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'
Evelyn Clarisse Martin-Johnson, who served in Birmingham in 1945 as a postal clerk, describes her treatment by the English people in this interview.
Well we were well received by all of the English. Birmingham or wherever, whatever city we visited. So we were well received because England had not seen that many um Black women because they had seen the Africans, but we had a variety because there was 800 of us and 32 officers. So there was a mass difference in what they were being able to see. And we were received beautifully.
You have to remember segregation was still in and many of the white military were from the South, many of us were not. Some were from the South, some were to the north, some of them were from the west. But even some of the Americans carried that segregation right over there, but the English were not that way. They appreciated us, 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. Please note: There are some details included in the below oral history that could be considered offensive.
'The white [Americans] would shout at them all down the road'
Interviewer: "So which particular nationalities were in great numbers in Hull? Can you remember?"
Pearl Harman: "Our own boys to start with, then the Free French came. We had one or two Russian, not very many of those. But I would have thought as against ours and the Free French until the Americans arrived, then they outnumbered everybody, and they had everything. They had money, they had sweets, they had food, they had nylons. They took over one of the barracks on Anlaby Road, Wenlock Barracks. My friend and I we used to go there dancing. We went mainly for the interval because the G.I.s took us into the canteen at the interval. They had roast chickens, they had tins of fruit, and they would give you anything you could bring home a roast chicken, tins of fruit for your mother. So, we went mainly because the American's tour seemed a bit brash at that time. So, we went mainly, we liked the dancing, we liked the music, but we went mainly for the food. We used to go every Wednesday evening for a film show, they turned the barrack hall into a cinema. So, when the Americans came our lads didn't have a look in because they had their wages or whatever, their pay was very low in comparison, and they didn't have all the chewing gum and the sweets and the nylons to give the girls. So, and then of course the black Americans came. Now there was a lot of aggravation between the white Americans and the black Americans. There was a lot of racial conflict."
Interviewer: "How would it show itself?"
Pearl Harman: "The white Americans let the black ones know what they felt about them. If they saw a white girl out with a black G.I., the white ones would shout at them all down the road, Anlaby Road, because this is the area we're talking about, this was where the barracks was. If a black G.I. was with a white girl, the white Americans would shout even from across the road how they felt about it."
Interviewer: "What would they say?"
Pearl Harman: "Well, not very nice things, you know. "Big black buck, what are you doing with her? English Rose", and all this type of thing. They made their feelings well known. And there was a lot of racial aggravation between the black Americans and the white Americans, there was no doubt about that."
Interviewer: "Did the black Americans retaliate?"
Pearl Harman: "No they didn't. From what I saw they just went on their way, I mean, they used to come into the dance halls, and I mean, our girls used to dance with them because I suppose that's the way we were. But the white Americans resented it, they didn't like it. They would, I suppose try and find a dance hall where the black ones didn't frequent because I think towards the end of the time the black men went where they thought they would be welcome."
Interviewer: "Where did the black G.I.s go in particular?"
Pearl Harman: "Um, well they certainly, they didn't come to Wenlock Barracks on Anlaby Road."
Interviewer: "Was that all white?"
Pearl Harman: "Yes. They went to the Fulford on Beverley Road to the dance hall there. There was a lot of the black G.I.s went there."
Interviewer: "What was the Fulford?"
Pearl Harman: "It was a dance hall."
Interviewer: "Was the dance hall called the Fulford?"
Pearl Harman: "The Fulford."
Interviewer: "Anywhere else?"
Pearl Harman: "Um, dance halls, it was mainly cinemas and dance halls. That was our entertainment in our teenage years. You didn't go into pubs, stand up bars. The girls that went in there were considered not very nice, so it wasn't a thing. For a girl to go up to the bar and buy a drink was just not done. And women of my age group still can't do it because it's just not right. You always wait for your men to go and buy your drinks. So, we didn't frequent pubs as such. My experience was that I love dancing anyway so I was going to the dance halls and the cinema when you could because, as I say, they were interrupted because of air raids."
Interviewer: "What kind of dancing was it?"
Pearl Harman: "Oh, ballroom dancing. The G.I.s brought over the Jive and that's when we starting Jiving."
Interviewer: "Could you do it?"
Pearl Harman: "We learnt it. We couldn't do it before they brought it over, we didn't know that because we did Quicksteps, Foxtrots, Waltzes, barn dances, you know, all the usual."
Interviewer: "Is that what they called it, the Jive or did it have other names?"
Pearl Harman: "The Jive...Jitterbug, Jitterbug originally and the Jive, now it's rock 'n' roll."
Interviewer: "Was there any rioting or fights or any of that kind of thing on the streets in Hull or in the pubs?"
Pearl Harman: "No, I didn't experience anything like that."
Interviewer: "You were talking about the Free French, whereabouts were they based in Hull?"
Pearl Harman: "Well they were in Hessle mainly. They took over the camps in Hessle."
Interviewer: "You were telling me the names of some of the places before we started recording, can you repeat where they were?
Pearl Harman: "Jenny Brough, Jenny Brough Camp, Tranby Lane, Anlaby, those were the two main camps for the Free French."
Interviewer: "How did they behave in comparison with the other nationalities?"
Pearl Harman: "Well, they all behaved very well. I mean, all they were doing really were, the time they were off duty was to go dancing or go to the cinema or find a girl for company, but they all behaved very well. They had one or two Arab types with them, but they didn't come into Hull, you never really saw them but there were some on the camps, from north Africa."
Interviewer: "How did you know them?"
Pearl Harman: "Well one of the boys I went out with came from Iran in north Africa and he said that one or two, now then, I don't know how many in number, it wouldn't be a company or anything like that but there were some of the Arab legions with them. You didn't see them about, they seemed to stay together mainly on the camps I think."
Interviewer: "Which particular British units were based in Hull? Do you remember the names of any of the regiments or units?"
Pearl Harman: "Well they weren’t based as such because there were influx, they were toing and froing. They weren't here long enough. They might be here a few months but then they were off, you know, on their duties. Because Hull being a port, they were just coming in and moving out. And that's why there were so many of them here. I mean, the dance halls used to be heaving with men."
Interviewer: "Were any of the troops invited to homes do you think?"
Pearl Harman: "Oh I think so, yes. Well, the girls took them home, you know, um, yeah, mainly I think if they got friendly with a girl then she would invite him home."
Interviewer: "Were there any of your friends who married Americans or went abroad or went to France?"
Pearl Harman: "Oh quite a few. I don't know so much about marrying the Free French but quite a few married the G.I.s, they thought they were going to have a good life and I think some of them were let down by the time they got there, you know, because some would go and live in the back woods, they weren't all from big cities."
Interviewer: "And did any of your friends go off to America?"
Pearl Harman: "No, not my friends, not my particular friends, no."
Interviewer: "You were talking about the blackouts. Did you feel endangered at all during the blackouts from attack?"
Pearl Harman: "No, no, only from the dark, not from the people. And this is what I'm saying today...I went alone to a dance hall because my friend didn't live near me, so we didn't go together. We met at the dance halls, and you went with your torch. And, of course, your clothing, I'll bring this in at this time, because your clothing was on coupons you hadn't a lot of clothing so you rearranged your dresses, brought little lace collars and cuffs, and put things on so they would look different, as if you weren't wearing the same thing all the time but you did this yourself. You made your own earrings. You used to get buttons and put a wire at the back to make your own earrings. We didn't have any stockings or nylons or anything until the Americans came, so we'd coloured our legs and we'd put a black seam up with a pencil."
Interviewer: "What with? What colour did you use?"
Pearl Harman: "Well, eyebrow pencil."
Interviewer: "What colour did you use?"
Pearl Harman: "Black, oh brown. You used to tan your legs with a liquid make up as if you had stockings on, then you'd use an eyebrow pencil to put your seam up the back."
Interviewer: "Would it come off?"
Pearl Harman: "Oh yeah, you'd wash them off, yeah, when you had your bath. Well, I mean, you did that as you went out when you got dressed up."
Interviewer: "Which, what were the names of the dance halls that you went to?"
Pearl Harman: "Well I used to go to Saint Matthews in the Boulevard, erm, Scaler we called it on Anlaby Road it was really dance deluxe, but nobody ever said that did they? Erm, what was the one in Newington in Albert Avenue, the Fulford on Beverley Road occasionally, Wenlock Barracks was a favourite haunt, that's where I met Ken. He was the only sailor in an army barracks on this one."
Interviewer: "Was this your husband?"
Pearl Harman: "Yes, on that particular night."
Interviewer: "What about when the war finished in Hull, um, did you attend any celebrations? Like VE Day or VJ Day?"
Pearl Harman: "Oh yes, VE Day. We all gathered in Queen's Gardens; I think the whole town was there."
Interviewer: "What happened?"
Pearl Harman: "Well, everybody was just walking around and feeling elated, you met up with all the people you knew, and you were just all sort of embracing, laughing and general chit chat. But, of course, some of our lads don't forget were still fighting, Ken being one of them. He was in the Pacific. So, we could only celebrate VE night because I was with Nancy's mother, Ken's mother, I went with her to Queen's Gardens. You could only celebrate part because that was only Victory in Europe, they were in Japan. So, there was still anxiety until they came back."
Interviewer: "Was there any celebration on VJ Day in Hull?"
Pearl Harman: "No, it seemed to have been forgotten by then, you know. I suppose because we were so concerned with Europe, and we got most of the bombing and the hostility from Europe, we were too far away from Japan. So, the war was over for us really, VE Day."
Interviewer: "Was there any vandalism on VE Day?"
Pearl Harman: "No, no."
Interviewer: "No mindless destruction?"
Pearl Harman: "No, no destruction, people were just celebrating. Oh no, there was nothing like that. And as I say, I met all nationalities as a young woman of seventeen to nineteen and a half when Ken came home, and I never had any problems at all. Some of the men were married and you would say to them if they wanted to take you out, I always said, "Are you married?" because you knew they were away from home and they were lonely. And they would tell you and say yes. Then you'd say "Right, I'll come out with you, but it will be friendship only", and wouldn't lead to anything. And they accepted that, and they respected you because you were thinking of their wives and their families. But I never got into any kind of trouble, and I met all kinds of men."
Interviewer: "Were there any prisoners of war (POW) in Hull?"
Pearl Harman:" Er, a few, but you didn't come across them really. Because I don't know where they were, where they were."
Interviewer: "Did you get married during the war?"
Pearl Harman: "No, after the war."
Interviewer: "When did you get married?"
Pearl Harman: "1948."
Interviewer: "What about housing for you?"
Pearl Harman: "Well, no housing. No. So you sort of lived with your parents until you could get something from the council. Because even if you had money to buy a house the houses weren't there because so many had been demolished. Um, so you waited to try and be housed by the council. We'd been married two years and we were offered either a requisitioned flat in Hessle for a pound a week or one of the ex-army huts on Jenny Brough Lane for eleven and sixpence. Now, we couldn't afford the pound a week, so we took the hut for eleven and sixpence and we were in that for two and a half years."
Interviewer: "What was it like, your accommodation?"
Pearl Harman: "Very sparse, very damp, it was one of the corrugated type browned huts, quite spacious really but it was no good putting any decent furniture in it because if it rained you were up in the night mopping up. Because as it rained the rain came in."
Interviewer: "Through the roof?"
Pearl Harman: "Through the roof. So, we had a second-hand suite and we put roofing felt all over the floor to stop the damp from rising. We had a carpet square, a second-hand three-piece suite, second-hand bedroom suite, and a single bed in what they partitioned off to be a smaller bedroom.
But of course, it was really only somewhere to sleep because we were both working all day, so we weren't there during the day. I had a paraffin stove and again you see, food was still rationed. So, of course when you cooked anything you couldn't spoil it because you couldn't go out and get anymore bacon etc, you still were rationed. And I had a paraffin stove with a very large bottle at the end of it which drip fed paraffin into the stove. Now if I had the jets a little bit too high all the food would come out sooty, so I had to be very careful how I cooked things on that. There was only five-amp fuses for the electric wiring, so all you could do was boil an electric kettle. I did get a bit adventurous and buy a small electric ring but if I had that on and the kettle all the lights were fused so you were in pitch black trying to put a fresh fuse in.
So, but of course when you're young you don't care, you get through all this kind of thing. When we came home at night because the back door was a wooden door so I used to put my coat collar well up because as I opened the door there would be earwigs and black clocks and things drop down. So, I used to have to strip the bed every night before we got into it to make sure there was no creepy crawlies in that because you often found the odd black clock in your bed, so you stripped your bed, cleared it up and then got in. But as I say if it rained, we were up early hours of the morning mopping up because although the furniture was second-hand, we'd nothing else so we had to look after that."
Interviewer: "What were the walls made out of?"
Pearl Harman: "Well they were corrugated then sort of plastered on the inside. But what they had done when it had been for the army it was one long hut so what they did for when they were renting it off, they partitioned them off into rooms. So, you had your wooden back door, you came into a very small entrance which was your kitchen and then there was the living areas which was quite large and the back end of it they'd divided for the two bedrooms. But, as I say, it was only somewhere to sleep but come Christmastime if you want to celebrate anything it was alright because you'd nothing to spoil. We would just roll up the carpet square, put on the gramophone and have a dance, call all the neighbours in and we used to have some real good evenings because there was nothing to ruin you didn't worry about spoiling your carpets and things because there was nothing to spoil, so there we were. We had this roof felting damp down, lino on the top of it, so we had a good dancing floor."
Interviewer: "You must have been very cold in winter?"
Pearl Harman: "Oh very, very cold. A lot of them had the stoves, what did they call them, the round stoves, you know, and the chimney went through the roof. But the particular hut that we had somebody had put in a Yorkie stove which didn't work. So of course, when you lit the fire, part of the time you were smoked out and the oven which was at the side of it for the Yorkie stove was no good at all, couldn't cook any. So, and then we had a communal bath house which was open so many nights for the ladies and so many nights for the men. So, you tripped across there all weathers which was the other side of the camp from us, so we had to trail all the way across to the other side of the camp for our bath and there used to be the warden. Because your bath was in a cubicle, but the water came through the taps from the outside from a corridor. So, the warden, Mr Clarke, used to patrol up and down the corridor asking if you wanted anymore hot or more cold. So, you used to be in your bath shouting: "Mr Clarke, little more hot please!" (laughing)
Interviewer: "Did it get very hot in winter in these huts?
Pearl Harman: "Yes, yeah. Very cold in the winter and hot in the summer. And then we had what I thought were birds pitter pattering along the roof but the day we were moving out we had the biggest rat outside our door and I said, "God gracious, look at that. It's a good job we're moving, I couldn't stay here any longer." So, Ken said to me, "Well what did you think all those pitter patterings were? They weren't the birds, they were the rats between the outer and inner of the hut."
I did find a pullover all chewed up one day and I thought, we had a little dog then. I thought it was him. But it wasn't, it had been a rat chewed up the pullover."
Interviewer: "So your husband had kept it a secret from you?"
Pearl Harman: " Oh, yes! He knew I wouldn’t be able to stay there if I'd known."
Interviewer: "Which years were you at Jenny Brough Lane in the (inaudible) huts?"
Pearl Harman: "1950 to well into 52 because I had gone to work for the council by then and it was while I was working there the housing department, the girl from the housing department came and said we have a key for a flat. See we all had to do a stint either in these requisitioned flats or on the camps before you, you were in a queue you see for the flats and the houses. Well, because we hadn't any children, we were offered a flat."
Interviewer: " A council flat?"
Pearl Harman: "A council flat."
Interviewer: "Where was that?"
Pearl Harman: "That was in Anlaby."
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'
American Military Policeman Don O’Reilly, who served at a number of US Air bases, recalls segregation in Britain.
The only time in England that I normally ever saw any Black soldiers was the convoys of 30 or 40 trucks that would bring the bombs in. There'd be the lead truck and, like, being an MP I was at the gate, and these big convoys would come up, and in the front seat on the passenger side was a white officer with a Black driver and maybe 30 or 40 trucks behind them, all with Black drivers on them, and they were the ones that brought the bombs to our bases. I mean on the base itself there never was a Black person. And I know that even to keep peace in England, if they had liberty towns they would always keep the Blacks going to one town and the White's going to another, because they knew if they ever mixed there'd be problems, because of the Southern guys who did not want to be around any of the black fellas.
As time went by why I probably irritated some of the Southern fellas that I worked with the fact that I had a picture of my wife, two pictures of my wife, on the shelf and a picture of Lena Horne. Now maybe you young ladies don't know Lena Horne but she was a very famous Black singer back in the pre-war days and that used to rake these other guys quite a bit, but I survived the Southerners.
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 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.’
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