The Daily Parker

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The Battle of Bamber Bridge

In June 1943, a group of white American MPs attacked a company of Black American soldiers in the town of Bamber Bridge, England (near Blackpool). The English took the side of the Black soldiers:

During the war, American soldiers accounted for the vast majority of black people in Britain. Britain’s population was overwhelmingly white, most of the country almost entirely so. Black Britons numbered around eight thousand in total, and were clustered in London, Liverpool and a few other ports. For the residents of most towns and villages near US bases, the proximity of black people was wholly novel.

Given that most Britons had seen black people only in films or books, you might have expected them to distrust or fear the new arrivals. Instead, as the historian David Olusoga remarks, the natives were “extraordinarily welcoming” to their black visitors. In fact, black GIs were offered a warmer reception than their white counterparts. In the letters and diaries of British inhabitants, White GIs are portrayed as arrogant, flashy, and unruly, while Black GIs, by contrast, are described as courteous, self-disciplined, and charming.

For black GIs, the warm and respectful treatment they received in Britain’s shops, pubs, and church halls threw their relationship with fellow countrymen into sharp relief. At home, black Americans from Southern states were strictly segregated from whites and systematically oppressed. Jim Crow laws ensured that they were politically disenfranchised and economically marginalised, eighty years after the abolition of slavery. The oppression was cultural too: black Americans were routinely  and openly treated as contemptible by their white counterparts.

For many black soldiers, the experience of Britain renewed and sharpened a sense of injustice over how they were treated in the United States. As one put it, “we are treated better in England than we are in a country that is supposed to be our home.” Naturally enough, it led some of them to question why they were fighting. Another GI wrote: “I am an American negro, doing my part for the American government to make the world safe for a democracy I have never known.”

I recently watched the Channel 4 miniseries Traitors, in which American race relations right after World War II in London mattered a great deal to the plot. Learning about Bamber Bridge added more depth to my understanding of the show.

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