a parent once again."