Britain itself has its cross to carry regarding racism and its treatment of blacks from the African continent, Caribbean Islands as well as those born on British soil. However, residents of Bamber Bridge, in Lancashire during World War II proved that if enough common sense is applied, Jim Crow laws and practices against blacks could be rendered useless.
On the night of June 24-25, 1943, a mutiny or battle ensued between black US soldiers and white military police also of the US army. It led to the death of Private William Crossland in nearby Mounsey Road, and four other injuries to black American soldiers in a five-hour confrontation.
In Lancashire, black soldiers saw around them a non-segregated society where they were welcomed as fellow fighters against fascism, rather than tool carriers for the war effort as the US Army treated them. Black American soldiers were allowed to eat and drink at the same pubs as the white residents.
The American Military police attempted importing Jim Crow practices in Bamber Bridge by leaning on pub owners not to admit their fellow black soldiers lest they got used to it to demand same at home back in America. The locals ignored their divisive counsel and continued treating the black soldiers as equals.
The fondness for the segregated 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment was also supported by the famous essays written by George Orwell who stated that the black American soldiers had the best manners of all the American troops.
In his essays, Orwell alluded to the oft-quoted assertion that American GIs were “oversexed, overpaid and over here”. But he qualified this with the observation that: “The general consensus of opinion is that the only American soldiers with decent manners are Negroes.”
It didn’t help the white soldiers that the Jitterbug dance was in vogue and on dance floors, the English asked the blacks to teach them. When US military authorities demanded that the town’s pubs impose a color bar, the landlords responded with signs that read: “Black Troops Only.”
Another source of anguish was how the white English girls shared affections with the black soldiers. It prompted a white lieutenant to say: “One thing I noticed here and which I don’t like is the fact that the English don’t draw any color line. The English must be pretty ignorant. I can’t see how a white girl could associate with a negro.”
“On the night of June 24, some soldiers were drinking with the English townsfolk in Ye Old Hob Inn. Two passing MPs, Corporal Roy A. Windsor and Private First Class Ralph F. Ridgeway, entered the pub and attempted to arrest one soldier (Private Eugene Nunn) upon seeing he was improperly dressed (in a field jacket rather than class A uniform) and did not have a pass. An argument ensued between the black soldier and the white MPs, with local people and British servicewomen of the Auxiliary Territorial Service siding with Nunn and the small group of comrades he was with.”
After driving away, the MPs picked up two reinforcements, Private First Class Carson W. Bozman and Private Spurlock Mullins. The MPs intercepted the soldiers on Station Road, the only route back to the base. As they approached, Private Nunn threw a punch at Ridgeway and a melee broke out.
Bozman is said to have drawn his gun and fired, hitting Adams in the neck. Four black soldiers reported that the officers refused to take them to hospital. As the injured soldiers returned to the base, rumours began to spread that the MPs were out to shoot black soldiers.
At midnight, several jeeps full of MPs arrived at the camp, including one improvised armored car armed with a large machine gun. British police officers claimed that the MPs set up a roadblock and ambushed the soldiers. One black soldier, Private William Crossland, was killed, and four people were wounded (two soldiers and two MPs). Shooting continued until around 4 a.m. the next morning.
The violence left one man dead and seven people (five soldiers and two MPs) injured. At court martial, 32 were found guilty of various crimes including mutiny, seizing arms, rioting, and firing upon officers and MPs. The sentences were all reduced on appeal, with the poor leadership and use of racial slurs by MPs considered mitigating factors.
General Ira C. Eaker, commander of the Eighth Air Force, placed the majority of the blame on the white officers and MPs. He combined the black trucking units into a single special command and the MP patrols racially integrated.
Back in America the battle was hushed up because they didn’t want the country to find out that they were fighting their own soldiers which would anger the black population and weaken the morale in the country.
The Bamber Bridge incident came on the heels of the Detroit race riots on June 20 where defenseless black men were attacked by racist police, responsible for the deaths of 17 of the 25 African-Americans.
In 1948, US president Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which eventually led to an integrated army. Nonetheless soldiers returned to Jim Crow segregation in the US, with the reality that some veterans were lynched in their uniforms.
During the Second World War some three million American service personnel came to the British Isles. Among them were more than 130,000 African-Americans who were segregated.