African American GIs in the UK during 2WW - crossing the colour bar
Updated: Jan 8
Close to three million American servicemen and women passed through Britain during the Second World War. Their arrival was heralded as a ‘friendly invasion’ when the first American GIs landed on Britain’s shores in 1942 bringing with them candy, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, nylons, and racial segregation.
In his essays George Orwell alluded to the oft-quoted assertion that American GIs were “oversexed, overpaid and over here”. But he qualified this with the observation that: “the general consensus of opinion is that the only American soldiers with decent manners are Negroes.”
Around 240,000 of the US troops who came to Britain were African Americans. Unlike their fellow American comrades, who took on the full suite of responsibilities offered by the military from commanders to combat troops to cooks, Black GIs were largely consigned to service and supply roles.
Black construction engineers, for example, were among some of the first US Army Air Force units to arrive in Britain in 1942. They were tasked with building the airfields from which vast fleets of American bombers and fighters would be launched as part of the Allied aerial campaign. The work was characterised by long hours of physical labour, and uncomfortable accommodation, made all the worse by the British weather, but it’s importance in facilitating the American war effort cannot be overstated. They built airbases, including Lakenheath and Mildenhall. Most were in labour companies, engineers, stevedores and transport units. Many were based in the Bristol area because of the docks there. They had their barracks in Bedminster, Brislington, Henleaze, Shirehampton and the Muller Orphanage at Ashley Down.
Before the first American troops arrived in 1942, the Black population of Britain – around 8,000 to 10,000 people – was largely congregated in urban port areas. American troops, on the other hand, would be stationed all over the UK. They were posted in rural towns and villages from the Yorkshire Moors to the Forest of Dean to the Somerset Levels; in the southwest they were preparing for the D-day landings.
Churchill’s Tory government were apprehensive about how British society might react to a segregated foreign force arriving on their shores and asked the US government to not send Black GIs but they declined. Realising that the arrival of strictly segregated American battalions would introduce formal apartheid to British soil, the government found itself in a bind. Not wanting to alienate its desperately needed new ally, but also not wanting to undermine its propaganda efforts in the empire, the war cabinet fudged the issue.
The British authorities would not organise segregated facilities nor enforce segregation in non-US Army facilities. In response the US Army administration encouraged separate days during the week for black and white troops to have leave passes. The US military actively developed a policy that involved the segregation of many facilities in Britain. For example, two separate Red Cross centres existed in Bristol: St George Street for black GIs; and Berkeley Square for whites.
This uneasy pragmatic accommodation of segregation was reflected in other areas of society. On a local level, business-owners were often concerned that if they didn’t respect the segregationist rules of the US armed forces, they would lose American custom altogether. Since the arrival of the American troops had resulted in an uplift in the UK war torn economy. As the first African American journalist to cover the war overseas, Roi Ottley wrote in 1942: ‘When the manager of a restaurant was questioned recently about refusing service to a Negro soldier, he had a ready answer. “White Americans say they will not patronize my place if Negroes were served.”
In 1943, African American servicemen were banned from a bar in Bath in an attempt to appease white American soldiers. While in August of the same year, the Trinidadian professional cricketer, Learie Constantine and his family’s hotel reservation was cut short because of complaints from white American miliary serviceman. Learie, famously sued the hotel and was awarded damages.
In contrast, attitudes of the British public toward African American troops were initially favourable despite the existence of an unofficial colour bar operating in Britain. Reports from the Home Intelligence Unit (set up in November 1939 to monitor British morale) frequently mentioned people’s appreciation of "the extremely pleasing manners of the coloured troops". They were seen as less boastful and bumptious than their white counterparts. Although they certainly encountered prejudice, Britain did not have mandated racial Jim Crow laws of the United States, and the African American soldiers were generally welcomed as allies in the fight against fascism.
Roi Ottley, writing in the Chicago magazine Negro Digest in 1942, said that “amicable and smooth relations” had soon developed between “the Negro troops and their British hosts”. The British, he said, were “inclined to accept a man for his personal worth”. He quotes a soldier saying: “I’m treated so a man don’t know he’s coloured until he looks in the mirror.” Qualifying it with “The fact is, the British do draw racial distinctions, but not within the doors of the British Isles – at least not until the arrival of the white American soldiers. This is not to say the British are without racial prejudice. They do have it in a subtle form. But, in the main, it is confined to colonial and military officials who have spent their lives administering affairs in the coloured colonies and derive their incomes from them.”
The African American servicemen were welcomed into the leisure time of their British hosts in ways that spread solidarity. A former GI, Cleother Hathcock, remembers:
“At that time the Jitterbug was in and the blacks would get a buggin’ and the English just loved that. We would go into a dance hall and just take over the place because everybody wanted to learn how to do that American dance, the Jitterbug. They went wild over that."
Because the freedoms enjoyed by African Americans conflicted with the de facto segregation of US forces, and the attitudes of the white majority, particularly Southerners. The fact that white women mixed with and dated black men – taboo in the US – infuriated some servicemen. Captain Vernon Gayle Alexander, a pilot from Kentucky, complained: “The blacks were dating the white girls and consequently if you went on a date [with] a white girl you don’t know if she’d been out with a coloured boy the night before or whether she hadn’t.” In some cases, US military police (MPs) tried to enforce segregation, by restricting entry to local pubs, or designating social nights as white or “coloured”. Irking some British locals. In Cambridge, when US troops tried to impose a colour bar, the landlords responded with signs that read: “Black Troops Only”.
There were frequent clashes between black and white GIs. Usually between MPs trying to enforce discriminatory rules and African American soldiers – with the latter supported by British bystanders. According to Professor Alan Rice of the University of Central Lancashire, there were 44 such clashes between November 1943 and February 1944 alone. The most well-known being the Park Street Riot in Bristol, a racial incident in September 1943 in Launceston in Cornwall and the Battle of Bamber Bridge in Lancashire. The latter was incorporated into the plot of the recent The Railway Children Returns sequel.
Fist fights almost always broke out when black and white GIs were drinking in the same pub. There were some shootings, most by whites against blacks. (Major General Ira Eaker, commander of the Eighth Air Force, declared that white troops were responsible for 90 per cent of the trouble), and a few killings — all covered up by the army.
A US survey of soldiers' mail during the war revealed that white troops were particularly indignant about the public association of white women with black soldiers, which was unremarkable in Britain.
However, when British women started having relationships with African American GIs, the Home Intelligence Report in August 1942 noted: "adverse comment is reported over girls who 'walk out' with coloured troops". If women in relationships with African American Black GIs went on to have children, they frequently faced a barrage of criticism. By October 1943 the Home Intelligence Unit was mentioning people’s rising concern about "the growing number of illegitimate babies, many of coloured men."
It is estimated that approximately 2,000 ‘brown babies’ were born in Britain during the war and nearly all of them were illegitimate. Every American serviceman had to receive permission to marry from his commanding officer (who in the UK were nearly all white) with avoidance a court-martialled offence. But for an African American GI wanting to marry a white British woman, permission was invariably refused.
According to former GI Ormus Davenport, writing after the war, the US Army "unofficially had a 'gentleman's agreement' which became in practice official policy. The agreement said 'No negro soldier or sailor will be given permission to marry any British white girl!'... Not one GI bride going back to the US under the US government scheme is the wife of a Negro". If pushed, the commanding officers would mention that in the US, 30 of the (then) 48 States had anti-miscegenation laws, forbidding marriage between white and Black people.
The experience of African American soldiers in Britain during the Second World War, perfectly encapsulates the UK’s complex relationship to race. As writer Afua Hirsch wrote in the Guardian newspaper: “That this racism was allowed to play itself out on British soil is a stain on the record of Britain’s government, with its cowardly failure to protect not just British law, but also the many Black British and colonial subjects who found themselves caught up in the hostile attitudes of white Americans.” Whilst the vast majority of the UK public warmly welcomed the African American soldiers as fellow fighters against fascism. In fact, in 2010 researchers found that the presence of African American soldiers in the UK and subsequent encounters with the local population had been shown to have reduced racial prejudice against Black people, even decades later in those rural areas.