A popular song among African Americans in the early 1970s was the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron. It became a Black Power anthem, drawing attention to the continued struggles black people faced even as the Civil Rights era drew to a close. Gil Scott-Heron’s revolution wasn’t the first in his family, however. The first was from his father, Gil Heron, a professional soccer player who broke the color barrier at a popular club in Scotland.
Gil Heron was born in Kingston, Jamaica and moved to Canada as a kid. When he grew up, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, but was also an accomplished track athlete and boxer. However, his best sport was soccer and he excelled at the center forward position. While he was in Canada, he came up through the ranks and moved to the United States to eventually sign for Detroit Corinthians and the Detroit Wolverines of the North American Soccer Football League. In 1946, he led the league in goals. He then played for the Chicago Maroons the following season.
He bounced around the league a couple more seasons, playing for Chicago Sparta and Windsor Corinthians before joining a couple of all-star teams that barnstormed with the England national team. While in Chicago, he met singer Bobbie Scott, and together they had a child. That child was Gil Scott-Heron, who would go on to become one of the great poet musicians in American history and a hero among black people.
Then, his big break came. In 1951, Scottish powerhouse Celtic FC came to America for a friendly tour. While they didn’t play Heron’s team, his play caught the ears of Celtic’s main scout, and the team invited him to Scotland for a trial. At that point, he had split from Bobbie, and Gil Scott-Heron stayed behind while Gil Heron went to take his shot at playing in Europe.
In that public trial, he flourished, scoring twice in the match and was dubbed by fans “The Black Arrow.” He was immediately signed to the team and made his debut on August 18, 1951 in a League Cup match against Morton. There, he also scored in a 2-0 victory, becoming the first black player to play for Celtic. He quickly became a fan favorite despite not playing very much. He was a flash dresser, a player with a lot of skill, and he had a personality that endeared himself to Celtic fans. While he was with Celtic, he played for Jamaica’s national team and also dabbled successfully at cricket.
Gil Heron was the first black footballer to play for Celtic, and the father of musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron.— BBC Sportsound (@BBCSportsound) November 21, 2018
Gil Heron's poem "The Great Ones", recited by Graham Campbell, reminisces about the Scottish football stars he played with and against in the 1950's. pic.twitter.com/6H8vs9HTe7
Heron scored 2 goals in his time with Celtic, but he couldn’t supplant the incumbent starter at forward. After one season, he moved to Third Lanark, where he scored 5 goals in his lone season there. He next moved to Kidderminster Harriers in England for one more season before he moved back to North America, settling in Detroit and playing for Detroit Corinthians and Windsor Corinthians before calling it a career.
Heron became an accomplished poet after his playing days were done, just like his son, who became world famous for his poetry and music. Heron is still known around Celtic Park as the Black Arrow, and for them, he’s still considered a club hero. The link between music and soccer has always been prevalent, but that link was maintained through Gil Heron, who remained close to Celtic until his death in 2008. The revolution was not televised, as his son would say. The the revolution was indeed live.
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.