|Mixed Race Britannia: Wartime (episode 2 of 3): 1940-1965
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
Last Thursday, I watched Part 2 of 3 episodes on the history of mixed race people in Britain. Behind the cut are the notes I wrote while watching it. (Notes and conclusion from episode 1 can be viewed here.)
Starting in Cambridgeshire. Boy born in 1946, child of white British mother & black American GI, called Tony Martin. Such babies were called “war casualties” by Dr Harold Moody, founder of the League of Coloured Peoples. George Alagiah’s brother-in law, Tony put into care by his mother. Fortunately for him, he was happy in foster care.
Changes in attitudes from pre-war to post-war. Some older white ladies speak about fancying black men and how their families tried to discourage them, telling them no “decent” (e.g. white) boy would want them if they dated black men.
Mixed-race people trying to volunteer for war effort. Charles Arundel Moody – recruiting officer told him he couldn’t be made an officer because he wasn’t of pure European descent. His father Dr Harold Moody married a white English woman and set up the League of Coloured Peoples. When he heard his son had been rejected, he started campaigning on his behalf. He won. The 1914 law barring coloured people from becoming commissioned officers was scrapped for the duration of the war.
Mary Jacobs speaks. She was a Jewish girl who fell in love with an American GI, Jake Jacobs, who also speaks. He wooed her with Shakespeare and by being dashing in uniform. The Americans panicked when saw photos of black GIs with white English girls – banned them, thinking it would inflame racial tension. Some English people panicked as well, giving advice in newspapers to young ladies on how to avoid the men. Lots of young ladies ignored them.
Brian Lawrenson speaks. He has a black American father & white English mother. His mother ended up being a single mum and had to put him into care. Brian doesn’t blame her – she was very young. African Churches Mission in Liverpool took him in. He recalls his time in the mission as a happy time. It’s only now he sees how small and vulnerable he was, when he read an Ebony article about the parson who took in as many children as he could and saw photos of himself as a child.
Sadly, most GIs had to go home after the war and couldn’t bring their ladies back with them because of America’s attitude to mixed marriage (illegal in 2/3 of states). About 1000 mixed race babies born in Britain afterward. Lots of single mothers, ostracized. Even some married ladies who had coloured babies had to give up their mixed-race children because of immense social pressure.
Some people said they should be sent to America. America didn’t want them because of the prevalent racial attitudes there. Blamed the English women.
Brian Lawrenson (66) talks about people trying to take them away from the mission. He recalls biting the officials trying to seize him (at the age of four). The Home Office put them into state-run care homes from the makeshift orphanage.
Tony went into a foster home in Cambridgeshire in Balsham. He was quite lucky – he became very close to one of his adopted sisters, Joyce Tabor Spicer. She says she didn’t notice his colour, she noticed he was agitated and upset. Father said he needed love and care so that’s what the other children tried to do with him. He doesn’t look back much – not much interest in finding out about his father.
Yvonne Foley speaks. She grew up feeling deserted in Liverpool. Chinese father. About 2000 seaman settled. They started families. Thought they were there to stay. But the Home Office decided to evict them. 1362 were forced to leave. About 300 married. 500-1000 children left fatherless, like Yvonne. Unaware of her Chinese heritage until she met another half-Chinese child – a boy who had moved into the neighbourhood. Her mother had a British husband now, so she didn’t know until then that she had had a father who was a Chinese Engineer from Shanghai who’d been deported before she could remember him. She can’t find his name anywhere on any list, so she doesn’t know what happened to him. She prefers to believe he was deported – this is most probable. Emotional moment where she talks about how it’s nice to believe that she wasn’t deserted.
Change in law in 1948 giving right to Empire’s residents to become citizens in Britain. Lots of single men flooded in, taking the jobs available. Jake Jacobs was one of these, from Trinidad, who went to work in the post office. He found Mary again – he’d been writing her love letters since the end of the war. So happy! Her father wouldn’t acknowledge their engagement. Disowned her. Her mother & her crying. They married only with friends – no family around – in 1948.
Officially no scientific reason to deny mixed-race marriage. Peggy Cripps (daughter of a form Labour cabinet minister) married Joe Uppia (a Ghanaian chieftain’s son) – high profile society wedding in 1953. Reaction in Britain not as extreme as in South Africa (rabid foam), but still uneasy. 12000 West Indians settling in Britain every year. Lambeth’s “No Colour Bar” dance in 1956. George asks Mary if people discriminated inside dance halls. She says, yes, of course, they were verbally abused. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” “What do you think you’re doing, you black bastard?”
Professor Lola Young speaks about Pathe films that showed how ordinary the relationships were between black men & white women. Antidote to some of these less savoury sentiments being expressed in various ways, like this loooovely Conservative MP talking about how a race of “mongrels” was being produced and that this would weaken Britain.
In 1958, small domestic argument in public b/w a black man & his pregnant Swedish wife in Notting Hill. Man heckled by a group of white men (teddy boys). They spotted her the next evening and she was hit with an iron bar. Then there was rioting. Yay. Film about the riots “Flame in the Streets” portrayed the couple. First time Britain saw a black man kissing a white woman in the cinema. The actor playing the black man (Earl Cameron) was in a mixed-race marriage himself. For him, kissing a white woman was no big deal!
1960s – lots of society ladies going to the Caribbean clubs to dance with the handsome black men. Alfred Harvey (Jamaican guy who answered to the name “King Dick”) says it was the sexy tiems the ladies came for. Well, duh.
Soap opera (Emergency Ward 10) showing a romance between a white man and a black woman. First time this had appeared on TV. Much more intimate than in the cinema since it was right in people’s homes.
Maureen Walsh, trainee nurse, met her future husband working in hospital (Dr Phoonoo Bezbouruah). Talking about meeting for the first time. She & Bez talk about the NHS and the community feeling there, and the fascination with the Indian doctors and their new culture. She was lucky. Her family was supportive. Only her father expressed reservations because he worried about potential repercussions. Her mother was completely behind her and wanted her to marry the man she loved. She didn’t think anyone hassled her about her mixed-race baby, but she was sure that her neighbours never thought it was a big deal.
Now there were laws protecting against discrimination in the workplace. The late 1960s. Documentary showing mixed-race marriage – genuine kisses! Real couples in love. Lots of people watching, well-received.
Post-war arrived at tolerance but not celebration.
Next episode: 1970s and 1980s - George Alagiah seems to think this is the point at which Britain arrives at some sort of blissful colour-blind place. I’m…I’m not buying it just yet.
This series has been building up to a “total integration these days” perspective on the status of mixed race people over the decades in Britain. I’m a little skeptical about it. I agree that socioeconomic class and immigration status seem to matter more than race here generally, but I think it’s disingenuous to gloss over or avoid some of the more repugnant bits of history so that an upbeat perspective can be maintained. The series failed to mention, for instance, the deportation of thousands of illegitimate mixed-race babies to the US post-WWII, which since it had anti-miscegenation laws could have been supposed to be an even less supportive environment than the UK at the time.