Americans In Liverpool During World War II (Part 2)

 

This is Part II of Lee Ruddin’s three-part series on Americans in Liverpool during World War Two. You can read Part I (‘The Good’) by clicking HERE and Part III (‘The Ugly’) by clicking HERE.

Part II: The BarCoca-Cola, cigarettes and chocolate are what many of us Brits think of when it comes to U.S. imports during the Second World War. Yet the Americans exported another “s” to the British Isles: segregation. The institution of segregating units along racial lines was deep-rooted, dating back to the War of Independence (1775-1783), so when the U.S. military mobilised for service in 1942 “Jim Crowism” – American laws that excluded blacks from public places and denied them equal access to public transport – was part of the baggage loaded on one dockside and unloaded on another. This was due, in short, to Congress passing the Visiting Forces Act in August 1942, which stipulated that black soldiers abroad were to be subjected to the same restrictions and racial segregation as they were back home. But did His Majesty’s Government need to accommodate the discriminatory customs and practices of their visitors?

No is my answer: military apartheid did not have to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea. As naïve as it is to believe Winston Churchill could have laid the law down to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the former could nevertheless have reminded the latter that the practice of institutionalised segregation was hypocritical when fighting Fascism. Yet we know from War Cabinet papers that the Prime Minister did nothing of the sort and opted, in an attempt not to risk the wrath of the President, says David Reynolds, for a ‘double-standard policy of covertly supporting U.S. Army’ norms on the condition that the Home Office did not overtly enforce it. (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, vol.35 (1985), p.122)

‘Discriminated against by the overtly prejudicial policies of the [U.S.] Army,’ writes Thomas E. Hachey, blacks were ‘further subjected to the more covert condescension and racial bigotry of British Government authorities.’ (The Journal of Negro History, vol. 59, no.1 (1974), p.77) The racial policies introduced – which transferred segregation from Louisiana to Liverpool effectively in toto – did not, unfortunately, force officials to take a stand. The same, fortunately, cannot be said for all Liverpudlians, some of whom took an unofficial stand against the imposition of a particular racist policy: the colour bar in bars and other buildings. Before we discuss this at length, though, it is first worth noting the reactions of others in Liverpool to the arrival of black GIs.

According to a correspondence columnist and a press correspondent these took two forms: muted and malicious. In a letter to the editor of the Liverpool Echo, entitled ‘No Cheers for Troops’, “C. Hudson Machen” lamented the fact that ‘there was not a cheer or handclap or any other sign of recognition’ at the ‘inspiring sight’ of ‘contingents of [U.S.] coloured troops … marching up the street.’ Pre-empting the rejoinder that “the English” are a reserved, none-too-cheery folk, the writer concluded by directing readers to ‘go to any football game and see how the crowds … cheer.’ (21 August 1942, p.2) Talk of football crowds leads us into the welcome the city’s own resident Chinese population offered black Americans. Like home supporters greeting away fans, stated a correspondent in the same newspaper, the Chinese hooligan element entered into ‘quarrels that amounted almost to open warfare’ before engaging in ‘miniature battles … in the street’. (6 December 1957, p.20) The police duly intervened and, after a meeting between representatives of the black GIs and the Chinese, the former were welcomed as guests at the restaurants of the latter.

After stepping off the gangplank at Liverpool Landing Stage, black GIs marched out of the city to be billeted in huge camps in the surrounding suburbs at Maghull, Aintree and Huyton. At the close of 1943 there was some 5,000 stationed across these areas, approximately double the number of white soldiers, yet one wartime teenager who performed the odd errand for the whites recalls that their numerical inferiority did not inhibit their ability to make their black countrymen feel inferior. It is worth quoting in full what this interviewee said to Juliet Gardiner, author of ‘Over Here’: The GIs in Wartime Britain, about the shouts and screams emanating from behind a wire fence that surrounded a camp in Huyton:

[T]he shouting spread to every corner behind the fence and as the words became clearer I realised that they were yelling abuse at the lone soldier walking along on our side of the wire. He was, of course, a black man, and all the men in the camp were white. I was about fourteen at the time and I could not understand why the sight of a black man walking along the road could arouse so much hatred and abuse. I still can’t. (p.154)

Their incredulity, both at the time and thereafter, should not surprise us because although the black population in Britain on the eve of war was small (numbering 7,000 to 8,000) there was a comparatively large black presence (approximately 2,000) around Liverpool’s dockland area. Communities coexisted relatively peacefully at this time and even though, generally-speaking, whites visited, say, the Grafton Dance Rooms while blacks frequented the Rialto Ballroom, there were few specific “colour bars” to speak of. All this was to change, however, with the presence of white GIs in Liverpool. Like the West Indian Technicians and black GIs who worked hard at the vast American Air Force depot at Burtonwood, near Warrington, white personnel also wanted to “play hard” in Liverpool after their shifts. And with bars gradually imposed at the Grafton, due to trouble involving West Indians, and the dance hall at Aintree Institute, because of a ‘shooting and stabbing incident [in March 1943 involving] black GIs,’ whites increasingly found that they had the dance floors to themselves. (David Reynolds, Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain: 1942-1945, p.312)

White objections to black custom was so visceral that hoteliers and publicans who did not impose a ban paid a heavy (financial) price. We know this, says Reynolds, since the manager of Reece’s Dance Hall was frank in his admission about ‘impos[ing] a colour bar for essentially commercial reasons.’ White customers were considered so essential, commercially-speaking, that even the manager of the Rialto – a club in a purported “black” locale – banned all none-whites during the war. The widening of the colour bar was inextricably linked to the increase in white American presence, to be sure, and grievously affected the social well-being of West Indians as well as black GIs. Reynolds directs readers to the testimony of one Technician who, speaking in relation to the ever-deteriorating situation, understandably bewailed the fact that

The Americans have got some power over things that I can’t understand. There used to be a few dance halls that we could go to after a week’s work, or wherever one [felt] like dancing … Now when we enter these halls all one can hear is “No Negroes.” When we ask why, this is always the answer[:] “Well, the Americans don’t like the Negroes in the same place where they have fun.”

When barring turned to battery individuals like Learie Constantine, the Trinidadian cricketer, was called in to help address the spiralling situation. The 39-year-old had been based in the north of England for a period of time and, in early 1942, was appointed as a Welfare Officer. Charged with representing those recruited on war work in Liverpool, Constantine soon realised the cost of carrying out his duties. Fearful of paying the ultimate price, the following year he emphasised to his superiors at the Ministry of Labour: 

[T]he bitterness being created amongst the Technicians by these attacks on coloured British subjects by white Americans. I am … loath to believe that coloured subjects of the Empire who are here on vital work would be attacked at random and at the will and pleasure of these white American soldiers without the means of redress. (Graham Smith, When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain (1987), p.87)

Regrettably, Constantine’s correspondence proved in vain, as the case of George Roberts illustrates. Roberts, a West Indian skilled electrician who worked in a war factory, was refused entry to the Grafton in 1943 due to U.S.-administered segregation. Having voluntarily joined the Home Guard, he returned to the venue donning his uniform only to be turned away for a second time. The 31-year-old refused, unsurprisingly, to attend parades thereafter and was surprisingly – or perhaps not – fined £5 by a Liverpool court. While the fine was reduced to 1 farthing on appeal in 1944, the conviction (notwithstanding Constantine giving evidence on behalf of Roberts) was upheld by Mr. Edward Hemmerde K.C., the Liverpool Recorder.

As evidenced above, time-honoured British civil liberties – if rhetorical in practice to a small segment of the mainland population and a large proportion of those in the colonies – were being fast-eroded thanks to those who catered for white American serviceman accustomed to a colour bar. Unlike the dance-hall proprietor Nat Bookbinder in Warrington, who refused to bow to the wishes of his new clientele and display a notice banning blacks at the Casino Club, those in Liverpool continued to discriminate against blacks in ‘exactly the same’ way – to paraphrase the Recorder’s judgement – as the Nazis did against Jews. (Stephen Bourne, Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front, 1939-45 (2013), p.65)

Race continued to shape officials’ thinking, which correspondingly determined policy as evidenced above, and penetrated the press at correspondent level, which in turn shaped the thoughts of correspondence columnists as evident below. In a letter to the editor in response to news reports suggesting that women who had liaisons with black GIs were morally degenerate, a woman poisonously penned the following:

I am thoroughly disgusted with my own sex. It is no use [making] excuses for our girls … my girls three of them workers, shrink with horror and disgust over this subject [white British women associating with black American soldiers] and they aren’t prudes, either. They will have a bit of fun anytime, but I don’t call that kind of pleasure “fun”. I call it degradation of the worst type. (p.159)

The above-referenced letter, written by an individual who signed off as “Happy Home”, featured in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, not a local daily. The letters pages closer to home make for happier reading, it is comforting to learn, since letter writers in Liverpool fulfilled the role of quasi-whistle-blower against episodes of quietist racism. Two letters in particular, both written in relation to the imposition of colour bars, are worth quoting at length. The first was sent in by “Jas Pugh” from Liverpool 8 who believed:

T]hat many Liverpool citizens would have felt ashamed, as I did last night, when three American negro soldiers were refused service in an ordinary public bar.

These three servicemen, one of who was wounded, were not allowed to stand and drink in the company of other folk, the only reason being that they were coloured and that the manager had given orders that coloured men were not to be served.

Are we to understand that it is right for coloured people to bear arms and sacrifice life and limb in the fight against Fascism and then to be treated so degradingly? Are we to concur with Hitler’s “herrenvolk theory,” and believe that there should be a master race? If so, then all the sacrifices made in this war have been in vain. Such occurrences must be stamped out, and I hope the manager of this public house realises that Liverpool people will not tolerate such insults to our fighting Allies. (Evening Express, 27 November 1944, p.2)

The second is from “M.N.”, a resident of Seaforth, who returned from sea and walked into

a certain Seaforth hotel. While drinking my beer two coloured American soldiers asked for two pints, but this was refused by the manager. When I asked what the refusal was for I got no explanation. Is the manager aware that these soldiers are not here for a holiday, but helping to fight for us? Maybe, if it had been an Italian who called for a beer he would have been served. Why should people criticise German methods when this goes on in our own country? (Liverpool Echo, 18 June 1945, p.2)

As articulate as the two aforementioned evidently were, it is only right and proper to conclude this section by quoting the most articulate letter writer of them all. Going by the pen name “One of Them”, this black GI elucidated to readers of the Liverpool Echo how colour bars marred their time in the city by forcing them ‘to seek recreation in places which [were] not conducive to heighten [their] cultural desires and normal desire for wholesome things.’ (28 March 1944, p.2) Although he was writing more generally, the specific example of the British Council merits a mention because it was here, on Basnett Street, that local officials exceeded – unofficially – the decree of written instruction. By doing so, they (in)directly caused similarly-cultured black GIs to lower their standards and opt for the Alligator pub around the corner where, on Paradise Street, they were routinely interrogated by uncultured policemen who endeavoured to prevent interracial friendships.

LEE RUDDIN