Black American GIs, Park Street, Bristol – During World War II, a photo by brizzle born and bred on Flickr.
Much of our narrative around African-American soldiers in World War II focuses on their trials at home and on the battlefield. We forget that for them – and their hosts – being off the battlefield and overseas was often a critical part of the story
These young men had a profound effect on the people they met abroad, offering them a mirror on a different side of America and American culture. Their presence in uniform was, at the time, a testament to a nation struggling to live up to the ideals for which it was fighting.
During the Second World War, a large number of American troops were stationed in or near Bristol. They included black soldiers, who were based in Muller’s Orphanage on Ashley Down in Bristol. Bristol people were on the whole friendly towards the American soldiers, including the black soldiers. The white American soldiers were horrified to see white women dancing with black men. But there was no racism in Bristol’s institutions at that time.
An actress working at Bristol’s Little Theatre during the war met a black American soldier in one of the city parks. He came up to talk to her and her friends. ‘He wasn’t trying to pick us up or anything. He explained that he was desperately lonely and how lovely it would be to talk to some women… So we invited him to tea.’
At least one Bristol woman met and married a black American soldier. Patricia Edmead, who married Louis Edmead, remembered that the black Americans were ‘…so full of life… In spite of everything they had to put up with, they were so cheerful.’ And the black soldiers did have a lot to put up with. The white soldiers were used to an America where blacks and whites did not mix, and found it hard to cope with the different attitude towards black people in Britain.
The American Military Police dealt with all American army problems in Britain.
The Military Police were white and tended to deal more harshly with black soldiers than with white. In one case in Bristol, a local woman was prosecuted for trying to stop a Military Policeman from beating up a black American soldier. Black soldiers were also dealt with more harshly by the American system. American soldiers were under American law, even when stationed on British soil. Under American law, the sentence for rape was death. In British law rape had not been punishable by death since 1861. In Shepton Mallet jail in Somerset 29 American soldiers were hanged for rape, by the American Military Police.
Out of this number, 25 were black. Yet less than 10% of the men in the American forces in Britain were black. Accusations of rape against black soldiers were common, and they were more likely to be hanged for it than their white companions. In the American army, black troops were in segregated or separate units. Black and white rarely mixed, which was not surprising since racial separation was still legal in many American states.
Most of the black troops were used to do menial tasks, not as fighting troops. The 92nd Infantry Division were black frontline troops, who fought in the American Civil War, the Spanish American War and in the First and Second World Wars.
Black Americans joined the fighting troops in the Second World War because they hoped it would help to change attitudes and gain civil rights for black Americans. What happened was that, after the war, the part played by black soldiers was ignored by their country and by history. Black soldiers were not allowed to march in victory parades when they got home. African-Americans had to wait longer for their civil rights.
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