Jim Crow in Britain

Outside South Africa, systematic racial segregation has been most closely associated with the Southern United States, from its introduction in the 1890s until it was gradually dismantled in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. ‘Jim Crow’, as it was known, actually emerged in the North in the 1840s, when the term was first used in Massachusetts to refer to the railroad cars reserved for black passengers. For a century or more, African Americans travelling to Europe often expressed their pleasure at being able – for a time at least – to mingle freely with others in public places.

International condemnation has not prevented ‘Jim Crow’ exercising its influence beyond American shores. It has on occasions crossed the Atlantic, when British authorities seemed willing to accommodate the anxieties of those visitors who were fearful of the consequences of racial mixing away from home.

Two case studies are presented here.

1. Racial discrimination practised by the Cunard shipping line in the mid-19th Century. This British company, in deference to the alleged feelings of its American passengers, frequently prevented blacks from occupying the cabins they had paid for, and from sharing common facilities such as the dining saloon. On one occasion, the decision of a captain to allow a prominent former slave to deliver an abolitionist lecture on deck, nearly caused a riot, and despite the assurances of Samuel Cunard himself, the company tended to err on the side of caution until at least the Civil War.

2. The presence of the segregated US army in Britain during World War II. Keen not to risk antagonizing an important ally, the British government took no stand against segregation, and separate accommodation and canteen facilities were provided for the American military where requested. Efforts to keep personnel of different races apart when outside the camps (in pubs, dancehalls, clubs etc) were never challenged, but nor were they entirely successful as the protests of black GIs and friendliness of local civilians suggest.

In such cases,’Americanisation’ took the form of highly controversial codes regulating communal spaces, being allowed to take effect in areas beyond US jurisdiction. The subject of public debate at the time, these impositions were the result of compromise and negotiation. These two examples will provide an opportunity to identify the conditions under which transatlantic segregation was possible, and the extent to which it was open to challenge.


The research for this was originally presented in the form of workshops as part of the AMATAS project.

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