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Blacks

Black Amer­i­can GIs sta­tioned in Britain dur­ing the war were given a warm wel­come by their hosts but treated harshly by their white US Army comrades

Bul­let holes found in the wood sur­rounds of the NatWest Bank in Bam­ber Bridge, in Lan­cashire in the north of Eng­land, in the late 1980s led to the redis­cov­ery of an event that saw some of the few shots fired in anger in Eng­land dur­ing World War II, which had been largely for­got­ten. These were not shots fired by invad­ing troops, but by Amer­i­can GIs against their own mil­i­tary police.

Intrigued by his dis­cov­ery, Clin­ton Smith, the black British main­te­nance worker who dis­cov­ered the holes in the wood­work, asked locals how they could have got there. He was told that they were the rem­nants of the Bat­tle of Bam­ber Bridge, when black Amer­i­can troops sta­tioned in the town faced off against white US Army mil­i­tary police on the night of June 2425, 1943.

More a mutiny than a bat­tle, it led to the death of Pri­vate William Cross­land in nearby Moun­sey Road, and four other injuries to black Amer­i­can sol­diers in a five-​hour con­fronta­tion which spread from the thatched Olde Hob Inn at one end of the town to the Adams Hall army camp, where from early 1943 the US Eighth Army Quar­ter­mas­ter Truck Com­pany, a black com­pany apart from a few white offi­cers, had been based. The event was offi­cially down­played, in order not to under­mine morale on the home front, but the events of that night led to the con­vic­tion of 27 black Amer­i­can soldiers.

The ‘Bat­tle’

The whole inci­dent is typ­i­cal of the clashes on and around bases in Britain between black and white Amer­i­can troops – 44 between Novem­ber 1943 and Feb­ru­ary 1944 alone – where the intrin­sic racism in a seg­re­gated army led to con­fronta­tions. This was espe­cially the case in a for­eign set­ting where the black sol­diers saw around them a very dif­fer­ent real­ity from that they faced at home – a non-​segregated soci­ety where they were wel­comed as fel­low fight­ers against fas­cism, rather than tol­er­ated hod-​carriers for the war effort as they were gen­er­ally treated by the US Army.

That evening in 1943, black troops and white locals were stretch­ing out “drinking-​up time” in a pub at the end of the evening. Words were exchanged, and mil­i­tary police arrived and tried to arrest Pri­vate Eugene Nunn for not wear­ing the proper uni­form. But they faced new sol­i­dar­i­ties: a white British sol­dier chal­lenged the mil­i­tary police: “Why do you want to arrest them? They’re not doing any­thing or both­er­ing anybody.”

The inci­dent esca­lated into a fist fight and the mil­i­tary police were beaten back. When they returned with rein­force­ments to meet the group, now return­ing to camp, a bat­tle devel­oped in the street. Shots were fired, and Cross­land died with a bul­let in his back.

file-20180620-137746-1ahinbv.jpg

Black GIs would drink in mixed com­pany in British pubs, to the hor­ror of the white US Army author­i­ties. Credit: brizzlebornandbred.

When rumours spread at the camp that black GIs had been shot, scores of men formed a crowd, some car­ry­ing rifles. The arrival at around mid­night of more mil­i­tary police with a machine gun-​equipped vehi­cle con­vinced many of the black sol­diers that the police intended to kill them – and they drew rifles from the stores. Some bar­ri­caded them­selves into the base, oth­ers tore off back into town, lead­ing to run­ning shoot­ing bat­tles in the streets.

Many of the black Amer­i­can troop stand­ing up to the mil­i­tary police that febrile night were no doubt influ­enced by news fil­ter­ing through of race riots in Detroit on June 20, where defence­less black men were attacked by racist police, respon­si­ble for the deaths of 17 of the 25 African-​Americans killed.

Race Rela­tions at Home and Abroad

In his essays George Orwell alluded to the oft-​quoted asser­tion that Amer­i­can GIs were “over­sexed, over­paid and over here”. But he qual­i­fied this with the obser­va­tion that: “the gen­eral con­sen­sus of opin­ion is that the only Amer­i­can sol­diers with decent man­ners are Negroes.”

The black Amer­i­can ser­vice­men were wel­comed into the leisure time of their British hosts in ways that spread sol­i­dar­ity. A for­mer black GI, Cleother Hath­cock, remembers:

At that time the Jit­ter­bug was in and the blacks would get a bug­gin’ and the Eng­lish just loved that. We would go into a dance hall and just take over the place because every­body wanted to learn how to do that Amer­i­can dance, the Jit­ter­bug. They went wild over that.

The town did not share the US Army’s seg­re­ga­tion­ist atti­tudes. Accord­ing to the author Anthony Burgess, who spent time in Bam­ber Bridge dur­ing the war, when US mil­i­tary author­i­ties demanded that the town’s pubs impose a colour bar, the land­lords responded with signs that read: “Black Troops Only”. The extent to which this ran­kled the white Amer­i­can troops is shown by the com­ments of a lieutenant:

One thing I noticed here and which I don’t like is the fact that the Eng­lish don’t draw any color line. The Eng­lish must be pretty igno­rant. I can’t see how a white girl could asso­ciate with a negro.

This sort of atti­tude exem­pli­fies the par­tic­u­lar resent­ment over the way black troops openly frater­nised with white British women – and many of the con­fronta­tions dur­ing this period were sparked by the ease of inter­ra­cial rela­tion­ships in a British rather than Amer­i­can con­text.

The mil­i­tary author­i­ties tried to push back against this by impos­ing Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion in Britain, so that when the black Amer­i­can world heavy­weight box­ing cham­pion Joe Louis vis­ited on a pro­pa­ganda tour in 1944 he encoun­tered bla­tant dis­crim­i­na­tion from the troops he was vis­it­ing, as he had at home.

The events in Bam­ber Bridge encap­su­lated these Jim Crow prac­tices – and the wider para­dox of the open-​armed wel­come from the local res­i­dents cou­pled with resent­ment of that wel­come by white Amer­i­can troops. The pub was a place of sanc­tu­ary for black troops where they min­gled with, mainly friendly, locals, and where the seg­re­ga­tion many had to endure in the Amer­i­can South was thank­fully absent.

Local res­i­dent Gillian Vesey recalled how, as a young bar­maid at the Olde Hob Inn, she stood up for African Amer­i­can sol­diers against attempts by white Amer­i­cans to impose dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices in the pub, insist­ing that the Amer­i­can white sol­diers wait their turn rather than expect­ing to be served before their black colleagues.

Keep­ing a seg­re­gated army in the con­text of fight­ing for democ­racy became unten­able, and in 1948 the then US pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man signed Exec­u­tive Order 9981 which even­tu­ally led to an inte­grated army. While the con­vic­tions of the troops involved at Bam­ber Bridge were largely com­muted or over­turned, sol­diers returned to Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion in the US, with the real­ity that some vet­er­ans were lynched in their uni­forms.

But the new free­doms they expe­ri­enced in Europe meant they were not pre­pared to put up with dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism and racial vio­lence again. As vet­eran Wil­ford Strange said in the doc­u­men­tary film Choc’late Sol­diers from the USA:

I think the impact these sol­diers had by vol­un­teer­ing was the ini­ti­a­tion of the Civil Rights move­ment, ’cos these sol­diers were never going back to be dis­crim­i­nated against again. None of us were.

Alan Rice is Pro­fes­sor in Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Cen­tral Lancashire.

This sto­rie appeared in Pocket


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