Black History Month: How Black GIs posted to East Anglia faced wartime segregation

  • Watch a video report by ITV News Anglia's Raveena Ghattaura

It's 80 years since millions of American servicemen and women landed in Britain to join their allies in the fight against Nazi Germany.

And while their battle for the liberation of Europe is written in countless history books, the conflict that many of them faced closer to home is less well known.

Around 10% of the 350,000 servicemen posted to East Anglia were African American, who found themselves also fighting their own battle against racial oppression in a segregated army.

But racial discrimination meant that some pubs in the region also brought their own system of segregation.

Tour guide Paul Dickson said there were separate camps for black and white servicemen. Credit: ITV News Anglia

"There was a camp in the south of Norwich in Martineau Lane and that was for black servicemen and a camp in the north of the city for white servicemen," said Norwich tour guide Paul Dickson.

"There was segregation in the forces and in Norwich there was segregation in the pubs, so pubs were allocated, and restaurants."

Mr Dickson recounted an anecdote from a diary kept by a woman named Rachel Donal, who remembered a group of black servicemen going into a cafe where white American servicemen were sitting.

"They complained the African Americans were there and a local lady got up and said 'if they are good enough to fight, they are good enough to eat with, so they should stay here'. But unfortunately they had to leave," said Mr Dickson.

Although segregation was the norm in America, for many people in the East it wasn't welcome. Credit: Imperial War Museum

Troops were legally separated in the United States, and though there were no laws in the UK, the Americans expected their British allies to do the same.

It left many landlords faced with the difficult decision of whether to adopt racist policies or not - especially when African American soldiers were generally welcomed in Britain as allies in the fight against fascism.

Unlike the white troops, black soldiers were restricted to labouring roles - helping build bases like RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall. Credit: Imperial War Museum

Danny Keen, from Norfolk's Black History Month Committee, said many servicemen were warmly welcomed.

"There are a lot of remarkable reports and photographs of black American servicemen given dinners and invited to parties in village halls all over Norfolk," he said.

"It is quite remarkable - a lot of those people in Norfolk had probably never seen a black person before.

"One of the reasons why Norwich has such a thriving nightlife economy must be due to the fact that those American servicemen came here in the early 1940s.

"People will still remember those buses coming from the American bases bringing servicemen here for a night out."

Carl Giles at The Fountain Pub in Tuddenham St Martin near Ipswich during the 1940s. Credit: Lee Miller Archives

Black servicemen also made huge contributions to cultural life in East Anglia.

Emily Charles, from the Imperial War Museum, said their influence was noted by many, including Carl Giles, who later went on to become one of Britain's most loved newspaper cartoonists.

"While Carl Giles was in Ipswich he frequented a pub called The Fountain which was also frequented by an African American jazz band made up of engineers from the local airbase," said Ms Charles.

"We don't know their names or life experiences but Giles referred to one of them as 'Ike' who he was good friends with.

"Ike would supposedly take his double bass, put it on the handles of his cycle and cycle to the local pub where he played with Carl Giles and his band."

Giles' collection of cartoons at Duxford are some of the few records left of African-American servicemen in the East. Credit: Imperial War Museum, Duxford

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