John Archer was born in Liverpool on 8th June, 1863. His father, Richard Archer, was a ship's steward, who had originally arrived in England from Barbados. His mother, Mary Archer, was an Irish immigrant.
Archer worked as a seaman and later claimed that he had gone round the world three times and lived for a time in the West Indies and the United States. After marrying a black woman from Canada, Archer returned to England. He established a successful photographic studio in Battersea. He also became involved in politics and became friends with local radicals such as John Burns, Tom Mann and Charlotte Despard.
In July 1900 Archer attended the Pan-African Conference held at Westminster Town Hall. There were 37 delegates from Europe, Africa and the United States. Those attending included Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Alcindor, Dadabhai Naoroji, Sylvester Williams and William Du Bois. At the conference a large number of delegates made speeches where they called for governments to introduce legislation that would ensure racially equality. Mandell Creighton, the Bishop of London, asked the British government to confer the "benefits of self-government" on "other races as soon as possible".
After the conference the Pan-African Congress wrote to Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, suggesting that black people in the British Empire should be granted "true civil and political rights". Chamberlain replied that black people were "totally unfit for representative institutions". Sylvester Williams responded to this by writing to Queen Victoria about the system "whereby black men, women, and children were placed in legalized bondage to white colonists". The letter was passed to Chamberlain who replied that the government would not "overlook the interests and welfare of the native races."
In November 1906 Archer and Sylvester Williams became the first people of African descent to be elected to public office in Britain. A member of the Liberal Party, Archer won a seat on Battersea Borough Council whereas Williams won in Marylebone. He was re-elected three years later and in 1913 became one of the candidates for the office of mayor. This caused a great deal of controversy and the election campaign was featured in the national press. One man wrote to a newspaper and claimed: "It has always been that the white man ruled and it must always be so. If not, good-bye to the prestige of Great Britain." Despite these racist comments Archer won by 40 votes to 39. Archer told the council: "You have made history tonight. Battersea has done many things in the past, but the greatest thing it has done is to show that it has no racial prejudice, and that it recognises a man for the work he has done."
Archer's political views moved to the left during the First World War and in 1919 he was elected to the council as a member of the Labour Party. However, his attempt to be elected to the House of Commons in the 1919 General Election ended in failure. In 1919 Archer went to Paris as a British delegate of the Pan-African Congress. Two years later Archer chaired the Pan African Congress in London.
Archer was a founder member of the African Progress Union: "Now about the objects of the African Progress Union. The objects are to promote the general welfare of Africans and Afro-peoples, through such agencies as may be deemed best; to establish in London, England, a place as 'home from home' where the members of the association may meet for social recreation and intellectual improvement, where movements may be promoted for the common welfare, and where members may receive and entertain their friends, under the regulations of the board of management; to spread by means of papers to be read and addresses to be given from time to time, and by means of a magazine or other publications, a knowledge of the history and achievements of Africans and Afro-peoples past and present; and to promote the general advancement of African peoples."
In 1922 Archer supported Shapurji Saklatvala, the Communist Party candidate for North Battersea. Archer managed to persuade the local Labour Party not to oppose Saklatvala and he won the seat in the 1922 General Election. Archer eventually broke with the Communist Party and in the 1929 General Election he was election agent to the successful Labour Party candidate.
John Archer died in July, 1932.
I am the son of a man who was born in the West Indian islands. I was born in England, in a little obscure village, that probably never was known until this evening, the City of Liverpool. I am a Lancastrian born and bred, and my mother - well she was my mother. She was not born in Rangoon and she was not Burmese. She belonged to one of the greatest races on the face of the earth. My mother was an Irishwoman, so there is not much of the foreigner about me after all.
I greatly dislike bringing coals to Newcastle, and in addressing you tonight, as one born in England, I fear that is what I am doing, but I take courage from the fact I will not accept second place with any here for love of my race. I am, and always will be, a race-man. That feeling was born in me when quite a little boy in my natal city, Liverpool. A famous company of American Negroes were playing that soul-stirring Negro tragedy Uncle Tom's Cabin. I saw the play, and from that moment the seeds of resentment were planted within me that have resulted in making me the race-man I am. Too long, much too long, has the Negro race suffered. "Mislike me not for my complexion, the shadowed livery of the burnished sun." Why should he suffer because of that shadowed livery? As the Prince of Morocco pleaded to Portia, so the Negroes of today plead. I raise my voice tonight against that plea having to be made in future. We are living in stirring times. We have seen the end of the greatest war in the annals of history, a war that marks an epoch in the history of our race. Side by side with the British Army, for the first time, our compatriots from Africa, America, and the West Indies have been fighting on the fields of France and Flanders against a foreign foe. A war, we have been repeatedly told, for the self-determination of small nations and the freedom of the world from the despotism of German rule. The truth of that statement will be proved by the way they deal in America with Afro-Americans, in France with their Negro subjects, in Belgium with their Congo subjects, and in Great Britain with India, Africa and the West Indies. We shall be told the old, old story. Africa is not ready; the time is not ripe; they are not sufficiently advanced. According to some critics the Negroes will only be ready when the Angel Gabriel sounds his trumpet. I do not know when that great day will come, but I am hoping it is far distant, because we are inaugurating tonight an association which I trust to be the parent of a large number of similar institutions, whose sole reason for existence will be the progress of our African race. I have said according to some people the African is not ready. Upon whom, then, can the blame be placed more equitably than the white race? What have they done, what are they doing, to rectify the great wrong inflicted upon our forbears? The children of the white race today owe a great debt still to the children of the darker race. We are hearing a great deal about indemnities on the one hand, reparation on the other, that the Peace Conference is going to demand from Germany. I venture to submit each delegate to the Conference this proposition: "Keep your minds on the patent fact that Negroes have been associated with you in bringing about the possibility of this great conference of the nations who are so desirous for the world's freedom."
I suggest by way of installment they put down a motion for the better treatment of the coloured races under their rule, greater facilities for their educational advancement in pan payment of the debt they owe to them. It is rather significant to me that India is the only country of the darker race which will be directly represented. One of the greatest blots upon the escutcheon of the white race is their enslavement of our people in America and the West Indies. The discovery and colonization of America were primarily for greed, and this dominant principle was illustrated in different stages of the growth and development of the country. Spain, which in the sixteenth century was not only a worldwide Power, but one of the greatest of modern times, bore a very important part in the conquest and settlement of the New World. It was mainly her merchantmen that ploughed the Main, her capital and the patronage of her sovereigns that led. The Dutch and the English followed in the rear. Settlements in North America and the West Indies were made by her sons early in the sixteenth century, but it was one hundred years after, at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, that the English made the first permanent settlement within the continental limits of the United States of America.
In the early voyages it was not at all remarkable that Negroes were found as sailors, though slaves. It is well authenticated that among the survivors of the Coronado expedition was Estevan, a Negro, who was guide to Friar Narcoz in 1539 in the search for the Seven Cities of Cibola. The celebrated anthropologist, in The Human Species, strongly intimates that Africa had its share in the peopling and the settlement of some sections of South America. The exception but proves the rule that the Negro came to the New World as a slave. He was stolen from or bought on the West Coast of Africa, to add to the wealth of America by his toil as bondman and labourer. Large numbers of Negroes were imported by the Portuguese, but I am more concerned with what England had to do with this traffic in human beings.
The English gentleman Sir John Hawkins made three trips to America from the West Coast of Africa between 1563 and 1567, taking with him several hundreds of the Natives, whom he sold as slaves. Queen Elizabeth became a partner in this nefarious traffic. So elated was she at its profits that she knighted him, and he most happily selected for his crest a Negro head and bust, with arms pinioned. It was a lucrative business, and though it at first shocked the sensibilities of Christian nations and rulers, they soon reconciled themselves, not only to the traffic, but introduced the servitude as part of the economic system of their dependencies in America. That it became a fixture after its introduction in these Colonies was due to the prerogative of the Home Government rather than to the importunities of the Colonists - especially because it was a source of revenue to the Crown.
Now about the objects of the African Progress Union. The objects are to promote the general welfare of Africans and Afro-peoples, through such agencies as may be deemed best; to establish in London, England, a place as 'home from home' where the members of the association may meet for social recreation and intellectual improvement, where movements may be promoted for the common welfare, and where members may receive and entertain their friends, under the regulations of the board of management; to spread by means of papers to be read and addresses to be given from time to time, and by means of a magazine or other publications, a knowledge of the history and achievements of Africans and Afro-peoples past and present; and to promote the general advancement of African peoples.