Love, jealousy and riots: How Bristol welcomed the US Army during WW2

love jealousy and riots how bristol welcomed the us army during ww2 - Love, jealousy and riots: How Bristol welcomed the US Army during WW2

The story of the American presence in Bristol during the Second World War is one which fascinates many people.

Those old enough to remember them almost all have nothing but positive memories of the generosity and openness of G.I.s.

People who were just children during the war remember the children’s parties the “Yanks” organised, or the way friendly soldiers would toss them sticks of chewing gum or Hershey Bars.

Those who were adults at the time had more complicated memories, not least because tens of thousands of well-paid healthy young men, with all the appetites of healthy young men, descended on Bristol looking for fun. British servicemen, particularly, resented them. How do you compete for girls with well-fed, well-groomed, well-mannered guys who are paid five times as much as you are?

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At the cinema (Image: Mirrorpix)

The most complex aspect of the “friendly invasion”, though, was race. And not long after the D-Day landings took place, and while there were still plenty of Americans in the Bristol area, the city witnessed a full-blown race riot.

By the run-up to D-Day there were almost 300,000 American servicemen (and a handful of women) based in Bristol and the surrounding areas. Of these, something like a tenth were African-Americans. Most of these men did not ship out in the run-up to the invasion of Europe.

The United States in the 1940s was still a place of stringent racial segregation. In 1940, over three quarters of all black Americans lived in southern states were the so-called “Jim Crow” laws were in force.

These laws, worse in some states than others, kept black and white Americans separate in everything from schooling to housing and public transport.

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Heavyweight chapion boxer Joe Louis in US Army uniform (Image: Bristol Post)

In the South, shops and even buses had separate counters or seats for whites and blacks. And in all cases the facilities that African Americans had access to were worse.

The years between the wars had seen the movement of large numbers of black Americans to well-paid jobs in northern states were there were no Jim Crow laws, but there was still plenty of informal discrimination.

The American armed forces were a reflection of the society that produced them. Black men were regarded as ‘unreliable’ in combat, and they served in segregated units which were usually only employed in second-line roles, such as logistics and lorry driving in the Army, stokers in the Navy. Many white soldiers, especially those from the southern states, didn’t think that blacks should be in the services at all.

Black Americans would prove themselves on the front line many times over as the war progressed, notably during the desperate fighting in the Ardennes in late 1944 when every man who could carry a rifle was needed.

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The first three African American Women Red Cross workers arrive in Britain – Pictured taking a walk with two African American GI Soldiers in Bristol – 1940s (Image: Bristol Post)

The 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group – together known as the ‘Tuskeegee Airmen’ would rack up one of the best combat records of any unit and any side in WW2. This isn’t surprising; for a black American to be allowed to train as a pilot and fly an aircraft at all in WW2, he had to be far better than his white counterparts.

As the first Americans shipped over to the UK in 1942, British officialdom felt that nothing should be done to offend the sensibilities of white Americans or challenge segregation.

Whitehall even made a half-hearted attempt to discourage British women from going out with black GIs. The Ministry of Information’s advisory committee for the Bristol area minuted that “individual and unofficial warnings should be spread about” via the Women’s Voluntary Service, or housewives’ committees.

The wife of the vicar of Worle in Somerset drew up a six-point plan for local women to deal with black American servicemen – cross the street if you saw one approach; move away if one sits next to you in the cinema; shops should serve them as quickly as possible and make it clear they should not return. And “on no account must coloured troops be invited into the homes of white women.”

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American soldier and local girlfriend being interviewed by BBC Radio, Bristol centre, 1945. (Image: Bristol Post)

When the lady’s advice was publicised by the Sunday Pictorial, there was an outcry in the press and Parliament.

Worse still, a memo by a senior British officer leaked out saying that British soldiers and civilians should not fraternise with “negroes” because they were “of a simple mental outlook,” lacking “the white man’s ability to think and act to a plan.”

Despite the outrage in several quarters (even the Colonial Office condemned the general’s memo as “puerile and prejudiced”), the War Office did nothing to challenge the official attitude of the US forces – but plenty of ordinary Britons did.

In Bristol, most black soldiers were involved in the build-up and management of supplies, many of them working as dockers, or as drivers of the ubiquitous ‘Deuce and a half’ trucks.

They were housed in (segregated) billets across the city – including the Drill Hall in Old Market, the Muller orphanage in Ashley Down and houses in Henleaze and elsewhere. They also lived in camps at Brockley, Nailsea and Failand. In general, their working hours were longer and their living conditions were inferior to those of their white counterparts.

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Louis and Pat Edmead, the African-American GI returned to Bristol after WW2 to marry his wartime sweetheart (Image: Bristol Post)

Bristolians regarded the institutional racism of the US forces as absurd. In November 1942 the cathedral was full to capacity for a special service for Thanksgiving, the important American holiday. Many were deeply moved by a “negro choir” and its rendition of the old spiritual, ‘Lord I want to be a Christian’.

In 1943, Mass Observation, the pioneering weekly study of popular attitudes found considerable admiration for blacks among Bristol dockers (“they are not like we’ve seen them in the films … not stupid and dull.”)

It was the same story elsewhere. Walter White, between the wars, had seen the movement of large numbers of black Americans to well-paid jobs in northern states were there were no Jim Crow laws. The toured with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, an organisation which would be at the spearhead of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, around Britain in 1943.

His conclusion was that many African American soldiers had, in England, “their first experience in being treated as normal human beings and friends by white people.”

An American journalist in Gloucestershire said that “negroes were welcomed with open arms on a footing of complete equality.”

More than one historian has observed that for black Americans, living in England was a real eye-opening experience which would later help drive the Civil Rights movement.

Black G.I.s were already unwilling to tolerate the treatment they got from their white counterparts.

In a confrontation with white U.S. Military Policemen in Hampshire, a black soldier retorted: “We ain’t no slaves. This is England.”

In Bristol, as elsewhere in the country, the Redneck element in the U.S. Army demanded that pubs be segregated.

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The Columbia club (American red cross club) organised a hayride and picnic lunch for the US forces and their friends as a celebration of American Independence Day. Soldier and girlfriend doing the jitterbug, Sunday 4th July 1943. (Image: Bristol Post)

This led to a famous incident in a pub called the Colston Arms in which the landlord refused to eject two African American soldiers at the demand of white Americans. The irony of a pub named after a slave trader defending their rights was probably not apparent to anyone involved.

(We assume this was the Colston Arms on St Michaels Hill, but we’re not certain; at this time there were two other pubs of the same name, one on Pennywell Road, the other in Mill Lane, Bedminster.)

Against this backdrop it’s not surprising that tensions between black and white Americans could spill into outright violence. Sometimes this was simply because blacks were being pushed around, but sometimes it was about sexual jealousy.

Bristol, with its high proportion of African Americans, would see local white women going out with black soldiers, and there were numerous minor incidents.

There were major “race riots” between black and white Americans in Chipping Norton (November 1943), Bamber Bridge in Lancashire (June 1943) and Launceston in Cornwall in September 1943.

But it would be after D-Day, when many Americans had already left, that things reached boiling point in Bristol.

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U.S. Military parade on Park Street Bristol (Image: Bristol Post)

On July 15 1944, after a week of simmering tensions, things came to a head when a group of black soldiers, resentful of the way they had been barred from what they saw as the best pubs in town, gathered in Park Street and Great George Street.

In the resulting brawl, over 400 black soldiers fought 120 Military Police. Buses were used to close off the streets. It was later said that local people watched, and cheered the black soldiers on.

As the men were being taken back to their camp, an MP was stabbed in the leg and there was some shooting. Several black GIs were injured and one later died.

The US Army brought in a policy of giving blacks and whites leave passes on separate nights, though as the weeks went by, the numbers of American servicemen in the city decreased dramatically.

While there is overwhelming evidence of the friendliness and goodwill that Bristolians felt towards black soldiers, things became more complicated when sex entered the equation.

It was said that after dark, Bristol came alive with black Americans going out with the local girls, and this caused alarm in some quarters. In April 1943 the annual meeting of the Bristol Diocesan Association for Moral Welfare summoned the Chief Constable of Bristol, Charles Maby, to discuss what it saw as unwelcome fraternisation across the racial divide.

The Chief Constable reported that there had been many complaints about interracial romance both to himself and the Council’s Watch Committee.

But, he said, the police had no formal powers to prevent white girls associating with black men. He added, though that “undue familiarity was very dangerous and undesirable and the police went as far as they could”.

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This included constables asking the girl for her identity card, and then calling at her home “to give some good advice”.

For a handful of interracial couples, lasting romance and marriage resulted, but attitudes on both sides at this time did not believe any relationship could be permanent.

The great majority of Bristolians who warmly welcomed and respected African Americans were not ready to accept interracial marriage just yet.

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