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  • Ira Aldridge - the UK's first Black Shakespearean actor

    Ira Frederick Aldridge was born on 24 July 1807 in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah (also spelled Lurona) Aldridge. At the age of 13, Aldridge went to the African Free School in New York City, established by the New York Manumission Society for the children of free enslaved African American and other Black heritage peoples. His first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Grove Theatre troupe. It was founded and managed by William Henry Brown and James Hewlett, and was the first resident African American theatre in the United States. After the troupe was forced to close by an intense racist campaign, Aldridge packed his bags in 1824 and made his way to England. He made his debut acting appearance at London’s East End Royalty Theatre in May 1825. As his career grew, his performances of Shakespeare's classics eventually met with critical acclaim and he subsequently became the manager of Coventry's Theatre Royal. In 1850, he published his autobiography Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius. In it, he detailed aspects of both his personal and professional life, describing his voyages across the country: 'acting in succession at Brighton, Chichester, Leicester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Exeter, Belfast and so on, returning to London after a lapse of seven years...' Aldridge spent much of the 1850s on the Continent, touring the Austro-Hungarian empire, Germany, Prussia, Switzerland, Poland and eventually travelling to Russia in 1858 where he was well received. Upon returning to England in the 1860s, he applied for British citizenship. He married two times, first to Margaret Gill in 1825 and after her death to the self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt. Together they had four children, two of whom, Luranah and Amanda, became professional operatic singers. By the time of his death in 1867 in Lodz, Poland, Aldridge was an acclaimed and award-winning stage actor and the most visible Black figure in Europe. He had appeared on stage in more than 250 theatres across Britain and Ireland, and more than 225 theatres in Europe. In 2017, a blue plaque dedicated to Aldridge was unveiled in Coventry by actor Earl Cameron who had been trained by Aldridge's daughter, the opera singer Amanda Aldridge (1866–1956). Aldridge is also the only actor of African-American descendent honoured with a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

  • Arthur Wharton -probably the first Black professional footballer in the world

    Arthur Wharton (28 October 1865 – 12 December 1930) is widely considered to be the first Black professional footballer in the world. He played as a goalkeeper for clubs as Darlington Football Club, Rotherham Town, Preston North End and Sheffield United. Though not the first Black player outright – the amateurs Robert Walker, of Queen's Park, and Scotland international player, Andrew Watson, predate him (possibly a professional before Arthur Wharton for Bootle F.C. in 1887) – Wharton may have been the first Black professional and the first to play in the Football League. Wharton was born in Jamestown, Gold Coast (now Accra, Ghana). His father Henry Wharton was a Grenadian missionary of Scottish and African-Caribbean descent, while his mother, Annie Florence Egyriba was a member of the Fante Ghanaian royalty. Wharton moved to England in 1882 at the age of 19, to train as a Methodist missionary, but soon abandoned this in favour of becoming a full-time athlete. He was an all-round sportsman – in 1886, he equalled the amateur world record of 10 seconds for the 100-yard sprint in the AAA championship. He was also a keen cyclist and cricketer, playing for local teams in Yorkshire and Lancashire. However, Wharton is best remembered for his exploits as a footballer; while he was not the first mixed-heritage footballer in the United Kingdom — leading amateurs Robert Walker and Scotland international Andrew Watson predate him, however Wharton was the first mixed-heritage footballer to turn professional.

  • Vivian Anderson - first Black Briton to play for the senior men's England national football team

    Vivian Alexander Anderson, MBE (born 29 July 1956) is an English former professional footballer and coach. He won five senior trophies including the 1977–78 Football League title, and both the 1978–79 European Cup and the 1979–80 European Cup playing for Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest. He was later part of the squads to win a domestic cup with each of Arsenal and Manchester United. He also played for Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley and Middlesbrough. He was the first Black Briton to play for the senior men's England national football team.

  • Laurie Cunningham - first British footballer to sign with Real Madrid

    Laurence Paul Cunningham (8 March 1956 – 15 July 1989) was an English professional footballer. A left winger, who started his football career as a schoolboy at Arsenal in 1970 but whose career didn’t take off until he joined West Bromwich Albion in 1977. Two years later, he became the first British footballer signed by Real Madrid. He was there for five years, winning La Liga once and the Copa del Rey twice. After a spell in France with Marseille, he returned to England with Leicester City in 1985, followed by a return to Spain with Rayo Vallecano. Cunningham signed with Wimbledon in 1988, helping them win the FA Cup in 1988 for the final trophy of his career. Cunningham received his first international call-up to the England U21 side in 1977 while playing for West Bromwich Albion, becoming the first Black footballer to represent an England international team organised by the Football Association. He later earned six caps for the full national team between 1979 and 1980, becoming one of the first ever black England internationals. While playing for Rayo Vallecano, Cunningham was killed in a car crash in Madrid on the morning of 15 July 1989, at the age of 33. His football achievements have been commemorated with a blue plaque at his former home at 73 Lancaster Road in Stroud Green, London.

  • Emma Clarke - considered to be the first known Black women footballer in Britain

    Emma Clarke was born in 1876 in Bootle, Lancashire in England. She and her sister are known to be the earliest known Black women footballers in Britain. She worked as a confectioner’s apprentice from the age of 15, and received her formative sporting education playing the game in her neighbourhood streets of Bootle. Clarke normally played as an outfield player and she also played as goalkeeper. She made her debut in 1885 for the British Ladies’ Football Club. Photographic evidence shows her lined up in the official team photo for the "South" team of the British Ladies in their inaugural exhibition match, a game watched by more than 10,000 people at Crouch End, London, a game that Clarke's "South" team lost 7–1. A year later she played for Mrs Graham’s XI that toured Scotland. Interest in the tour was substantial and their matches regularly attracted crowds numbering in the thousands. As well as receiving payment for expenses, it is estimated that Clarke would have been paid approximately a shilling a week while on the tour. In 1897, she made an appearance for a team described as "The New Woman and Ten of Her Lady Friends" against "Eleven Gentlemen". The ladies’ team were victorious 3–1, although the report at the time made it clear the feelings about the women's game at the time, describing the game as a grotesque, although conceding that "in the second half the ladies distinguished themselves". It is also thought that her sister played in this match too. Clarke's career as a footballer continued until at least 1903. In 2019, a blue heritage plaque commemorating Clarke was unveiled at Campsbourne School, Hornsey, which is the site of her team, the former Crouch End FC.

  • Exploring the military and footballing career of Walter Tull

    Lieutenant Walter Daniel John Tull (28 April 1888 – 25 March 1918) was an English professional footballer and British Army officer of African-Caribbean descent. He played as an inside forward and half back for Clapton, Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town and was the third person of African-Caribbean heritage to play in the top division of the Football League after Arthur Wharton and Willie Clarke. He was also the first player of African-Caribbean descent to be signed for Rangers in 1917 while stationed in Scotland. During the First World War, Tull served in the Middlesex Regiment, including in the two Footballers' Battalions. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 30 May 1917 and killed in action on 25 March 1918.

  • Celebrating UK Black Footie Firsts throughout December

    To mark the winter FIFA World Cup 2023, we'll be exploring some UK Black firsts in football throughout December. Do you know who was... The first Black Briton to play association football at international level The first known Black women's footballer in Britain The first Black Briton to play for the senior men's England national team The first player of African-Caribbean descent to be signed to Rangers in 1917 Check out out any of our Bio Shorts articles on the individuals below to find out the answers and why not play our football themed quiz with your friends too! Check out our social media accounts or subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter for regular updates!

  • Exploring the military career of Ulric Cross

    Ulric Cross is recognised as one of the most decorated Caribbean airman of WWII. He was born in Trinidad in 1917, Cross joined the RAF aged 24. He trained as a navigator and joined 139 Squadron, gaining the nickname ‘The Black Hornet’. Cross became an expert in precision bombing and joined the ranks of the elite Pathfinder Force, often flying missions at just 50 feet instead of the normal 25,000 feet. After 50 missions, Cross was given the option to rest. He refused and volunteered for a further 30 missions. By the war’s end, Cross had flown 80 missions over enemy territory and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. After the war, Cross qualified as a lawyer, and he briefly worked as a talks producer at the BBC’s Caribbean Service. Before being recruited by fellow Trinidadian George Padmore, one of the architects of Pan-Africanism, to travel to Ghana to help Kwame Nkrumah in his work seeking to unite Africa’s emerging nations. During Cross’s 15 years in Africa, he served on Ghana’s Crown Council. He was also Attorney General in Cameroon, a High Court Judge in Tanzania and Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Dar Es Salaam. Cross then returned to Trinidad where he served as a High Court judge and on the Court of Appeal, later becoming Chair of the country’s Law Reform Commission. He was posted to London as Trinidad and Tobago’s High Commissioner to the UK from 1990 to 1993.

  • Lilian Bader was one of the first women of Afro-Caribbean heritage to join the Royal Air Force (RAF)

    Lilian Bader was born in 1918 in the Toxteth Park area of Liverpool to the Barbadian-born Marcus Bailey, a merchant sailor who had fought for the British in the First World War, and her British-born mother, Lillian McGowan who was of Irish parentage. The Baileys married in 1913 and had three children. Liverpool is one of the oldest continuous Black communities in Europe. Black people have been in Liverpool as sailors, soldiers and slaves for over 300 years, long before the Windrush generation and post-war migration from the Caribbean. Around the age of seven, her parents separated and her father took custody of the children. The family moved to Hull, where her father Marcus had worked before the war and had friends there who could help him look after his children while he worked. In 1927, Bader and her older brothers, Frank and James, were orphaned and brought up in care. Lilian was separated from her older brothers and for many years had no contact with them. From the age of nine, she lived in the Roman Catholic Girl’s home in Middlesbrough. She lived there until she was 20 because no one would employ her. Bader explained that it was difficult to find employment ‘because of my father’s origins: “My casting out from the convent walls was delayed. I was half West Indian, and nobody, not even the priests, dare risk ridicule by employing me.” However, Bader was determined to overcome the racial prejudice she faced. Eventually finding work in domestic service. With the outbreak of the second world war in 1939, Lilian wanted to do her bit for the war effort and enlisted in the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) at Catterick Camp, Yorkshire. She was given a role working in the NAAFI canteen, serving food and drink to servicemen but was dismissed after only seven weeks because of the ‘colour bar’. Her father’s West Indian heritage was discovered by an official in London and for weeks, her supervisor avoided informing her of this decision – but eventually, he had to tell her the truth and sack her. Lilian returned to domestic service. But she felt embarrassed when a group of soldiers expressed surprise that she was not doing war work. She asked: “How could I tell them that a coloured Briton was not acceptable, even in the humble NAAFI?” Yet Bader was determined to sign up. One day whilst listening to Una Marson’s BBC radio programme Hello! West Indies, she heard a group of Caribbean men talk about how after being rejected by the British army they were accepted and enlisted to help with the war effort by the RAF. Consequently, the resilient, resourceful and patriotic Lilian tried again. She applied for and was enlisted with, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) on 28 March 1941. She said she found herself "the only coloured person in this sea of white faces", but, "somebody told me I looked smart in my uniform, which cheered me no end." Although not widely reported or recognised in the UK, the Caribbean was impacted by 2WW warfare through the Battle of Atlantic campaigns from 1941 to 1945. Most notable is the Battle of the Caribbean in which German U-boats and Italian submarines attempted to disrupt the Allied supply of oil and other materials from the Americas and Caribbean by sinking ships carrying goods and attacking coastal targets in the Caribbean. With the 2WW on their doorstep, thousands of Caribbeans volunteered to join the war effort. Driven largely by a need to fight fascism. They had witnessed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (then referred to as Abyssinia) in the 1930s which had imposed racial segregation and banned mixed marriage. While watching in horror the rise of Hitler in Germany. Fearing that if Hitler and his allies won the war, they would try to reintroduce slavery to the Caribbean. Approximately 10,000 Caribbeans volunteered for service alongside the British during the Second World War. Around 6,000 Caribbeans served with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, in roles from fighter pilots to bomb aimers, air gunners to ground staff and administration. Of these, well over 100 were women who were posted overseas – 80 chose the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WWAF) for their contribution, while around 30 joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Initially, Bader carried out domestic work for WAAF officers, before taking an exam and winning a place on a course for instrument repairers, one of the new trades open to women. Her joy at being enlisted was overshadowed by the tragic death of her older brother, Able Seaman James Bailey, who was killed in action on 14 March 1941 while serving in the Merchant Navy. She nevertheless passed her course ‘First Class’, becoming one of the first women in the air force to qualify in that trade. Bader was one of the first group of women to be allowed on planes to check for leaks in their vital pipes. She was also of the first group of women in the WWAF to be issued with overalls since the uniform skirts weren’t very practical when scrambling inside bomber plane engines! By the end of 1941, she was a Leading Aircraftwoman (LACW) at RAF Shawbury where she worked long hours checking for faults in the instruments of the aircraft. She soon gained the rank of Acting Corporal. During the war, she was introduced by an acquaintance to a young UK-born Black mixed-race soldier called Ramsay Bader. He was a tank driver who was serving with the 147th (Essex Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. Lilian and Ramsay exchanged letters and photographs. Lilian immediately felt attracted to Ramsay: ‘Even in the ugly khaki battle dress, he looked like an officer.’ The couple met for the first time at York station and married later in Hull on 11 March 1943. Spending their first night of their honeymoon at the Station Hotel in Hull and as Lilian recorded, “Hitler celebrated with an air raid.” Lillian was discharged from the WAAF in February 1944 when she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. A few months later, on the 6 June, her husband Ramsay was one of the thousands of soldiers engaged in the D-Day landings. It was an anxious time for Lilian, and she prayed that her husband would survive, which Ramsay did. I didn’t know if Ramsay was alive or dead… I remember kneeling in the chapel and praying like blazes that Ramsay would be saved. It was a terrible time because you knew some people were going to be killed, and Ramsay couldn’t swim! He hated water. That’s what worried me more than anything, but he came through. Lillian Bader After the war, the couple moved to Northamptonshire to raise their family and went on to have two sons. When they had grown up, Lillian studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree at London University and then became a teacher, a profession into her 80s. Her younger son flew helicopters in the Royal Navy and later became an airline pilot. By the end of the 20th century, three generations of her family had served in the British Armed Forces. In 1989, she released a memoir entitled ‘Together – Lillian Bader: Wartime Memoirs of a WAAF’ published by the Imperial War Museum. In it, she reflected on her family’s contribution to Britain: "Father served in the First World War, his three children in the Second World War. I married a coloured man who was in the Second World War, as was his brother who was decorated for his bravery in Burma. Their father also served in the First World War. Our son was a helicopter pilot, he served in Northern Ireland." On 7 August 1990, she appeared on the UK television show ‘Hear-Say’ with a group of ex-service men and women from African and Caribbean countries who had fought on behalf of the UK in the 2WW. They debated the pros and cons of supporting Britain in the two world wars with members of the younger generation. During the programme, Bader became frustrated with the lack of understanding from some of the younger members of the audience. They failed to understand why black people from across the British Empire joined the war effort. So, Bader explained why she had joined the WAAF: "We [black people] would have ended up in the ovens." Lilian understood that, if Hitler had invaded England, Britain’s Black citizens would have suffered the fate of Black people in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe: they would have been rounded up and interned in concentration camps. Nine years later, on Remembrance Sunday, 14 November 1999, Bader contributed to another television documentary, The Unknown Soldiers, which received awards from the Commission for Racial Equality and the Royal Television Society. In 2002, she was invited to meet the Queen at the inauguration of the Commonwealth Memorial Gates in Hyde Park which commemorates the armed forces of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent countries that fought in the First and Second World Wars for Britain. Lillian Bader died on 14 March 2015 but she will always be remembered as a resilient woman who stood in the face of adversity to give back to the country she called home. Unafraid to highlight the racial discrimination she and her family suffered whilst proudly serving their country throughout the wars. She said: “I think we've given back more to this country than we've received." Bader knew the contribution of Black and Asian Britons in the war should be recognised and remembered, a struggle that continues to this day. She dedicated her later years into making as much noise as she could for this. Following her death, she was recognised in 2018, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. The Voice newspaper listed Lillian Bader – alongside Kathleen Wrasama, Olive Morris, Connie Mark, Diana Abbott, and Margaret Busby – among eight Black women who have contributed to the development of Britain. In October 2020, Bader was commemorated by the publication of an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Sources:

  • Celebrating Black heritage service men and women during Remembrance Month

    Throughout November we'll be exploring the lives of African and Caribbean heritage service men and women who fought in the First and Second World Wars for Britain. We'll be celebrating the lives of unsung Black heritage service men and women such as Lilian Bader and Ulric Cross. We'll also be revisiting the stories of African-American soldiers who came to the UK during the Second World War and crossed the racial colour bar. To find out more, check our Instagram, Twitter and Youtube social media accounts or subscribe to our newsletter for regular monthly updates. Under the umbrella of the Black Poppy Rose we'll be celebrating Remembrance Month to illuminate the heroic and unsung lives of service men and women who fought in the wars. The Black Poppy Rose commemorates the contributions of Africa, Black, Caribbean, Pacific Islands & Indigenous communities to the war effort – as service men and woman, and as civilians. ​ The Black Poppy Rose was launched in 2010 and aims to highlight the “largely untold historical legacies” from the 16th century onwards.

  • Kathleen Wrasama - dedicated her life to helping the Black community in Britain

    Black History Month UK 2022 'Sharing Journeys' campaign - exploring the lives of Britons with East African heritage Kathleen Wrasama (also known as Kathleen Wrsama) was born in Ethiopia and brought to England by missionaries in the early 1900s. Little is known about her early life, but her birth was registered in England as the 15th May 1904. In an interview with Kathleen about her life, she described her time with the missionaries as “They weren’t very physically cruel to me, they were mentally cruel to me. I was [on] exhibition [as] one of the heathen children from Africa. Anything like Sunday School, I used to be put on the table as a representative of one of the heathens, this is a representative of what we’re trying to do in this dark continent.” [1] The Kingdom of Aksum in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea was one of the first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (called Tewahdo in Ethiopia) is one of the oldest organized Christian bodies in the world. Despite this, it wasn’t immune to the missionaries who flooded the African continent from the middle of the 18th century to spread western Christianity and education – paving the way for the colonisation of Africa. Although Ethiopia was the only African country to not be colonised by the Europeans. During the early 1900s, it wasn’t unusual for missionaries to adopt children from overseas and bring them back to the UK. Kathleen was one of those children. Not much is known about their lives and little written evidence exist to tell us how they felt about living in a foreign land away from their homelands. Kathleen’s story is one of the few accounts of these children. Kathleen describes her early life in England as: “I stayed with [the missionaries] until I was about 8 [years, and] when they died, I was sent to a [children’s] home [where] I was ostracised. I wasn’t allowed to mix with any of the [other] girls, I was like somebody from Mars… I was stoned in the village.” [1] The only information available about her children’s home is its location in Yorkshire. She described her time there: “… there was no black people at all [not one where I was raised]… when I used to walk around [sometimes round] the streets, they’d come running out, they would say, ‘Mum, mum, there’s that funny girl’, and they couldn’t make me out. They didn’t know who I belonged to and when I was in the home, I wasn’t allowed to mix with any of the girls, I use[d] to wonder why, I use[d] to wonder why can’t I eat with them, why can’t I sleep with them. I use[d] to have to go upstairs and sleep in the attic right at the top of the stairs, or I was down in the cellar, down in hell, picking the coal up for the fires.” [1] Kathleen ran away several times from the children’s home to escape the abuse. When she was 13 years old, she found a labouring job on a farm. She recalled: “I got a job… on Mr Bagshots’ farm. I never had any money, [I’d] never been in a shop, I didn’t know what it was to talk to people, I didn’t dream to ask for wages… I worked there for some time in Mr Bagshot farm. When his wife took asthma, the doctors said she had to go somewhere warm, so I had to uproot, and I went to work [on] another farm.” [1] Whilst working on this new farm, she became friendly with the Norwegian owners, who taught her to read. Kathleen moved to Wales to find work after the owners left the UK and moved back to Norway. She said: “I thought that I was a heathen, I thought being a heathen was a different race, [a] race of people... I was looking and seeking who I am, surely, I must belong to somebody. Even in Wales I didn’t see a black person, even then I was on a farm, I was right away out of it. So, I decided I’d come to London, and see what [it] was like.” [1] Kathleen’s life turned around when she went to London. She found a community and slowly discovered and reconnected with her East African roots and one hopes, banishing memories of her traumatic childhood. She initially found a job working in an Italian coffee house in central London and whilst working there she met some people who helped her find work as a film extra. She explained: “I didn’t know what films were. [A customer in the coffee store] said I could get work as a film extra. And she got me on the films. It was through the films I met some Ethiopians there and going to the Ethiopian embassy, I met my husband.” After the actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda moved to London in 1930. His artistic residence caused a boom in demand for black extras to appear in his films. Many working-class black men and women like Kathleen found well-paid work with some earning up to 21 shillings (or £1.05 in modern currency) a day. In 1945, she married former Somali seaman, Sulaban Wrsama in Stepney, East London. Embraced by the Somali community she finally found a home and no longer saw herself as a ‘heathen’. She said about her husband: “He was Somali, he was a wonderful man. He’s African, he was the first person that really to say ‘I love you and really mean it’ to me”. She and her husband opened a boarding house for black seaman in Stepney, East London which had become a settling spot for several ex-seaman from the commonwealth who fought for Britain in the 2WW. Kathleen described the area: “I could take you around the world [here].” The black seaman faced discrimination in accessing housing, were refused entry in bomb shelters during air raids and endured racial attacks. Kathleen tried to help them and complained often to the colonial office about their treatment. She even reached out to Lapido Solanke’s WASU for help “I use to go and ask them [to] come and talk to your men, you know your language, speak to them and tell them where they can go and get help with the housing cos we’re not strong enough… we haven’t got the power… your educated, give us some support at least… No, they didn’t come, they want to come past the east end…” So, in 1951 she founded the Stepney Coloured People’s Association (SCPA), which was committed to improving community relations, as well as education and housing for black people. The committee would meet at 84 Cable Street, now known as Burlington Court, which is where Wrasama would contribute to changing British history forever. The Stepney Coloured People’s Association (SCPA) ran for eight years. Although its formation was significant, it wasn’t the first local group to support black rights in the East End; the United African Brotherhood Society was formed in Stepney in 1919 and the 1930s saw the formation of The Coloured Seamen’s Association which sought to protest against the employment crisis afflicting black seamen at the time. All were short-lived organisations that effectively served their purpose and then dissolved. The SCPA sought to campaign for better rights for all ‘coloured’ people in Stepney and this broad coalition built on the premise that despite distinct ethnic, tribal and national identities, that they were united in their fight against racism and discrimination. Kathleen said: “[On the committee] we had Hindus, Ghanaians, Yoruba, Somali.” The formation of Association linked the black community in East London with other grass-roots organisations working to represent people from the colonies in all sorts of capacities. Academic Laura Tabili observed, these groups were central to the emergence of a ‘multicultural Black political identity’ which ‘coexisted with but transcended religious, cultural and linguistic diversity’ up until the beginning of the 21st century. The Association sought to establish its own housing bureau, capable of recommending responsible ‘coloured’ people as prospective tenants to those landlords that did not hold a colour prejudice. It petitioned Stepney Borough Council and the London County Council (LCC) to extend their hostel and social provision, and looked to the Clifton Institute for Coloured Peoples in Birmingham as a model for the LCC to follow in Stepney, suggesting a new building was not entirely necessary but greater support was. The Clifton was one of a number of newly established social and educational centres funded by municipal authorities. The model was clear, but no action was taken and the SCPA was itself wound up in 1959 on account of a substantial decline in the size of the area’s black community. Kathleen Wrasama died in February 1996 in Tower Hamlets. She lived a remarkable life that spanned a century of change in Britain. She overcame the racial abuse of her childhood to find love and a place within the black community of East London. When I see my people together, I’m on heaven… It’s like drinking wine to refresh your soul, when you meet all your people together. It’s like a drink that comes inside you and it uplifts you. You can go out and you can face the world again. You got your strengthen from your own people… I know I belong at last. Kathleen took the trauma of her youth and used it to power her commitment to improving the lives of her fellow black people. In 1982, she spoke of her life in London’s East End in an interview for the BBC documentary Surviving: Experience of Migration and Exile, and was later invited to visit a school, where she talked about her early years and her experiences of racism. She was an influential figure as a British community organiser. In her quest to help house members of the Black community, she formed an organisation that led to the creation of the social services we know today. Sources: [1] Kathleen Wrasama words are taken from a transcript of an interview now held by the Black Cultural Archives (BCA). The transcript is part of a folder that includes letters from children to Wrsama as part of a school project. LWT guidelines on interviewing and regarding a competition titled "The Making of Modern London 1914-1939", entered by the BCA. Also includes, report on investigation into conditions of the coloured population in the Stepney area.

  • African American GIs in the UK during 2WW - crossing the colour bar

    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. Sources:,because%20of%20the%20docks%20there David Schindler, Mark Westcott, Shocking Racial Attitudes: Black G.I.s in Europe, The Review of Economic Studies, Volume 88, Issue 1, January 2021, Pages 489–520,

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