By June 1944 as many as 1.5 million US servicemen and women were stationed in Britain, nearly ten per cent of them African Americans. The impact of the presence of a segregated army on foreign soil is recorded in the following items in wartime newspapers and periodicals.
Dance Ban on Coloured Troops
‘Coloured American soldiers stationed in the district were refused admission to an Army dance at Eye, Suffolk …’ Daily Herald, 7 September 1942.
Vicar’s Wife Insults Our Allies
‘A six point code which would result in the ostracism of American coloured troops …’ Sunday Pictorial, 6 September 1942.
From A London Diary
‘Examples are beginning to reach me of the complications that are almost certain to arise if considerable numbers of coloured troops arrived with the American army …’ New Statesman and Nation, 22 August 1942.
From A London Diary
‘It was a really good dance. A couple of hundred couples I suppose …’ New Statesman and Nation, 19 September 1942.
Colour Bar: Use of the City’s Amenities
‘The military authorities imposed a bar on the Kent Street baths to members of that particular unit …’ Birmingham Mail, 15 May 1945.
Dixie Invades Britain – by Roi Ottley
‘Americans export race prejudices, force discrimination on England.’ From Negro Digest, September 1944.
Dance Ban on Coloured Troops
Coloured American soldiers stationed in the district were refused admission to an Army dance at Eye, Suffolk, on Saturday. A coloured military policeman was posted at the door to turn his comrades away. Now they are under orders not to attend any dances there in future.
It is understood that the action was taken at the instigation of the American military authorities. Our own Army Command, the Daily Herald was told, had offered no objection to the entry of coloured soldiers to functions attended by our own troops. These coloured American soldiers have also been refused admittance to the town’s reading room, which has billiards, ping-pong tables and a dart board, as well as facilities for reading and writing. At the moment they have nowhere to go when off duty.
Vicar’s Wife Insults Our Allies
The women of Worle, Weston-super-Mare, are amazed by Mrs. May, wife of their vicar.
She called them together and attempted to lay down a six-point code which would result in the ostracism of American coloured troops if they ever go to the village.
The women of the village have come to the angry conclusion that this code amounts to an insult to the troops of our Ally. These (in her own words) were the rules Mrs. May laid down:
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 as possible and indicate 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 forbade her hearers to mention her ‘talk’ to the newspapers.
But they were so astonished that they told their husbands.
One of the husbands, a local councillor, is preparing a full statement to be sent to the Ministry of Information.
He said: ‘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.’
Mrs. May’s reason for not making her code public, she said, was that ‘it might hurt the coloured troops if they heard of it.’
Feeling is so high in the district that it is more likely to hurt Mrs. May.
A local woman who attended the meeting told the Sunday Pictorial last night: ‘I was disgusted, and so were most of the women there. We have no intention of agreeing to her decree.’
Any coloured soldier who reads this may rest assured that there is no colour bar in this country and that he is as welcome as any other Allied soldier.
He will find that the vast majority of people 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.
From A London Diary
Examples are beginning to reach me of the complications that are almost certain to arise if considerable numbers of coloured troops arrived with the American army. For instance, a British soldier writes to complain that in an English port part of a well-known restaurant is barred to coloured troops. He says that the employees of the restaurant disliked discriminating against coloured soldiers, and that a group of British soldiers near said what they thought about colour prejudice. He adds that his unit was called together and instructed to be ‘polite to coloured troops, answer their queries, and drift away.’ They were not to eat or drink with coloured soldiers. Before going off the deep end about this we must try to understand the nature of the problem that confronts the authorities, British and American. English people will find that coloured troops are particularly easy and pleasant to get on with, and I should think they should be extremely popular in most villages. American troops from a large part of the U.S.A. would agree with this, and be prepared to rub shoulders with the negro soldiers. But the feeling of white troops from the ‘deep South’, where the position of slavery has never left the land, is something far too deep to brush aside. I have met Southerners who seemed rational enough until the negro problem was mentioned, and who would then suddenly show a terrified lynching spirit which was about the ugliest thing imaginable. The colour problem in the South is economic, political, and sexual. The political side has been increased lately because the parties have begun to canvass for the negro vote. The economic aspect has increased with the increased opportunities of wartime employment. The social and sexual prejudice is so deep that there will be many Southern whites in this country who will take it for granted that it is their duty to interfere if they see black troops with white girls. What is to be done? The American Government must itself face the problem. It must use every device of persuasion and authority to let white Southern troops know that it is against discipline to treat negro soldiers in the way to which their training and education has accustomed them. I am aware that with a prejudice as deep as that of the South, discipline and re-education will not work nearly quickly enough I feel it is a mistake to send large numbers of coloured troops. If things are left to drift an impossible problem will be set to the British authorities, and very unhappy incidents will occur between black and Southern troops, and, only too naturally, between Southern troops and the British, who will instinctively take the side of the blacks against their white assailants.
From A London Diary
The village hall is large and pleasant, and the Clerk of the Council, who sat at the receipt of custom and kept a fatherly eye on everything, is an efficient and experienced person who knows how to let things get jolly without getting out of hand. We had heard talk of a lot of jitterbug thrills, with the girls flying hilariously over the shoulders of their American partners. Nothing of the sort. It was a really good dance. A couple of hundred couples I suppose. A few of the girls were in uniform; most of them came from the district, one had seen them in shops or working on the farms. One was conspicuous in a frock that swept the floor; most of them just had on their prettiest light dresses. At ten o’clock, when the pubs closed, the numbers rapidly increased and the dancing became hotter and more expert. There seemed to me little changing of partners; mostly the boy and the girl, or at least the boys and girls of a single group of friends, stuck together. No one was drunk; everyone seemed to be enjoying it. There had been, I was told, an unpleasing incident not long ago. The band that night contained a West African; the Americans, including these Southerners with the usual phobia, were, of course, contented enough to have the coloured soldier as an entertainer. They are used to that in the United States. But when the West Indian [sic] took the floor with the wife of one of his colleagues in the band, one of the southern American boys promptly went across the room and struck him. The band stopped; the players went to the rescue of their colleague, who was conducted out of the ball by a back way, and the show went on as if nothing had happened. But something had happened. An English soldier, who told me of this incident, was restrained but angry and puzzled. What made these Southern boys behave in this incredibly uncivilised fashion? I told him the story of slavery and liberation, the Ku Klux Klan and about present relations of white and black in the South. He listened gravely. But obviously nothing could or should change his view of the conduct of these Southern boys, which is a real barrier to the friendship which I could see happily developing between British and Americans.
Colour Bar: Use of the City’s Amenities
Resentment against discrimination between white and coloured persons in the use of Birmingham’s amenities was expressed by Councillor A F Bradbeer at to-day’s City Council meeting.
He moved that the General Purposes Committee consider and report upon the desirability of issuing to all Corporation departments an advice to the effect (a) that all services provided by the Corporation are available to persons irrespective of race or colour; (b) that the Corporation, in offering employment for the staffing of departments, shall not discriminate against a person because of his or her race or colour.
The proposal was defeated by 49 votes to 31.
Councillor Bradbeer gave two instances of what he termed the colour bar in Birmingham. A qualified doctor appointed to the staff of a hospital, he said, was given a month’s salary in lieu of notice because when he attended at the hospital for duty he was seen to have coloured skin.
A member of the US Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps went to the Kent Street Bath for a Turkish bath. She received every attention, but within a few hours the military authorities imposed a bar on the Kent Street baths to members of that particular unit.
The Deputy Mayor (chairman of the General Purposes Committee) said that if military authorities put any place out of bounds the City Council could not put that place in bounds.
Dixie Invades Britain – by Roi Ottley
The noose of prejudice is slowly tightening around the necks of American Negro soldiers, and tending to cut off their recreation and associations with the British people.
For – to be frank – relations between Negro and white troops have reached grave proportions.
The reason for its acuteness is complex. Much of it lies deep in the American way of life. For in essence, there are those here who are still fighting the Civil War – this time on British soil.
American observers who were here in 1942 when the first contingents arrived from America saw amicable and smooth relations develop between the Negro troops and their British hosts.
Some were even lionized – so much so that certain white American soldiers became openly resentful. And they lost no time in attempting to discipline the British people. For – and this is perhaps the crucial issue – in back of the Southerner’s mind here is the belief that on his return the Negro will be mighty difficult to remold into the Jim Crow pattern.
Many thousands of American Negro troops are in Britain. They represent a larger Negro population than the British Isles has ever known. For most Britons it is the first time that they have seen Negroes in relatively large groups. For most of the Negroes it is the first time they have been away from their homes and communities.
But the people here have a racial tolerance which gives them a social lever. They are inclined to accept a man for his personal worth. Thus the Negro has social equality here in more ways than theory.
To put it in the language of the Negro soldier, ‘I’m treated so, a man don’t know he’s colored until he looks in the mirror.’
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 colored colonies and derive their incomes from them.
What contact the British people had with Negroes before the arrival of the American troops was on the whole very good.
Paul Robeson and many other Negro artists and entertainers made quite an impression on the British. In the ten years he resided in England Robeson created a good opinion of the American Negro.
By and large Negro troops have been billeted in the country sections of England, Scotland and Ireland. The British people in the country are naturally, hospitable. They warmly greeted the Negro troops. Soon Negroes were invited to British homes, churches, and trade union meetings. Easy and friendly associations developed between the races.
This was a great shock to many white Americans, particularly those from the deep South.
At Highton [=Huyton?] in Northern England – to illustrate – a Negro soldier had an appointment with a British girl to meet him in front of his camp. When he got outside she was engaged in conversation with two white American soldiers.
The Negro soldier walked over and greeted the girl. ‘I’ve been waiting about 15 minutes for you,’ she scolded cheerfully. They smiled, locked hands, and walked down the road.
One of the white soldiers snatched off his hat and flung it to the ground. He broke into tears and kept repeating over and over, ‘I’m from Georgia and I just can’t take that!’
There are white commanders who when they arrive in an area with their unit, restrict passes to Negroes until after inspection has been made of the nearest town or city. The best cafes, restaurants, theaters and hotels are chosen for the white personnel and the proprietors and informed that they are to bar Negro soldiers.
This has proved an effective strong-armed instrument for establishing the Jim Crow pattern in public places, and, incidentally, relegates Negroes to the worst sections on the outskirts of town or along the waterfront.
A Negro Red Cross worker, J Clarice Brooks, former New York social worker, was alone late one night at a Belfast Red Cross club waiting for transportation home when in walked five white American soldiers. This is what transpired:
‘There’s the bitch that’s runnin’ the club for niggers,’ one shouted as they strode toward her.
‘This is a Red Cross club for American soldiers if they behave themselves,’ she replied.
‘What do you mean? Niggers are better behaved than we are?’
His companions interjected, ‘You going to let her talk to you like that?’
‘Let’s beat her up,’ another said.
‘Yeah, we know how to treat niggers!’
They were about to assault her when luckily a white officer happened along and intervened. Miss Brooks told me that although she attempted to press charges against them, that was the last she heard of the affair.
Negro Red Cross workers in England have been known to go home nights armed with baseball bats to fight off prejudiced white soldiers.
In some areas, ‘gangs’ have been formed by white soldiers to terrorize Negroes. When such groups arrive in a town, they immediately declare it ‘their’ territory. Any Negro seen is run out.
There are many cities, towns or villages that have witnessed race rioting. The most infamous of these clashes is called ‘The Battle of Bamber Bridge’ – an area in Lancaster [actually near Preston, in Lancashire].
Negroes billeted here complained of unfair restrictions. They were burning with resentments.
One night a white MP regarded by Negroes as their mortal enemy shot a Negro soldier in the back following a fracas. News of the killing soon reached camp.
The Negro soldiers felt they had reached the limit of their endurance. So they broke into the arsenal, took arms, and barricaded themselves for battle.
When the first white officers approached, they were met by a volley of gun fire. Four of them went down. They other officers sought cover and called for armored cars. A great tragedy was averted by Lt Edmund Jones, a Negro popular with the troops.
Well aware that these desperate Negroes were prepared to fight to the death, he persuaded his white commander to give him authority to end the affair without further bloodshed. He was made a provost-general for three days and was successful in having the Negroes end their futile battle. He assured them by radio that reforms would follow and in the future they would be dealt with fairly.
This distressing racial situation must be laid squarely on the doorstep of the white officers. Certainly, if they wished to do something concrete about the problem, there are sufficient memorandums, directives and orders to bolster them.
Tons of such literature had been published. I have seen much of it. Most is forthright in explaining, and even insisting on mutual respect among soldiers. Many are masterpieces of clarity. The declared policy of the American Army in relation to the Negro soldier is absolutely clear.
‘He is to receive the same treatment, wages, rations as the white troops. He is to have equal opportunities for recreation.’
Unhappily, certain of the officers whose tasks it becomes to implement these instructions violate them where the Negro is concerned. Few of them even bother to read the instructions.
They well know that in practice there is no penalty for any show of racial hostility. The fact is, there is ample evidence to prove that racial prejudice is encouraged by such officers, a group often dominated by Southerners.
An RAF flyer told me of an indoctrinaire course he attended, conducted by an American lieutenant. His whole lecture was devoted to explaining to the British the reasons why they should not associate with Negro soldiers. He made no bones about the fact that not to conform with the American view of race was to be the victim of actual physical violence.
These roughhouse tactics have, of course, been augmented by word-of-mouth propaganda. At every turn attempts are being made to discredit the Negro. The catalogue of lies and misinformation is well known in America.
But new twists have been given old cliches. A Negro major told me of being surprised when he visited a British home by the concern for his comfort. The mistress of the house had placed a number of soft pillows in his chair. Every so often she would anxiously look in his direction.
Before the evening was over he learned the reason: His hosts had been told by American soldiers that Negroes have tails!
The British are aggressively resisting the prejudice which certain white soldiers are intent upon imposing. This seems to have been the case when US soldiers boarded a bus in London and tried to eject two Negro soldiers from seats they already occupied.
‘You can’t do that sort of thing here,’ a woman conductor protested. ‘We won’t have it. Either you stand or off you go.’
They stood. But the seeds of prejudice are easily scattered. Even some white troops who shared no feeling of prejudice in the United States have accepted the anti-Negro attitudes held by certain Americans. Inevitably, in their contact with the British some have sought to transfer these attitudes.
What’s true of the United States seems equally true in England: The customer is always right. When the manager of a restaurant was questioned recently a bout refusing service to a Negro soldier, he had a ready answer: ‘White Americans say they will not patronize my place if Negroes were served.’
Nevertheless, the Negro soldier has appealed to the British heart.
The Negro has brought along his gifts. I was quite surprised to find British girls in Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and London dancing the lindy hop.
Every Monday morning the newspapers are filled with reports of Negro activity with the British – such as hikes and picnics. Negroes are seen at churches, groups of them even taking over the choir loft on occasion.
In England Negroes are on their very best behavior. They are fully aware of what is at stake. Their Negro officers and Negro Red Cross directors have done a splendid job of making them conscious that they are the guests of the British people, and as such they must prove themselves worthy of their hospitality.
Negro troops stationed near Manchester originated the idea of entertaining the local children to repay some of the hospitality which they had received in that city. I attended the second of a series of six weekly parties. About 20 Negro soldiers sung and danced. Then they distributed chewing gum and candy from their rations. Five hundred children attended the party given at the Red Cross club. The Lord Mayor was present.
The Negro soldiers feel keenly about the frequent show of racial animosity. Voicing a fairly typical attitude of troops who have recently arrived in England, Pfc William B Brown, Newark, NJ, told me how he felt:
‘Since my arrival I’ve been constantly reminded that I’m a Negro. The pattern seems more pronounced here than in the deep South.’
The fact is, numbers of people are scrambling around for a solution. I talked quite extensively with British officials. They are frankly embarrassed and even alarmed by the race situation provoked by certain Americans.
None will talk for the record. Lend-lease makes them keep their official mouths closed, for they are well aware of the spitefulness of some Southern politicians.
Moreover, they feel that Americans are creating a vast amount of anti-white feeling throughout the world, which will make the dealings of the British with colored colonials pretty difficult.
Many of them feel Americans presumptuous to talk of freedom for India in the face of the unsolved race problem in America.
Perhaps no one here is more disturbed than Americans. But individuals cannot stand up alone. Friends, whom I knew in the USA, admit they are helpless.
Yet white officers are daily sticking their necks out to make democracy vibrant and living within the Army. Such Army publications as Yank and Stars and Stripes are dramatizing the Negro soldier’s vital role in the war. Several white American seamen signed a petition protesting the barring of Negroes from a ballroom they visited.
The one hopeful aspect of this situation is the fact that the noose of prejudice has not closed. The reason may be found in the fact that many of the most rabid anti-Negro American soldiers are now not so sure of their positions. They do not have wide public support for any show of racial hostility.
S L Solon, an American reporter working for a London paper, relates a conversation which he overheard. It sums up the situation, tying it in a nice tight knot.
‘Personally,’ a town councillor said, ‘I have no feeling of race prejudice. I’ve been led to believe, however, that our relations with American white troops will be better if we conform to what I understand to be American practices of discrimination.’
The answer to that came from a white American officer. ‘Discrimination is not American,’ he said. ‘Even less so today, when we are fighting a war to preserve and extend democratic values in the world.’