Fighting Racism With a Segregated Army : WHEN JIM CROW MET JOHN BULL Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain<i> by Graham Smith (St. Martin’s Press: $24.95; 258 pp.) </i>
American military exports to World War II Britain included Spam, median bourbons, the imperishable trombone of Glenn Miller . . . and the worst attitudes and fatal repercussions of racism.
Britain reeled at such prejudice.
John Bull, the personification of their ipseity, knew precious little of Uncle Sam, our father figure, let alone Jim Crow, his seedy Southern cousin. All that slave stuff in America, it was thought, surely ended with the Civil War. Blacks? They labored loyally in Britain’s colonies, played wonderful cricket, worked the factories of Bolton and Liverpool. And then there was this Joe Louis fellow from America.
Ergo, within that British innocence there was wonder bordering upon astonishment at any modern military establishment--and an Allied force at that--visibly segregating army units, mess halls, combat assignments, accommodations and off-duty entertainment.
Anger swelled in grass-roots Britain. Overt reverse discrimination surfaced. Said the West Country farmer: “I love the Americans but I don’t like these white ones they’ve brought with them.” Newspaper editorials stormed against the imported American “colour bar.” For this was a country that wrote world policy on fair play with an extra shake for the poor blighter underneath.
And in the end . . . well, there was no end, only the final victory over Nazi Germany (an enemy being fought, in part, for its deeds of racial persecution) that returned 130,000 black GIs and the problem to the United States. A convenient curtain. No pain, no need to examine. Time would heal all, even those times that weal all.
“When Jim Crow Met John Bull” was initially published in England last year and constitutes the first major analysis of this 1942-45 period of Anglo-American confusion.
Smith, a British writer, has researched all facets (political, social, ecclesiastical and individual) of the issue on both sides of the Atlantic with splendid diligence. At times, however, he seems to have crammed too much information and too many names into overly general headings. Then the whole seems to sprawl.
Yet despite this disorganization, the presentation is clean, the interpretations fair, and the information easily sticks to the brain.
Smith touches the rawest issues. Sexual relations between black GIs and British women and the boom of brown babies. The rapes and assaults. The small riots between white and black GIs in British market towns that brought death to Americans and, in at least one instance, an innocent English woman.
He details the problems of intermarriage, in particular the problems faced by black Americans who attempted to return their white wives and fiancees to a homeland where interracial marriages were banned in 20 states. One GI tried. He was sent to the Virginia State Industrial Farm. She was deported.
The author takes on the division between Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt on the issue, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s attempts to knock down the barriers, and Winston Churchill’s lip service to moderation while making racist jokes in Cabinet meetings.
The result is an important, necessary volume that builds the single human quality, albeit built by hindsight, so absent during the period: understanding.
That there were bitter problems, notes Smith, is not surprising.
The U.S. military of that time was largely unchanged in racial attitude from the U.S. Army of World War I when black GIs in France were not permitted to march in the Allied victory parade. Between the wars, black soldiers were restricted to ceremonial and housekeeping duties and rejected entirely by the Air Corps.
Little changed with the War Department Personnel Plan in 1937. Black enlistment was expanded. But segregated units remained, and by 1939, reports Smith, there were only five regular black officers (three were chaplains) in the entire U.S. military.
And so a Jim Crow army went to war in Europe and landed in England where it was perceived as the ultimate contradiction: a contingent fighting for Allied freedom while rigidly divided, even reduced in its efficiency, by the war within its ranks.
And this contradiction bred fruther contradictions in Britain. On the one hand, the British people accepted black GIs with open doors, arms and hearts, as the French had in World War I. On the other hand, the British government was forced to observe more subtle responsibilities, and the considerations were powerful, even volatile. To accept the American viewpoint on segregation would be to antagonize the electorate, offend British blacks and upset the British colonies and their armies. To come out against segregation would risk the wrath of a vital ally.
Countless government meetings and studies debated the American fear, or what the British supposed was the American fear, that British acceptance would be a disservice to black GIs when they returned home to a belligerent, segregated America. In the end, the British government walked the fence. Its policy of October, 1942, was that “it was desirable” that the British populace not become “too friendly” with black Americans because they “are not accustomed in their own country to close and intimate relationships with white people.”
That policy changed nothing. The British people, generally, continued to support and enjoy their friendships with black GIs. The American military went its segregated way with off-duty towns for whites and blacks, whites living in brick barracks while blacks got the tents, segregated movie houses, dance halls, pubs--even one Red Cross club for whites, another for blacks.
The overall experience, notes Smith, resolved nothing.
As an example of rigid attitude and resistance to change, he quotes a December, 1945, letter found in the National Archives, Washington. It is from the papers of former Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo. It is from a man who describes himself as “a typical American, a Southerner and 27 years of age.”
He writes: “I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, but I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a Negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt, never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”
Smith identifies the writer as Robert C. Byrd, currently majority leader in the U.S. Senate.
(Byrd, according to his biography in Politics in America, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1942. But a Washington spokesman for Byrd told The Times that the senator has “no recollection” of the Bilbo letter and that he “deplores the language” it contains.)
On the British side of the Atlantic, reports Smith, those Jim Crow years have softened to mostly pleasant nostalgia.
As such, he notes, the acquaintance should have been an assist during more recent years when the British Empire was dismantled and black citizens from former colonies began arriving in England.
“Black arrivals soon became an ‘influx,’ ” Smith notes. “Then, very quickly, ‘a problem.’ ”
Sadly, he concludes, Britain’s black experience of World War II does not appear to have prepared the country in any significant way for this new era in its history.
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