RUN FOR FREEDOM – the African who founded the AFL

by Sasha Uzunov

The first man of African ancestry to play Australian Rules Football at the top level in Australia (both VFA & VFL/AFL) was Tom Banks with the Fitzroy club from 1888 to 1897. He was also one of the founders of the AFL in 1896.

His father, a runaway African slave, escaped from United States (a republic) and found freedom in Canada and Australia (then both part of British Empire) where Slavery was illegal. Slavery was legal in many parts of the United States prior to 1863.

In the 1850s, Tom Bank’s father Jourdan Henry Banks (1833-87) fled the US by crossing the border into Canada – where slavery was outlawed – and from there caught a ship to Australia – and its Goldfields in Maryborough, Central Victoria.

During his daring escape from slavery in the US Jourdain Banks broke out of a fortified log cabin and was chased by armed white American men and their hunting dogs all the way to the Canadian border.

The British Empire outlawed slavery worldwide in 1833 through a peaceful vote in the British Parliament in London whilst the US reluctantly ended slavery only because of bloody the US Civil War in 1863. The issue of slavery caused US Civil War (1861-65) and tore the United States apart between those who opposed the evil institution and those who supported it.

Frederick Douglass (left) was a prominent African American leader, an ex slave. In 1846 he was granted permission by the British Crown to live in the United Kingdom. From there he worked to destroy the evil institution of Slavery in the United States. The British Empire (including its then colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand & others) had outlawed Slavery worldwide in 1833.

Tom Banks, aged 52, died in 1919 due to influenza. He is buried in the family grave, along with his father Jourdan, at Maryborough Cemetery in Maryborough, country Victoria.

Banks was also one of the founders of the Victorian Football League (now the Australian Football League) in 1896 as Fitzroy’s club delegate! The VFL split from the original governing body, the Victorian Football Association (VFA), which was formed in 1877.

Banks played for Fitzroy in the VFA from 1888 to 1896, and captained the side to its first premiership in 1895. He played one season in the VFL in 1897, the inaugural season of the VFL.

After football, he became a public servant in the postal service of Colonial Victoria.

Victoria was one of the six British colonies which made up the Australian continent . In 1901 those colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia, a semi autonomous British colony which by the mid 1940s became de facto independent of Great Britain. British colonial settlement began in 1788. Some – if not many – Indigenous people were dispossessed of their land.

The Tom Banks story has been around for some time – here and here – but no mention of his role in being one of the founders of the AFL (VFL) in 1896.

The AFL (VFL) remained a staunchly British cultural and sporting institution well into the 1970s before it began a process of “Australianising” which did not last long before it embraced white American nationalism, glorifying the US NFL and Super Bowl which has “colonial issues” with native Americans (Indians).

The present day AFL is more akin to a US styled entertainment industry and corporate entity which bans its British heritage to appear anti-colonial, pays lip-service to indigenous Australians by allowing ceremonies and so forth, and “diversity” etc but promotes US foreign policy. It’s a clever strategy.

The burning moral issue of slavery in the United States forced many African American leaders to seek political refuge in the then British Empire including Great Britain, Australia and Canada.