|The ‘hidden hand’ – one that doesn’t venture onto the battlefield – promotes war so that, to double advantage, white men kill each other while ethnic warfare is waged from the rear|
When Jim Crow Met John Bull
Graham A. Smith
...the 545th Port Company at Bristol. When its 210 members arrived in the United Kingdom, 125 were being treated for syphilis and before embarkation 26 replacements had to be culled from guardhouses near New York. (pp. 150-151)
The near-universal hostility towards interracial sexual relations in Britain before and during the war varied only in the vehemence of its expression. It cut across all shades of political opinion and class to such an extent that it was accepted as a fact of life that needed little or no explanation. (p. 188)
[Maurice Petherick] wondered whether Eden had stood up to the Americans to try to stop the black soldiers coming in, an event which had ‘alarmed and horrified’ many people. He advanced several reasons for this course of action, all centred on the sexual issue.
Petherick contacted the Foreign Office again in the middle of July 1943. He now wondered whether the Foreign Secretary could ‘arrange with the American Government to send [the blacks] to North Africa, or to go and fertilize the Italians who are used to it anyhow?’ Six months later, Petherick was still badgering Eden. In December 1943 he complained that considerable numbers of blacks had been sent to his own constituency, adding, ‘I hope it was not deliberate.’ The sexual worry was still to the fore: ‘as in other parts of England women of the lowest order are consorting with the blackamoors. There is very strong feeling about this... Surely we are in a strong enough position to stand up to the USA... and tell them we will not have any more black troops here and ask them to send those we have to North Africa, where the poor devils, they would be much more happy and warm.’ (pp. 189-190)
Brendan Bracken discussed the arrangements his Ministry was making to welcome the American troops, but in view of the difficulties associated with black GIs he reported that Eisenhower was going to segregate them in some areas. James P. Warburg of the US Information Services in Britain met Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times in England in 1942, and found him a vigorous promoter of the special areas idea. Though Warburg did not agree with this he sent the suggestions, laced with discreet sexual references, on to Elmer Davis, his political boss in Washington:
Colored troops should be moved out of rural areas and concentrated in ports like Liverpool... rural populations, which have had no experience with foreigners, let alone colored people, particularly the girls, do not know how to take the negroes and, as a matter of fact, are very much attracted by them... In the ports... where people are used to all kinds of foreigners, including negroes, there is not so much danger. Sulzberger seems to be very much afraid that if this is not done, nine months from now there will be a very serious problem. (p. 190)
Sometime in the second half of 1943 Life magazine showed pictures of black soldiers in London night clubs dancing with white girls. This was regarded as ‘material... calculating to unduly inflame racial prejudice both overseas and in UNITED STATES [sic].’ The result was a War Department censorship regulation prohibiting the passing for any purposes of amateur photographs ‘showing negro soldiers in poses of intimacy with white women or conveying “boy friend-girl friend” implications.’ On 7 March 1945 because of the ‘vigorous protest’ in Europe Eisenhower requested that this ban be lifted for such photographs intended for the soldiers’ personal use as opposed to those meant for publication.
Despite all the prohibitions, white girls did go out with black soldiers, and these relationships had important repercussions. Arguably it was the most explosive aspect of the American presence, with four consequences all closely linked to each other. In the first place it was a major cause of the disturbances between black and white Americans, some of which resulted in deaths. Secondly, it affected British attitudes towards the blacks: most disliked the miscegenation they saw. Thirdly, females were largely blamed for ‘chasing’ the blacks and consequently British and white American opinions of British women were influenced. Lastly, there were several hundred illegitimate ‘brown babies’ born to English mothers, a problem which remained unsolved for some time in the post-war period.
The disturbances at Leicester and Bristol indicated that sexual rivalry was a major reason, if not the major reason, for the clashes between black and white Americans, and this scenario was repeated in varying degrees up and down the country. Black women being few in number, all GIs were competing for the favours of a finite number of white women in Britain. That this would cause trouble was obvious at an early stage in the American presence. Professor Gilbert Murray, an Oxford don and a member of the BBC’s ‘Brains Trust,’ reported at the end of June 1942 that American whites were ‘taking a threatening attitude’ towards the blacks and were talking of ‘lynching any whom they find dancing with white girls.’ Murray went on to note that an ‘American colonel said in so many words that the great ambition of every one of these blacks was to rape a white woman!’
The words of the white soldiers themselves shed some light on the depth of feeling. From Northern Ireland a quartermaster corporal forecast trouble:
It seems that several outfits of colored troops preceded us over here and have succeeded pretty well in salting away the local feminine pulchritude... the girls really go for them in preference to the white boys, a fact that irks the boys no end, especially those of the outfit that come from the north. No doubt there will be some bloodshed in the near future.
Sheer gut response seems to have been the principal driving force of the white soldiers’ outrage. ‘I’ve seen nice looking English girls out with American Negro soldiers as black as the ace of spades,’ wrote a first lieutenant from Wellingborough. ‘I have not only seen the Negro boys dancing with white girls, but we have actually seen them standing in doorways kissing the girls goodnight.’ On occasions white vehemence went hand in hand with popular mythology in an attempt to rationalize why the blacks got on so well with the locals: ‘The lower classes of white girls... seem to prefer the coloured troops to white. “The good Lord was extra kind to the negro – so they say.”’ A member of a military police battalion in Liverpool did not mince words: ‘Honey you should see how the “old women” like to go around with negroes here. Perhaps they like to go around with them because they have immense Penises.’
British civilians were not immune to the rumours and reports of the sexual activity of the black GIs, especially in view of the likely principal stereotype about black people that was held in Britain at that time, namely that blacks were less sexually inhibited and capable of giving greater sexual satisfaction than white men. This attitude was typified by a civilian from Leamington Spa who felt in June 1944 that it was ‘horrible to see the white girls running round with the blacks but they do say once a black never a white, don’t they?’ A local fellow in Somerset was even blunter. His view, when he witnessed girls looking into a black GI camp, was that these maids ‘prick-mazed they be, prick-mazed.’ (pp. 197-199)
It is almost possible to pin-point exactly when the British ceased to view the black soldiers’ relations with the local girls with equanimity. This change occurred about March or April 1943. During the last six months of 1942 favourable Home Intelligence reports on black GIs outnumbered the unfavourable ones by almost two to one. From mid-1943 to the end of 1944 this pattern was almost the exact reverse, with most of the unfavourable comments relating to sex. Colonel Rowe, the Liaison Officer at the War Office, felt as early as January 1943 that the tide of opinion was turning, helped along by the added pressure from white GIs, with the result that almost the whole weight of public opinion was now against those girls who continued to go with the black troops. The birth of the first brown babies in the spring of 1943 simply added fuel to a fire already well alight. (pp. 202-203)
The problem of very young girls chasing the black American soldiers certainly was not easy to solve. Their behaviour was considered by many as quite brazen and disgusting, and beyond any measure of parental control. The issue gave the press some good headline opportunities. ‘Midland Girls haunt coloured men’s barracks’ blared one provincial newspaper. The Spectator in August 1943 was more circumspect, though no less emphatic:
There is no doubt that girls today are laying themselves out to attract these men, especially overseas troops, and coloured men in particular, who do not understand the fact that white girls are ready and anxious to give themselves, as they undoubtedly do, for money and to have a good time... frequently girls of thirteen and fourteen have attached themselves to coloured soldiers. (p. 203)
Despite all the adverse publicity (or perhaps because of it) many girls remained faithful to the black Americans right to the end of the war. An incredible scene occurred at Bristol towards the end of August 1945 which must have underlined many of the fears that British citizens had experienced during the war. Hundreds of screaming girls aged 17 to 25 besieged the barracks where black soldiers were preparing to go back to the US, singing a Bing Crosby hit ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’ Barriers were broken down and later the gates of the railway station were rushed. ‘To hell with the US Army color bars! We want our colored sweethearts’ was the cry, while one rain-soaked 18-year-old said ‘We intend to give our sweeties a good send-off. And what’s more, we intend going to America after them.’
There was no question of the black soldiers being forgotten after their departure. After the war General Weaver recounted a rhetorical question put to him by an English prelate. ‘How could you believe my dear cousins from overseas, that we will ever forget our magnificent amalgamation when we view the great crop of little brunettes you have left behind?’ In truth the real problem of the brown babies could not be dealt with so flippantly.
What then was the problem of the ‘brown babies,’ or as they were sometimes called in the USA, the ‘tan Yank’ or ‘wild oats’ babies? Quite simply it was that most of the mixed-race children (‘half-caste’ was the more common contemporary term) not only had to cope with their illegitimacy but also with their colour – or their mothers did. The illegitimacy may well have been no problem for in many respects this was a ‘normal’ wartime feature, but the fact that the children had brown skins added an extra dimension to the situation. One estimate, for example, said there were over 20,000 babies born in Britain with white GI fathers but their absorption into society was much more straightforward. (pp. 204-205)
Like much of the European Theatre policy on racial matters, the implementation of marriage regulations was left to local American officers, certain of whom held strong views on the association of blacks and whites. General Weaver himself would have been a difficult man to face, to judge from his own published views:
God created different races of mankind because he meant it to be so. He specifically forbade inter-marriage. Our Lord Jesus Christ preached the same tenet, the grounds for which were that such unions would make the blood of offspring impure. It is a biological and historical fact that racial mongrelization results in the progeny acquiring the bad habits of both sides with very few of the good attributes of either.
Journalist Ormus Davenport, himself an ex-GI, argued that official policy was often ignored in favour of a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ to forbid marriages. If a pregnancy was involved the soldier was quickly transferred, and even if there was not, the black soldier was given a serious talk by a superior officer and the girl was often ‘counselled’ by some Army authority or British welfare officer. Davenport contended in 1947 that not one GI bride ‘going back to the US under the US government scheme is the wife of a Negro.’
There was however one important legal barrier to interracial marriages. They were forbidden in about twenty states of the USA whether such marriages were contracted abroad or not. The Army authorities of course were very conscious that problems would certainly arise if the couples entered certain parts of America. Thus there were constant reminders through British channels, often in church diocesan magazines, that these mixed marriages were not legal in certain circumstances. Such warnings were reinforced by the American authorities from time to time throughout the war. Time magazine pointed out the difficulties and quoted one southern black who, when asked if he wanted to take his white wife to America, replied: ‘Brother if I did I would have to leave her in New York when I went home.’ Proof that the matter was not just of academic interest came in 1947 when Margaret Goosey, a Midlands girl, went to Virginia to marry Thomas Johnson, a black ex-GI she had met in England. Their marriage was in defiance of the local jim-crow laws and he was sent to the State Industrial Farm while the bride-to-be was gaoled and ultimately deported. (pp. 205-206)
At the time when the births of the first brown babies were anticipated a letter writer from North Wales in February 1943 crudely but succinctly put his finger on the essence of the post-war problem: ‘Even horse racing is in the background and the bets these days are on expected babies whether they’ll be black or white. Won’t Sgt. O... get a shock if he comes home to a wee nigger.’ (p. 207)
Eleanor Roosevelt received a letter suggesting that some of the black English war babies could go to school in the US. ‘What is the solution?’ she asked the President, only to receive the curt response: ‘I think this is a British problem – not American.’
What then was the solution to this ‘British problem’? As we have seen, marriage to the black father was not one of them. Those women who were already married did not have this option in any case, and the price of reconciliation with their husbands was often the abandonment of their brown babies. Similarly single girls thought their chances of marriage would greatly diminish if they kept their children. The... ones who did often became social pariahs: ‘I am shunned by the whole village,’ said one mother desperately, in a plea to Time magazine on 11 March 1946. ‘The inspector for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has told my friend to keep her children away from my house... as didn’t she know that I had two illegitimate coloured children? Is there anywhere I can go where my children will not get pushed around?’ Many of the mothers were young girls for whom life must have been pretty unbearable. Some tried to hide their babies while one abandoned her 4½-month-old brown child in a public toilet at Shrewsbury. Many mothers gave up their babies and for these toddlers a statutory or voluntary children’s home was where they were to spend their formative years. (pp. 209-210)
Congressman John E. Rankin of Mississippi was equally indignant about the brown babies. In April 1947 Rankin was in his mid-60s. A lawyer by training, his particular brand of Americanism encompassed white supremacy, anti-Semitism, union baiting and hatred of things foreign. When he got wind early in the war that the American Red Cross was thinking of abandoning the ‘black’ and ‘white’ labels on blood reserved for transfusions he viewed it as an attempt by the ‘crackpots, the Communists and parlor pinks... to mongrelize the nation.’ His response to the brown baby issue was predictable. In the House he announced that he was ‘unalterably opposed to bringing to this country a lot of illegitimate half-breed Negro children from England.’ They were, he argued, ‘the offspring of the scum of the British Isles.’ (p. 211)
At some point in 1944 or 1945 Somerset County Council made a unique decision: to take into care all the brown babies who came to its attention. Celia Bangham, the Superintendent Health Visitor responsible for the county’s children, explained the policy to the Home Secretary at a Home Office meeting in the middle of December 1945. There were at that time 37 brown babies in Somerset’s nurseries, 27 of them born to married women. ‘The local authority,’ she explained, ‘took the children when two weeks old whether the mother was married or single in order that she might be reconciled with her family and in no case had they any subsequent enquiries from the mother about the child’s welfare.’ (p. 212)
England had been accused of encouraging ‘uppity niggers’ before. Just before the American revolution in 1776 the Countess of Huntingdon, who owned blacks in Georgia, encouraged a Christian Negro, David, to preach to his fellows. A Savannah merchant was sceptical of this as David had been in England before and ‘the kind notice he has met with... will make him think too highly of himself.’ David’s preaching did indeed go beyond the spiritual and he was shipped back to England, with angry words going from the merchant to the Countess’s agent:
[David] is, if I am not mistaken, very proud, and very superficial, and conceited, and I must say it’s a pity, that any of these People should ever put their feet in England, where they get totally spoiled and ruined both in Body and Soul, through a mistaken kind of compassion because they are black, while many of our own colour and Fellow Subjects, are starving through want and Neglect. We know these People better than you do. (pp. 222-223)
For many white American soldiers in Britain the answer... was that the black’s temporary freedom overseas would come to an end when he returned to America. In particular the blacks would certainly not win the freedom to associate with white women and this once again seemed to dominate discussions. American anger quickly emerged: a quartermaster soldier wrote home that he had seen ‘nice looking white girls going with a coon. They think they are hot stuff. The girls are so dumb it’s pitiful. Wait till Georgia gets those educated negroes back there again.’ Another writer was disturbed when blacks danced with whites: ‘What makes me livid is that the darn negro dare try it here when they know what would happen if they did it at home.’ An airforce corporal saw no dilemma: ‘we are not opposed to the negro “getting ahead in the world,”’ he argued, ‘if he goes about it in the right way. We do object, however, to negro men sexing with white women... We’re not fighting for that kind of “democracy.” We could have it without fighting if we wanted it.’ (pp. 223-224)
Graham A. Smith, When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain. Tauris, London, 1987.