There were more black people in Britain in 1944 than there were in 1948, the year the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury and 492 West Indians landed in the imperial ‘mother country’. The black population in the summer of 1944 was somewhere around a hundred and fifty thousand.1 In 1948, there were probably fewer than twenty thousand. Britain’s black population may well not have returned to its 1944 peak until around 1958, after ten years of post-war immigration from the West Indies and Africa.2
This change is accounted for by a single factor. On the eve of D-Day, in June 1944, there were a hundred and thirty thousand African American GIs, both army and air force, stationed in Britain. The wartime influx of black American soldiers was unprecedented in multiple ways. Never before had the black population been so large, yet the majority of this wartime population were neither migrants nor settlers. Nor were they black Britons or even black subjects of the British Empire, but soldiers and citizens of another state – albeit mistreated soldiers and second-class citizens. Their arrival in Britain, their interactions with the British public and the strategies and policies adopted by both the British government and the American authorities to manage those interactions revealed much about Britain and the British in the middle of the twentieth century.
Racially segregated America sent a racially segregated army to Britain in 1942. In the Southern states, that segregation was upheld through a system of organized repression, political disenfranchisement and economic marginalization known as the Jim Crow laws, named after the blackface minstrel character that Thomas D. Rice brought to London in the 1830s. Except for the white officers commanding black Americans, the two ‘races’ lived as separately in Britain as they had at home. They were billeted in separate camps, often ate in separate canteens, and spent their free time in separate army clubs. Within its camps and bases, the US Army (which included the USAAF) was at liberty to replicate on British soil all the divisions, inequalities and injustices that characterized relations between black and white Americans in the middle of the twentieth century.
The question for the British authorities, who had opened up their country to their new ally, was whether American segregation and American racism would be permitted beyond their fences. Would Jim Crow style segregation be allowed in the towns and villages of Britain? Would bars, dance halls and restaurants refuse to admit black men; would railway carriages be reserved for whites only? Would racial discrimination become formalized and officially sanctioned, and, if so, would the British public comply? Furthermore, how could Britain be seen as a reasonable, rational, paternalistic colonial master, who had the best interests of her subject peoples at heart at all times, if she was also complicit in the establishment of a formal colour bar? And what of the thousands of black Britons, born and bred in the country? What of the black soldiers, airmen and workers who had left the colonies to serve the empire in its hour of need and were now resident in Britain? How would they and their families react if news of such laws in Britain reached the islands of the West Indies and the port cities of West Africa?
If they had been in a position to choose, Britain’s political leaders surely would have been glad to sidestep all of these questions. Their preference would have been for the American army deployed to Britain in 1942 to be all-white. This would not have been out of step with official wartime policies towards black people from the British Empire. To accept or reject the labour of black men from the British Empire was a decision within the gift of the British government, and the demands for skilled men did force the government to recruit men and women from both the West Indies and Africa, but perhaps with the memories of 1919 influencing their decision-making, an interdepartmental consultation, held in January 1942, concluded that despite Britain’s pressing wartime labour needs the ‘recruitment to the United Kingdom of coloured British subjects, whose remaining in the United Kingdom after the war might create a social problem, was not considered desirable.’3
However, the racial composition of the army America sent to Britain was, of course, a matter for the Americans, and one over which the British had little influence. Not that this stopped the government from attempting to persuade the Americans to send a racially monotone force. In a War Cabinet meeting of July 1942, Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, expressed his concern that if black troops were sent, tensions would arise between the British public and white American soldiers because there was a likelihood of ‘certain sections of our people showing more effusiveness to the coloured troops than the Americans would readily understand’.4 Desperately fumbling for further reasons as to why black troops should be excluded, Eden fell back on a familiar trope. Forgetting, perhaps, that he was discussing men from North America, rather than equatorial Africa, he wheeled out the now customary contention that the African Americans would struggle to cope with the supposedly extreme conditions of winter in southern England. Unsurprisingly, black GIs from cities like Chicago, New York and Washington DC found the rigours of the English winter entirely tolerable.
Eden’s Private Secretary, Oliver Hardy, later laid out the dilemma he and Eden believed the country would face if, as was expected, around 10 per cent of the American force deployed to Britain was black. ‘If we treat them naturally as equals, there will be trouble with the Southern officers. If we treat them differently, there will be trouble with the “North Americans”’, by which he meant men from the Northern states.5 Despite polite, diplomatic protestations by the British the Americans were not swayed. For their own domestic political reasons, and in response to pressure from black American civil rights groups, they insisted that the American army dispatched to England contained African Americans. But the Allies did agree that the African American proportion of the US force would be representative of the proportion of black people in the American population as a whole, hence the figure of 10 per cent.
Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill and the British government could no more determine the ethnic make-up of the US Army than they could control how the British public reacted to the rather sudden arrival of tens of thousands of African American soldiers. After the isolation of 1940 and 1941 the British were overjoyed to be joined on their island by their American allies. As the GIs began to land and occupy their new bases The Times commented, ‘We feel stronger, not only physically but even more in spirit, for their presence among us.’6 Deployment began in May 1942, and by the autumn there were around eleven thousand black troops in the UK. Most were in the South-West of England and in the port towns of the south coast; some were in Wales, East Anglia and on Merseyside. With the exception of Bristol and Liverpool, which both had small black populations of their own and long links to the Atlantic slave trade, in most of the areas black people were almost unknown. Their inhabitants, as well as the more worldly citizens of the ports, proved extraordinarily welcoming to the African American troops. In the rural areas and market towns of a Britain that had only a tiny black population, they were an exciting novelty and rather rapidly became particularly popular among the British public.
Britain had, of course, experienced serious racial violence in 1919, and in the 1920s passed laws targeting ‘coloured seamen’. Yet little over two decades later, black GIs were welcomed with open arms. But this did not mean that racial prejudice had somehow disappeared. The black Americans were not immigrating, had not come to stay and were not suspected of ‘taking British jobs’ or houses; rather the opposite, the influx of 1.5 million well-paid GIs, both black and white, was a great boon to Britain’s battered wartime economy.
The black Americans were popular with the British public, in part, as they appear to have accepted their deployment to Britain with better grace and fewer complaints than many of their white compatriots. Many white Americans were accustomed to a number of everyday luxuries that were unknown to the British, and they grumbled endlessly about their absence. African Americans, by contrast, especially those from the rural South, had lived pre-war lives of comparative poverty. In material terms, their living standards were far closer to those of their British hosts. Having never known the ‘comforts of home’ that the white GIs so sorely missed, the black GIs complained less about life in Britain. They were paid the same as their white countrymen, and many black GIs had more money in Britain than they had had as civilians. All GIs were extremely well-paid by British standards, but the black troops were seen as less flashy and overt in their consumption. They were repeatedly described by British civilians as ‘self-controlled’, ‘reserved’ and ‘disciplined’. ‘Everybody here adores the Negro troops, all the girls go to their dances, but nobody likes the white Americans. They swagger about us as if they were the only people fighting this war. They all get so drunk and look so untidy while the negroes are very polite, much smarter and everybody’s pets’,7 wrote a British woman from Marlborough in Wiltshire in March 1943. This politeness, of course, was a trait that generations of black men had learnt in the post-Civil War South, as such attributes were essential for survival in the regions in which black communities lived under the shadow of the Jim Crow laws.
Before the American deployment, Oliver Hardy had feared that the ‘North Americans’, white men from the Northern states, would take offence if the British treated the black GIs in a discriminatory manner. During the summer of 1942, it became apparent that it was the British public who most vehemently objected to the mistreatment of black GIs in Britain. Exposed for the first time to the sheer vindictiveness of American racial prejudice, it was they who took greatest offence, and they who were most repelled by the violence meted out to black GIs. In reaction to a ceaseless stream of abuses and incidents in which white Americans attacked, assaulted or abused the black GIs, there was a wave of revulsion and resentment, which developed into a great upsurge of anti-American sentiment. The reputation of the Americans was particularly tarnished within local communities who witnessed the abuse of black GIs at first hand, and despite careful attempts to control the press, reports of some incidents did appear in British newspapers. In December 1943 George Orwell noted that ‘The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.’8 A pub in Bristol displayed a notice that read ‘Only blacks served here’ and when the landlady in another bar was confronted by white Americans who were angry that coloured customers were served their drinks and treated as equals, she responded, ‘Their money is as good as yours, and we prefer their company.’9
Acts of violence against black GIs by white American soldiers had been predicted by Hugh Dalton, the President of the Board of Trade, who in conversation with an official from the Ministry of Information in July 1942, had warned that the British public would take the side of black GIs if they were assaulted by white Americans in the street or pubs.10 In one such incident, in Cosham near Portsmouth in the summer of 1943, a group of black GIs who had gathered outside the pub were ordered to disperse by a group of white American Military Police. When an argument erupted the Military Police were surrounded by British civilians, one of whom shouted, ‘Why don’t you leave them alone?’ One of the black GIs shouted down the Military Police, saying, ‘We ain’t no slaves, this is England’.11 Members of Britain’s small black population and the cohort of West Indian servicemen and women in the country also sided with the black GIs when the latter faced attacks or abuse from white Americans. The traditional British love of the underdog may have played a part here, as many Britons almost instinctually took the side of the oppressed minority.12One strategy adopted by the Americans to reduce tension was the policy of ‘rotating passes’, a subtler form of segregation whereby black troops would be allowed to visit the approved pubs and dance halls on one night, and whites on another.
An incident reported in The Times in October 1942 exposed how American racial views were seen as not only at odds with those that prevailed in Britain but as directly contrary to the stated aims of the war itself. The incident involved the manager of a snack bar in Oxford who – more in sadness than anger – wrote to The Times:
The other night a coloured US soldier came into our establishment and very diffidently presented me with an open letter from his commanding officer, explaining that “Pte. — is a soldier in the US Army, and it is necessary that he sometimes has a meal, which he has, on occasion, found it difficult to obtain. I would be grateful if you would look after him.” Naturally we looked after him to the best of our ability, but I could not help feeling ashamed that in a country where even stray dogs are “looked after” by special societies, a citizen of the world, who is fighting the world’s battle for freedom and equality, should have found it necessary to place himself in this humiliating position. Had there been the slightest objection from other customers, I should not have any hesitation in asking them all to leave.13
In 1943, the American Office of War Information and the British War Office commissioned the public information film Welcome to Britain, which was shown to American soldiers but not the British public.14 Bizarrely, it starred the Hollywood actor Burgess Meredith (best known today for playing the role of ‘the Penguin’ in the 1960s Batman television series). Meredith played the role of the soldier everyman, who wandered around wartime England having meaningful encounters with British civilians, railway workers, American generals and, at one point, Bob Hope. He was by turns naive and lost, and worldly and knowledgeable. Repeatedly, he spoke straight to camera, offering advice on how to navigate the cultural differences between Britain and the United States. In one scene, set in an English railway station, a black GI from Birmingham, Alabama, is invited to tea by an elderly British lady. ‘If you come to my Birmingham you must come to my home and have a cup of tea with me,’ she says, shaking the black soldier warmly by the hand. At this point, the black GI conveniently heads off to buy cigarettes allowing Meredith to turn to camera and speak directly to his GI audience. ‘Now look, men,’ he begins, ‘you heard that conversation. That’s not unusual here, it’s the sort of thing that happens quite a lot. Now let’s be frank about it, there are coloured soldiers as well as white here and there are less social restrictions in this country – just what you heard an English woman asking a coloured boy to tea, she was polite about it and he was polite about it. Now that might not happen at home, but the point is we’re not at home.’ He continued, ‘If we bring a lot of prejudices here what are we gonna do about ’em?’ In a second scene Meredith and the black GI happen, as if by accident, upon Major General John C. H. Lee, Commander of the Services of Supply (SOS), the unglamorous labour and logistics corps of the US Army, to which the majority of the black GIs had been assigned. In a staged and mawkish conversation the general, whose ancestors had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, is allowed to eulogize at length about the promise of ‘real citizenship’ that America had supposedly offered ‘the Negro’. Disturbingly, the general promises that ‘everyone is treated the same when it comes to dying.’ He then pontificates about the war and the opportunity it offers the nation to ‘try to live up to our American promises’. As General Lee finally finishes his impromptu lecture, the music swells, the white GI shares a cigarette with his black comrade and the military audience is left to reflect. Laughably unsubtle and clumsy by modern standards, Welcome to Britain nonetheless went down extremely well with the white US troops and with the British press. The Daily Mail said that the film ‘should do more than any other single factor to create a genuine Anglo-American understanding’.15 A number of British newspapers joined together and called for the film to be put on general release to British civilians. The military authorities politely rejected that proposal.
During the First World War, Winston Churchill, as we have seen, campaigned in support of the ‘Million Black Army’ movement and spoke powerfully in Parliament in favour of the recruitment of black African soldiers for deployment on the Western Front. As Prime Minister in another conflict, two decades later, he was far more reticent on the subject of race. In September 1942, by which time there were around eleven thousand black troops in Britain out of a total of a hundred and seventy thousand US personnel, the racial attitudes of many white US soldiers had already led to outbreaks of violence and public disturbances. Through the work of Mass Observation, a social research organization founded in 1937, the government was well aware that black soldiers were being attacked on the streets and driven out of pubs and dance halls. On 29 September, Labour MP Tom Driberg tackled Churchill on the issue in the House of Commons, asking if he was ‘aware that an unfortunate result of the presence here of American Forces has been the introduction in some parts of Britain of discrimination against negro troops; and whether he will make friendly representations to the American military authorities asking them to instruct their men that the colour bar is not a custom of this country and that its non-observance by British troops or civilians should be regarded with equanimity?’16 Churchill responded evasively, ‘The question is certainly unfortunate. I am hopeful that without any action on my part the points of view of all concerned will be mutually understood and respected.’17 The communist MP William Gallacher then rose to ask the Prime Minister whether he was aware of ‘a letter, a copy of which I have sent to him, from a number of [British] serving men informing me that an officer has given them a lecture advising them on the necessity for discrimination in connection with negroes who are in London.’ Gallacher received no answer from the Prime Minister, who would not be drawn on such a sensitive issue dividing the wartime allies.
The lecture William Gallacher was referring to was probably connected to a document by Major General Arthur Dowler in August 1942. Dowler was the Senior British Administrative Officer in the Southern Command, which covered the English South-West, the region to which most of the black GIs had been deployed. In the absence of guidance from his superiors, Dowler, after consulting the Americans, had drafted a document that he entitled Notes on Relations with Coloured Troops. It began, ‘Among the American troops in this country are a number of units whose personnel are coloured troops.’ While Dowler admitted that ‘they contribute a valuable service to the prosecution of the war by the provision of labour both skilled and unskilled’, he warned that ‘their presence in England presents a new problem to British men and women brought in contact with them . . . The racial problem is there and cannot be ignored. It is necessary, therefore, for the British, both men and women, to realize the problem and to adjust their attitude so that it conforms to that of the white American citizen.’ Dowler’s assessment of the character of the African American GI was influenced by his conversations with the American authorities, but it could just as easily have been assembled from the various caricatures and stereotypes that had been burnt onto the British psyche by a century of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and listening to minstrel songs. Dowler wrote that ‘While there are many coloured men of high mentality and cultural distinction, the generality are of a simple mental outlook. They work hard when they have no money and when they have money prefer to do nothing until it is gone. In short they have not the white man’s ability to think and act to a plan. Their spiritual outlook is well known and their songs give a clue to their nature.’18 The British public had to be especially careful, said the general, because black men ‘are natural psychologists in that they can size up the white man’s character and can take advantage of a weakness. Too much freedom, too wide associations with white men tend to make them lose their heads and have on occasions led to civil strife.’19 He concluded that it was critical that ‘white women should not associate with coloured men. It follows then that they should not walk out, dance, or drink with them. Do not think such action hard or unsociable. They do not expect your companionship and such relations would in the end only result in strife.’20
Notes on Relations with Coloured Troops was drafted without permission from the War Office or the War Cabinet and raised enormous concerns within the Colonial Office, where officials were attempting to soothe racial tensions within the empire and advocate a policy of broad racial equality. In a memorandum written in early October, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Viscount Cranbourne, warned of the dangers to Britain’s reputation among the black people of the empire if the government was seen to be going along with the Americans in the establishment of formal segregation in Britain. The Ministry of War, however, was broadly in favour of supporting the American policies of racial segregation and the Secretary of State for War, Sir James Grigg, prepared an official paper in which he described the nation as being ‘on a razor’s edge’, caught between the racial attitudes of its American allies and the British public’s revulsion at segregation and the violence that it led to. Grigg argued that in order to control the situation it was imperative that British soldiers be supplied with ‘the facts and history of the colour question’ in the US Army.
On 13 October 1942, the War Cabinet met to discuss the treatment and segregation of black GIs in Britain, and determine whether British service personnel were to be educated in American racial attitudes as in Notes on Relations with Coloured Troops. Viscount Cranbourne, nervous as to how British policies would look to black people in the colonies, argued as Sir James Grigg had that British soldiers should be made aware of the racial issues that existed in the United States, to allow them to understand why white Americans were so fervently opposed to interaction between the races. After a fractious meeting, it decided that Britain would not oppose the American army’s policy of segregation but would not permit British authorities, military or civilian, to play a part in enforcing it. However, it also concluded that ‘it was desirable that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured American troops’,21 but there were to be no formal instructions on how to treat black American GIs.
The Cabinet also discussed the disruption that racial segregation had caused in the UK. One American general had observed that ‘the Negro British nationals are rightly incensed. They undoubtedly have been cursed, made to get off the sidewalk, leave eating places and separated from their white wives by American soldiers.’22 While Churchill could be circumspect on his views on race in Parliament, he was often flippant in private. When Viscount Cranbourne told him of a black Colonial Office official who had been barred from eating at his usual lunchtime restaurant because it had become a favourite with white American officers, Churchill quipped, ‘That’s all right. if he takes his banjo with him they’ll think he’s one of the band.’23
Churchill was by no means alone among politicians of the age in his propensity to fall back upon racial stereotypes. In the 1920s, David Lloyd George – who once insisted that Britain ‘reserve the right to bomb the niggers’ – suggested that Churchill’s personality might be a result of racial mixing among his ancestors. With no evidence to substantiate his claims, Lloyd George privately expressed the view that the half-American Churchill ‘undoubtedly had nigger blood in him. Look at his build and slouch. The Marlboroughs [Churchill’s family] were a poor type physically, but Winston was strong. Another characteristic of Winston is that when he gets excited he shrieks: again the nigger comes out.’24
As a result of the Cabinet meeting, a guidance memo, Instructions as to the advice which should be given to British service personnel, was completed and approved by both the Cabinet and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Eisenhower, a few months later. Although far less frank than Dowler’s Notes on Relations with Coloured Troops its message was not dissimilar, suggesting that Britons ‘should be sympathetic towards coloured American troops – but remember that they are not accustomed in their own country to close and intimate relations with white people’. The instructions also explained that ‘for a white woman to go about in the company of a Negro American is likely to lead to controversy and ill feeling. It may also be misunderstood by the Negro troops themselves’. It continued, ‘This does not mean that friendly hospitality in the home or in social gatherings need be ruled out, though in such cases care should be taken not to invite white and coloured troops at the same time.’25
The warmth with which the British public embraced the black GIs was profoundly difficult for many white GIs from the Southern states to accept. Information films like Welcome to Britain partially persuaded them that the warmth of the British and the lack of racial segregation in pubs and cafes could be attributed to a quirk of cultural difference. However, when it came to inter-race relations, the gulf between the views of the Americans and their British hosts was so wide that at times it threatened to seriously damage inter-Allied relations.
Many white GIs refused to tolerate inter-racial relations point blank. For them, relationships between black GIs and British women were morally intolerable, and contacts between black GIs and British white women, however platonic, were liable to elicit violent reactions. One lieutenant wrote home that ‘one thing I noticed here which I don’t like is the fact that the English don’t draw any color line . . . the English must be pretty ignorant. I can’t see how a white girl could associate with a negro.’26 Another white GI revealed how he and others reacted: ‘Every time so far that we have seen a nigger with a white girl we have run him away. I would like to shoot the whole bunch of them.’27
There was some British sympathy with the American position on inter-racial relationships. Both the Notes on Relations with Coloured Troops and the Instructions as to the advice which should be given to British service personnel had taken great pains to emphasize how sensitive the Americans were on this issue, and offered historical background to contextualize and, to some extent, excuse American racism. Some Britons recoiled at the sight of mixed-race couples. In October 1942 the novelist Ann Meader was horrified to see two black soldiers with two blonde white girls in Weston-super-Mare, where large numbers of GIs were stationed. Meader confessed to her diary that she felt the British girls should be ‘shot’ for taking the risk of introducing ‘coloured blood’ into their children.28 The Conservative MP Maurice Petherick wrote, disgruntledly, to Anthony Eden at the Foreign Office in December 1943, appalled that a number of black GIs had been stationed in his Falmouth constituency. Deploying a racial term rarely used in England since the seventeenth century, he complained that in Falmouth ‘as in other parts of England women of the lowest order are consorting with the blackamoors . . . There is very strong feeling about this’, he warned Eden, before suggesting that the Foreign Secretary should ask the Americans ‘to send those we have to North Africa, where the poor devils, they would be much more happy and warm.’29 He also recommended that the black GIs be transferred to the Italian front where they would be free to ‘go and fertilize the Italians who are used to it anyhow’.30
The same year, Maurice Dale Colbourne, an official of the British Information Service in New York, published America and Britain: a Mutual Introduction. Having travelled extensively within the United States, Colbourne recognized that white American and British views on inter-racial relationships overlapped far more than their views on segregation. He complained of ‘Britons with no colour problem, and imagining themselves free from colour prejudice,’ who ‘easily slip into violent denunciations of the American colour bar as a disgrace to and denial of democracy . . . Whenever I encounter a Briton waxing eloquent along that line,’ Colbourne continued, ‘I ask him, preferably in front of others: “Would you like your sister to marry a Negro?” ’31 It was on this point, he suggested, that the Allies could unite. Later, the Army Military History Institute in Pennsylvania surveyed soldiers who had served in the Second World War, drafting a series of questionnaires. When asked, ‘Did you note any instances of ethnic, racial or religious discrimination? Please explain . . . ?’, Sergeant Theodore G. Aufort, from southern California, answered ‘yes’, recalling the tensions among the white GIs as a conflict of ‘North against the South’. Aufort explained, ‘The southern boys were always using the argument, “would you want your sister to marry one”.’32
The British authorities were well aware of the potential for inter-racial relationships to inflame anger among white American soldiers, and of the propensity for that anger to spill over into violence. Throughout the summer of 1942 and into 1943, white GIs kept up a sustained campaign of violence against black GIs who met or dated white British women. In Bristol, a city in which a large number of black GIs were stationed, one well-to-do resident reported that ‘every open space . . . is full of black Americans with their white girls.’33 Black GIs in the city had become so accustomed to being attacked by their white countrymen that they had even taken to stationing lookouts. In December 1942 there was a series of fights and stabbings in the Old Market area of the city, which began when a group of white Southerners decided to stamp out relationships between black GIs and local women.
A journalist from the New Statesman and Nation spoke to a number of the white GIs and painted a horrific picture of their attitudes and behaviours. He reported meeting white Southerners ‘who seemed rational enough until the Negro problem was mentioned, and who would then show a terrifying lynching spirit, which was about the ugliest thing imaginable.’34 He concluded that at the heart of the problem was the fact that white GIs from the ‘deep south . . . take it for granted that it is their duty to interfere if they see black troops with white girls.’ He suggested that the American authorities were duty-bound to ‘use every device of persuasion to let white southern troops know that it is against discipline to treat Negro soldiers in a way to which their training and education has accustomed them’. Such a process of ‘discipline and education’ could not of course be put in place overnight but, ‘If things are left to drift very unhappy incidents’ were bound to occur, he warned.35 In one of these unhappy incidents a white GI from the South who had been invited into an English home for the evening was enraged to discover that his fellow guest was an African American soldier, whom he proceeded to physically attack in front of his horrified hosts. General Eisenhower had some sympathy with the actions of his white troops and suspected that some English girls did not understand the gravity of their relationships with black troops. In a letter to Washington in September 1942, he wrote:
To most English people, including the village girls – even those of perfectly fine character – the negro soldier is just another man, rather fascinating because he is unique in their experience, a jolly good fellow and with money to spend. Our own white soldiers, seeing a girl walk down the street with a negro, frequently see themselves as protectors of the weaker sex and believe it necessary to intervene to the extent of using force, to let her know what she’s doing.36
That month, tensions over relationships between black GIs and British women were exposed in the British press through the actions of an unlikely figure. Mrs May, the wife of the vicar in the village of Worle, near Weston-super-Mare, took it upon herself to draw up a six-point code designed to limit contact between white women and black soldiers.
1. If a local woman keeps a shop and a coloured soldier enters, she must serve him, but she must do it as quickly as possible and indicate as quickly that she does not desire him to come there again.
2. If she is in a cinema and notices a coloured soldier next to her, she moves to another seat immediately.
3. If she is walking on the pavement and a coloured soldier is coming towards her, she crosses to the other pavement.
4. If she is in a shop and a coloured soldier enters, she leaves as soon as she has made her purchase or before that if she is in a queue.
5. White women, of course, must have no social relationship with coloured troops.
6. On no account must coloured troops be invited to the homes of white women.
Mrs May then held a series of public meetings at which copies of her new code were distributed, and she addressed the ladies of Worle, alerting them to their new responsibilities. The result was a scandal in the national press as the women of Worle turned, not against the black GIs, but against Mrs May. One local woman told the Sunday Pictorial, ‘I was disgusted, and so were most of the women there. We have no intention of agreeing to her decree.’37 Another commented, ‘If the woman is talking like this in the name of the Church I should be interested to know what her husband’s bishop thinks of it.’38 In a quite remarkable editorial comment, which appeared under the headline ‘Vicar’s Wife Insults Our Allies’, the Sunday Pictorial attempted to offer comfort to the arriving black GI by assuring him ‘that there is no colour bar in this country and that he is as welcome as any other allied soldier. He will find the vast majority of people here have nothing but repugnance for the narrow-minded, uninformed prejudices expressed by the vicar’s wife. There is – and will be – no persecution of coloured people in Britain.’39 They were fine words, but black Britons who could recall 1919, or who had experienced the colour bar and the prejudice of the inter-war years, knew that they offered a highly idealized view of Britain and British race relations. Yet the attempts – both official and impromptu – by the Americans to enforce racial segregation, and the unabashed and overt prejudice that the US Army brought with it to Britain, allowed the press and public to adopt a position of moral superiority on the issue of race, as their ancestors had done over the issue of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s. Racial prejudice was considered an American vice that the more civilized and culturally sophisticated British rejected.
The British authorities were particularly active in the matter of inter-racial relationships. As well as issuing the Instructions as to the advice which should be given to British service personnel, they took part in direct attempts to limit contact between British women and black GIs, and in this way became complicit in American-led efforts to enforce segregation. In some cases the law and the police were used to target British women known to be associating with black American troops. In the summer of 1943, police in Derbyshire used the wartime Defence Regulations to launch prosecutions aimed at stopping ‘The association of U.S.A. coloured troops with British women’, while in Melton Mowbray five women were prosecuted ‘for trespassing on premises in the occupation of coloured troops’.40 Another group of women were charged by the magistrates in in Newton Abbot, in 1944, for violating the security of a nearby military area. All five were married and were said to have been caught attempting to visit their black boyfriends. The local newspaper decided to name and shame them, going as far as to inform readers that the husband of one woman was ‘serving abroad’ and that she had two children, aged four and seven.41 The heavy-handed and moralistic approach taken by the police, magistrates and the press in these cases was indicative of a wider concern about wartime extramarital activity. Many of the women who became the sweethearts of both black and white GIs were married. The enormous levels of social dislocation caused by the war, almost unimaginable to generations who did not live through the conflict, enormously disrupted normal patterns of familial relationships. The affairs and flirtations between white British women and black American GIs was, in one sense, merely a highly visible and more morally dubious manifestation of these deeper social ruptures.
A series of changes in US Army deployment and police tactics began to bring the situation under control. In 1943, when there was a second influx of black GIs, the army came to terms with the fact that the cause of the violence was racist white soldiers. A discipline regime was introduced, as were Military Police patrols that included both black and white officers. However what ended the crisis was D-Day, and the transfer of the vast majority of the black GIs to the Continent.
The debate about black GIs and their relationships with white women, though, continued long after the war. In the years after 1945, thousands of British women who had or would become engaged or married to white GIs, or had children with them out of wedlock, went to the United States under the GI bride scheme, but the white sweethearts of black GIs had the significant obstacle that inter-racial marriage was banned in around twenty states.
In 1947, a woman from the Midlands named Margaret Goosey travelled to Virginia, and there married her black GI sweetheart Thomas Johnson, in contravention of Virginia law. The groom was arrested and sent to the state industrial farm; the bride was jailed for six months and deported. The case was reported in the British press and raised in Parliament by Tom Driberg, the MP who had confronted Churchill on the abuse of black GIs in 1942. Driberg asked Ernest Bevin, then Foreign Secretary, if he would agree that it did not matter how ‘undesirable a particular marriage may seem to be to many people, or to the local legislator’, it is ‘an elementary human right that men and women should be allowed to get married, irrespective of race or creed.’42 Bevin, however, could ‘see no ground for action’ as the ‘case was in accordance with Virginia State Law’ and because ‘Miss Goosey was warned by the State Authorities beforehand.’43 Driberg asked that ‘this very difficult subject’ be referred to the Working Group on the Convention on Human Rights.44
Hanging over all the debates and official protestations around the issue of inter-racial relations during the years of American deployment was a deep-seated but often unspoken concern about mixed-race children, or ‘brown babies’, as they were often called at the time. In November 1942, the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, wrote that he was ‘fully conscious that a difficult sex problem might be created if there were a substantial number of cases of sex relations between white women and coloured troops and the procreation of half-caste children.’45 Unlike many of his colleagues, Morrison did not believe the solution lay in some form of public education, which in his opinion would be unlikely ‘to have any influence on the class of women who are attracted by coloured men’.46 The Colour Problem As The American Sees It, an Army Bureau of Current Affairs educational pamphlet that was distributed in December 1942, suggested that the problem of mixed-race children was not just an American concern but a British one too. Produced for British service personnel, it was intended as a document that would open up group discussions. In strikingly Darwinian language, the pamphlet stated that while it was not necessary to go into ‘a long discussion as to whether mixed marriages between white and coloured are good or bad. What is fairly obvious is that in our present society such unions are not desirable, since the children resulting from them are neither one thing nor the other and are thus badly handicapped in the struggle for life’.47
In October 1943, Churchill was informed by the Duke of Marlborough, the Military Liaison Officer to US forces, that ten brown babies had already been born and that it was ‘quite conceivable that there are many others which are on the way’.48 When Eleanor Roosevelt asked her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, about the matter, he said, ‘I think this is a British problem –not American.’49
By the end of the war, twenty-two thousand children had been born to British mothers and white American soldiers. The number of ‘brown babies’ was not known but became the subject of feverish speculation, with estimates ranging from a plausible five hundred and fifty to a ludicrously exaggerated twenty thousand. The most reliable estimates were carried out by the black British civil rights organization The League of Coloured Peoples, which was founded by Dr Harold Moody in 1931. Their 1946 estimate was five hundred and fifty-three. By 1948 that figure had grown to seven hundred and seventy-five.
The warmth and hospitality that had characterized the war years evaporated. Many children were abandoned by their mothers, who had themselves been ostracized by their communities and even families. Most were sent to children’s homes, from which very few were successfully placed for adoption. Schemes for their adoption by black families in the United States were considered but never put into action as innumerable legal hurdles stood in the way. Furthermore Britain’s politicians worried about how it looked to the non-white peoples of the colonies if Britain demonstrated herself incapable or unwilling to care for and educate a mere few hundred mixed-race children, and saw the only solution to be their mass deportation. There was more strident and ugly opposition from within the United States. Mississippi Congressman John E. Rankin, who was infamous for using the word ‘nigger’ in debates in the House of Representatives, expressed, in the House, his rabid opposition ‘to bringing to this country a lot of illegitimate half-breed Negro children from England’ whose mothers, he said, were ‘the scum of the British Isles’.50
Black GIs were not the only newcomers to Britain during the war. Although Churchill had flippantly dismissed concerns about discrimination against the black colonial officials, there were those in Whitehall who feared that the abuse of black Britons and black subjects of the British by white Americans would threaten morale in the colonies and among the black servicemen and women in Britain. By 1942, there was a large number of black colonial servicemen and women, whose rights and morale were an issue of material importance to the war effort. At the start of the war the government had yielded to pressure from black organizations and the colonies and announced that black men who were ‘not of pure European descent’ would be permitted to serve in the British armed forces, overthrowing the policy of the First World War. Black men were also to be allowed to put themselves forward for commissions and be judged on an allegedly equal basis alongside white candidates, although this policy was only to last for the duration of ‘the present emergency’.51 However, the War Office and Colonial Office, using almost the same words as they had done during the First World War, once again concluded that black men from the West Indies ‘would be of doubtful military value for combat service overseas, especially against German troops in Europe’.52
The fall of France in the early spring of 1940 left Britain alone against the might of the Nazi war machine and cleared the mind of British politicians, who were inspired to take a more pragmatic approach to the deployment of colonial manpower and expertise. Policies were relaxed and men from the West Indies arrived in Britain to carry out essential war work. Six hundred foresters were sent to Scotland from British Honduras, as were three hundred and fifty engineers and electricians to Liverpool. More men followed. Unlike in the First World War, black colonial subjects were deployed in skilled combat roles in the European theatre of operations, and not merely as labourers. More than twelve thousand West Indians served in the British forces during the war, many of them highly skilled specialists. Some were trained and served with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and were deployed to Britain as part of that contingent. Over a hundred men from the West Indies who served with the RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force were decorated during the conflict. Women from the West Indies also served, eighty in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and thirty in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the ATS). These black men and women, who were based in Britain and wore uniforms, reported very little racism from white Britons, although a 1945 edition of the patriotically British magazine John Bull noted in an editorial that ‘Rudeness to colonial service girls in this country is surprisingly common . . . a West Indian girl in the ATS was refused a new issue of shoes by her officer who added: “at home you don’t wear shoes anyway”.’ The editorial lamented that ‘Colonial troops came to this country to help us win the war. But they are bitter because the colour bar still exists in Britain.’53
In the majority of racist incidents in which black service personnel were assaulted or insulted, the perpetrators were white American GIs. Such incidents began to occur within weeks of the Americans’ arrival. In August 1942, a West Indian musician playing in a band during a dance in an English village hall attracted no hostility from a group of white Southern American soldiers so long as he remained on stage – white Americans being accustomed to being entertained by black musicians. However, as a newspaper report revealed, the moment he ‘took to the floor with the wife of one of his [white] colleagues in the band, one of the southern American boys probably went across the room and struck him.’54
On 23 June 1943, Sergeant Arthur Walrond, an RAFVR wireless operator and gunner from Barbados, was attacked by two white GIs at a dance after asking a white woman to dance. Walrond, who was a journalist by profession, complained to the Colonial Office, stating, ‘I came to this country from the British West Indies as a volunteer for Air Crew Duties under the protection of the British Government, and I demand as far as humanly possible that I get that protection and its corresponding consideration.’ With striking eloquence, he demanded that the perpetrators of the attack be punished and asked ‘that action be taken to ensure the non-recurrence of such an affair as this either with myself or other coloured people in this country . . . I have never been trained to think in terms of nations or races and I had hoped that four years of war would at least have taught the world this lesson. But the long standing underlying prejudice for coloured people despite their value, ability or achievement still remains to rear its ugly head, and leaves the most distasteful gap to be bridged. To say time will remove these ills is not good enough’.55 That day, Walrond’s Stirling bomber was shot down in a mission over Cologne and he was killed.56
Black civilians from the colonies were also affected by the imported racism of the white GIs. In the summer of 1944, the West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine booked a room at the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square. Before arriving Constantine took the precaution – thankfully unimaginable today – of asking the hotel if his race would pose any impediment to him staying, and was assured that there would be no problems on that account. When Constantine and his family arrived, on the evening of 30 July, they were informed by the manageress, Margaret O’Sullivan, that they could stay for one night, not the four that he had booked. During the ensuing argument O’Sullivan was heard to say ‘he is a nigger . . . We won’t have niggers in this hotel.’57 This, it later transpired, was because also staying in the hotel were a number of white American soldiers, who O’Sullivan believed would object to the presence of a black family. O’Sullivan later claimed that she feared there would be a quarrel between Constantine – who was travelling with his wife and daughter – and the Americans. When the case of Constantine v. Imperial Hotels Ltdcame to court in 1944 one witness explained that Constantine had reminded the management that ‘he was a British subject, and that he saw no reason why Americans, who were aliens, should have any preference at the hotel over a British subject.’58 Questions about the incident were asked in Parliament and in June 1944, Constantine took the case to the High Court. As racial discrimination was not legally prohibited in Britain at the time, the case rested on contract law. The judge found in Constantine’s favour and awarded damages. The case was widely publicized and in certain circles was regarded as a national embarrassment.
The vast majority of the black men and women who served in the British forces during the Second World War did not experience racism of the sort experienced by Learie Constantine. While the number of black people in Britain grew in relative terms, in keeping with the racial policies of the First World War, most of the black people who served in the Second never even set foot in Britain and were deployed either in Africa or in other colonial regions. There were three hundred and seventy-two thousand Africans. The Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) recruited in Nigeria, the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, their soldiers fighting in the Abyssinian campaign against the Italians between 1940 and 1941, and in Burma against the Japanese. The King’s African Rifles (KAR) comprised men from Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Somaliland and Nyasaland (now Malawi); it took part in the defeat of the Italians in Abyssinia and the capture of the Vichy French colony of Madagascar. Africans too fought against the Japanese in the Burma campaign, which was the first time the KAR and RWAFF had been permitted to fight outside their home continent. Significantly, their opponent was a non-white enemy. The deployment was regarded as a phenomenal success and several of the African troops were decorated, including one who received the British Empire Medal. All of the customary pseudoscientific-racial theories were put forward to explain the Africans’ prowess at jungle combat; they were said to be miraculously immune to the diseases of the south-east Asian jungles and somehow naturally adept at fighting in dense tropical undergrowth. Among those who served in the KAR was Hussein Onyango Obama, the grandfather of the 44th President of United States, who was deployed in both Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma.