During the Second World War, American servicemen and women were posted to Britain to support Allied operations in North West Europe, and between January 1942 and December 1945, about 1.5 million of them visited British shores. Their arrival was heralded as a ‘friendly invasion’, but it highlighted many differences between the two nations, including the institutionally-mandated racism that gave some American citizens fewer rights than others: segregation.
Around 150,000 of the US troops who came to Britain were black. Unlike their white comrades, who took on the full suite of responsibilities offered by the military from commanders to combat troops to cooks, black personnel were largely consigned to service and supply roles.
Black people had participated in every major American conflict since the birth of the nation. And though by 1940, the War Department had removed a number of restrictions on permitting African Americans to join the armed forces under the Selective Service Act, society as a whole remained racially segregated. This separation of black and white people in the US was upheld by state and local laws, referred to as ‘Jim Crow’, and was particularly notable in the American deep south. These laws excluded black American citizens from economic and political rights.
The War Department, unwilling to be used, as officials put it, as ‘a sociological laboratory’, isolated black troops into all-black units and provided them with separate training facilities and accommodation. Though the War Department hailed the conflict against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as a fight for liberty, they simultaneously continued a long-established doctrine that maintained that black people should be ‘separate but equal.’
Such equality did not actually emerge for black forces through the roles, treatment or living conditions made available to them in the services. For those black servicemen performing service and supply duties in the UK, this was further entrenched by the nature of their work. 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.
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, in particular in rural areas in support of the US Army Air Forces, and in the build-up to D-Day. The British government was apprehensive about how British society might react to a segregated foreign force arriving on their shores. While ministers rejected the idea of leading ‘our own people to adopt as their own the American social attitude to the American negro,’ the greatest preoccupation was ensuring that good relations could be maintained with a crucial ally. Indeed, to reinforce this point, the cabinet concluded in 1942 that to ensure least friction, ‘it was desirable that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured troops’.
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. 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.”
Black troops were, though, often warmly received by British people. ‘The people here have a racial tolerance which gives them a social lever,’ described Ottley in an article for an African American journal, Negro Digest. He continues: ‘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.’
'They treated us royally'
'They treated us royally'
There were, of course, exceptions to the rule; prejudice could and did manifest itself in a minority of ordinary interactions between British people and their guests. But the main source of discrimination black troops faced was the official policy of segregation. Rules were established by US commanders that, for example, restricted entry to local pubs and social facilities, which were given designated ‘coloured’ or white social nights.
Pearl Harman was a teenager in Hull during the Second World War, and recalls how black troops were treated by their fellow Americans:
'The white [Americans] would shout at them all down the road'
Black servicemen, like American Aviation Engineer James Waddell, saw the hypocrisy implicit within the enforcement of the ‘colour bar’ by US Forces in Britain, there to fight a war that was often expressed in terms of a defence of freedom: ‘We were all in this country together. We shouldn’t make any discrimination on race. That’s why I put on my application “American citizen”. We were all fighting for the protection of the country.’ Some white American personnel, such as Military Policeman Don O’Reilly, found their fellow countrymen’s attitudes towards black soldiers remarkable.
'That used to irritate the Southern guys quite a bit'
'That used to irritate the Southern guys quite a bit'
The fact that British women socialised with and dated black Americans was often raised as a concern by some white servicemen. Many were incredulous that the prejudice that had been a core part of life back home was not replicated, or so easily tolerated, overseas. As Captain Vernon Gayle Alexander, a pilot from Kentucky put it:
‘The blacks were dating the white girls and consequently if you went on a date a white girl you don’t know if she’d been out with a coloured boy the night before or whether she hadn’t.’
US authorities maintained that segregation in the UK was a way to keep the peace between American servicemen who came from all over the United States, bringing with them the cultural attitudes – and prejudices – prevalent in their local areas. It was not uncommon for racial tensions between American troops to become violent, particularly in areas where large numbers of black and white soldiers tended to spend their downtime. General Ira Eaker, Commanding Officer of the US Army Air Forces, noted that these bouts were often ‘the fault of the whites’, and indeed many of the worst cases, like the mutiny of black troops at Bamber Bridge in Lancashire, were further exasperated by the toxic mix of alcohol and racism.
While US authorities sought to educate their forces on British citizens’ acceptance of black troops, improve discipline and carry out mixed black and white military police patrols, their commitment to enforcing racial difference through segregation complicated these efforts to resolve issues.
Service in Britain and Europe gave black American troops the opportunity to sample aspects of daily life that were not wholly impacted by a formal, institutional colour bar. Racist attitudes were by no means absent from British society, but the generally more cordial treatment by the British civilian population underlined for many the injustices of Jim Crow. On their return to the US, many black veterans were galvanised to campaign for greater political and economic freedoms, and in particular led drives for voter registration across the southern states. Around a third of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s were veterans of the Second World War.
Apart from notable, famous exceptions, such as the African American pilots of the ‘Tuskegee Airmen’, and the soldiers of the 761st Tank Battalion, the role that the vast majority of black US troops played received little attention in accounts of the war in Europe for many years. Few books were written about the service and support units in which the majority served, few interviews with black veterans were recorded, and few attempts were made to commemorate the role played by African Americans in achieving victory in Europe. In Britain today, there are few traces left of the black American servicemen and women who came to Europe during the Second World War. The concrete remnants of several of the airfields built by black engineers are one of the rare lasting memorials of their presence here, highlighting the vital importance of work to uncover their stories.
Curator, American Air Museum