The World Wars
World War I
Many Black people fought in the First World War. Most were not given the credit nor recognition that they deserved. In some cases, they have literally been written out of the history books.
It is estimated that over 1 MILLION African people were killed during World War 1 fighting for Germany, France and the UK. These soldiers at times were forced to do the most basic, manual work like hoarding equipment across the desert or hills, even though they were extremely skilled fighters. White people were very aware of this, and often gave them these roles so that their fighting superiority was not displayed. Why? Because doing so would undermine the idea of white supremacy. Black soldiers were not allowed to join the victory marches at the end of the war either, another example of the fragility of whiteness during this particular time.
Not much information exists on what Bristol was like during World War 1 for Black people, this is more of a contextual piece acknowledging the fallen Black soldiers who risked their lives for countries who did not care whether they lived or died. If you would like to explore the history of black and brown people during WW1, consider checking out David Olusoga’s World at War.
It is World War II where we see some direct examples of racism and prejudice towards Black soldiers in Bristol. We will focus particularly on the American G.I’s and their experience of Bristol.
World War II, Bristol and American G.I’s (Context)
Between 1942 and 1945 about three million US servicemen and women were stationed in Britain for varying periods of time, some stayed for weeks, others stayed for months. Before the D-Day landings of June 1944, there were just under two million American forces personnel located in various parts of the UK. Although stationed across the UK including parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, most were based in the south-west, east, and parts of north-west England (Wynn, 2007).
The US Army at this time was racially segregated, and the soldiers of the labour companies were almost entirely black, while most of their officers were white, as well as the military policemen (MPs). Many African American soldiers were based in Bristol because of the docks; there were barracks in Bedminster, Brislington, Henleaze, Shirehampton and the Muller Orphanage at Ashley Down.
As a result of the deep racism within the US Army, There were frequent clashes between black and white GIs. These clashes were often violent.
Fist fights almost always broke out when black and white GIs were drinking in the same pub. The fights usually broke out when black soldiers were seen talking to white British women. There were some shootings, most by white soldiers targeting black soldiers. (Major General Ira Eaker, commander of the Eighth Air Force declared that white troops were responsible for 90 per cent of the trouble, and a few killings—all covered up by the US Army).
For the most part, Bristol showed signs of accommodating black soldiers with no complaints, they were welcoming and respectful. There are however documented signs of clear racism; one Bristol woman, told she would be required to house 12 GIs, was in tears at the thought they might be black – in the event, rather unusually, 11 were white and one (‘Dusty’) was black.
Below are some more examples of what the experience of Bristol was like for these soldiers during this time.
The Violence in Old Market
In December 1942 there was a series of fights and stabbings in the Old Market area of Bristol. This was due to southern American soldiers growing tired of seeing black soldiers with local women. The violence was purely out of jealousy. For many white American soldiers, the fact that Black soldiers were even in the same place as white people was enough to set them off. Americans tried to impose the same Jim Crow* laws that were present in America over here in Bristol. As we will see later, they were successful in certain instances.
The Little Theatre Tea
An actress working at the The Little Theatre in Bristol met a black soldier in a park one day. The man did not try and flirt or impose himself, he just wanted someone to talk to as he was desperately lonely. Her and her friends invited him for tea and a chat. This story is included to show how isolating the experience of being black could be living in Bristol at this time. These soldiers were miles away from home, being treated awfully by the country they were fighting for and just desired some human conversation. For the most part, Bristolians could be accomodating to Black soldiers. Throughout history there has always been a belief that British people are less racist and more progressive than Americans... this is why some Bristolians took it upon themselves to go above and beyond what was expected of them when it came to interacting with Black soldiers in the city.
American soldiers were governed by American law on British Soil. The US Army therefore policed their troops and instilled the segregated attitude that characterised America at the time - the Jim Crow laws. Britain did not intervene with this at all. As a result of heavy American military presence, lots of places in Bristol became segregated. For example, some Bristol pubs only served white people and the poorer pubs often catered to Black people. Fish and chips shops operated on black/white lines and implemented days like "White Wednesday" and "Black Thursday". There were two seperate Red Cross stations in Bristol, St George Street for Black Soldiers and Berkeley Square for white soldiers.
The Park Street Riot
The Park Street Riot occurred in Park Street and George Street, on 15 July 1944 when many black US servicemen (GIs) refused to return to their camps after US military policemen (MPs) arrived to end a minor scuffle. More MPs were sent, up to 120 in total to sort out the “scuffle”, and Park Street was closed with buses. An MP was stabbed, a black GI was shot dead, and several others were wounded. This refusal to follow orders was a reaction to the intense racism the soldiers experienced whilst serving a country that clearly did not care whether they lived or died. As you can see from these documented examples, they had every right to defend themselves.
How do you feel knowing that black people fought in World Wars dying for countries that did not care whether they lived or died?
Do you recognise any of the streets or locations named in this section? If you do, how do you feel knowing that they played a part in Bristol’s World War history?
Do you notice anything similar between colonial Bristol and Bristol of the World Wars?
Put yourself in the position of a Black GI fighting in World War 2. How would you react to be separated and treated differently than white soldiers?
If you could tell someone close to you one thing about what you have learned here, what would it be and why?
The World Wars were a dark time for humanity. We are constantly told stories about what it was like for white soldiers yet we are very rarely told about Black soldiers who also risked their life fighting to protect western countries. Although slavery at this point in history was abolished, white supremacy wasn't. Racism wasn't. Segregation wasn't. All of these factors influenced the experience of Black soldiers during this time. We focussed in this section on the experience of Black GI's because their experience was located in our home town. You will find if you choose to venture out of Bristol , the experience of Black soldiers across the world was very similar. We hope you found this section useful and learned something new! In the next section we are looking at one of the most important events in the history of Bristol... The Bus Boycott.
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Has this section peaked your interest?
Here are some other areas you may wish to investigate relating to World War 1 more generally:
The Senegalese Tirailleurs
The Force Noir Theory (Charles Mangin)
German Togoland (specifically Kamina)
The Battle of Tanga
The East African Campaign
Here are some areas relating to World War 2 you may wish to investigate more generally:
The Caribbean Air Crew
The Battle of The Caribbean
82nd (West Africa) Division
North African Campaign
The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
The East African Campaign (WW2)
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