Copyright 1996. Janet Baker. Originally published in Volume 4, Number 2, April, 1996 edition of the quarterly publication "LEST WE FORGET."
Over 1 million American troops were stationed in England in the two years preceding the D-Day landings which heralded the invasion of France in June, 1944. This figure includes approximately 130,000 black GIs. By the end of the Second World War an estimated 20,000 children had been born as the result of relationships between British women and American GIs. Approximately 1,000 of these children were black.
The decision to send black troops to England was effectively made in 1940 when President Roosevelt reiterated his commitment to a target quota of 10 percent black troops in the American Army. Furthermore, there was to be no geographical restriction on the use of black troops either at home or overseas. However, the notorious "jim crow" practice of segregating regimental organisations would remain.
This decision met an angry response from black leaders who had been arguing strongly that as well as an increase in the number of black men enlisted in the Army (and Army Air Corps), the Army should be desegregated. In a press statement drafted by Robert T. Patterson, Secretary of War, and agreed to by Roosevelt, the following rationale was presented for maintaining the status quo: The policy of the War Department is not to intermingle white and coloured personnel in the same regimental organisations. This policy has been proven satisfactory over a long period of years, and to make changes now would produce situations destructive to morale and detrimental to the preparation for national defense.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the decision to send American troops to England, the British government had to address these issues. Firstly, how were they to respond to the racial segregation policies and practices that the Americans would bring with them and secondly what was to be done about minimising the possibility of relationships, particularly sexual relationships, developing between black GIs and British women. It was the latter issue which, in England, as in America, was to prove the most contentious.
After much debate the British War Cabinet finally ruled that America, ". . . must not expect our authorities civil or military to assist them in enforcing a policy of segregation . . So far as concerned admission to canteens, public houses, theatres, cinema's and so forth, there would and must be no restriction of the facilities hitherto extended, to coloured persons." This policy was reinforced in a confidential letter from the Home Office to all Chief Constables in September 1942 stating that, "It is not the policy of His Majesties Government that any discrimination as regards the treatment of coloured troops should be made by the British authorities."
Whilst there was a general feeling that relations between the local population and black GIs were good, the popularity of the black GIs with the British women began to cause concern amongst Regional Commissioners. "A difficult social problem - might be created if there were a substantial number of cases of sexual relations between white women and coloured troops and the procreation of half-caste children." Beside the commissioners, another group were finding it hard to accept the fact that black Americans were not only being treated as equals by the majority of the local population, but were actually receiving favoured treatment. White American servicemen reacted angrily to the level of acceptance enjoyed by the black GIs and fights began to break out, some of them serious.
The popularity of black GIs with British women is not hard to explain. Graham Smith points out that family life in Britain had been broken down by the war. The majority of males including fathers, husbands and fiances were serving overseas. Young, single women left home to work in the industrial cities where jobs were plentiful. Many of them had never lived without parental supervision before or had their own incomes. Most importantly there was a war on and all the normal expectations about social behavior seemed to be temporarily put to one side.
Estimates of the number of children born to black GIs vary and several attempts were made to gain accurate figures. A survey done for the League of Coloured peoples in 1945 showed that around 553 babies had been born. When these figures were up-dated in 1948 the number had risen to 775. It is generally accepted that the exact figure will never be known, but could be around 1,000. However, it is important to remember that black births were far outweighed by births to white GI fathers, which were estimated at around 20,000.
In terms of outcomes the prognosis for the white ex-nuptial child was more hopeful than for the black. Thousands of British women who gave birth to children fathered by white Americans became war-brides, and joined their husbands in America when the war was over. This was not an option for those women whose children were black. Although there was no specific regulations against mixed marriages the reality was that in around 20 states in America in 1946, they were unlawful. Despite this some British girls persisted in their attempts to marry their black sweethearts. In his book, "Rich Relations" David Reynolds tells the story of Margaret Goosey, a girl from the Midlands, who went to Virginia in 1947, to marry a black, ex-GI she met in England. Their proposed marriage was against the law in that state. Her husband-to-be was sent to the State Industrial Farm whilst she was gaoled and later deported.
There was another issue that limited the options for many women whose children were fathered by American GIs - they were already married. Of the 37 black children born in the County of Somerset during the war years, 27 of the mothers were married. As the war dragged on, women who had been faithful to their husbands in earlier years, found sexual fidelity hard to maintain. The arrival of the Americans in 1942, with their fascinating accents and free and easy manners, coinciding as it did with wartime disruption added to the impact the GI's had on the local population. To some observers it led to what was later described as a, "moral decline."
After the war ended there was continued debate about possible solutions to the "brown baby" problem, as it was called. One suggestion seriously considered and promoted by the black community leaders in America, was the possibility of some children being shipped to the US and placed for adoption with black families in the States. There was strong opposition, however, from conservatives quarters in the US. In a particularly heated debate in the House, one American Representative described the children as, ". . . the offsprings of the scum of the British Isles." In the end the proposal did not go ahead.
Although other attempts were made to look at alternatives it became increasingly clear that their future lay in England. However, some black commentators were concerned about what the future might hold for them. As Harold Moody of the League of Coloured Peoples observed: "When what public opinion regards as the taint of illegitimacy is added to the disadvantage of mixed race, the chance of the child's having a fair opportunity for development and service are much reduced."
Those women who could not keep their children at home and were unable to support them alone, placed them in residential care, usually with their local council. Some were eventually found adoptive homes in Britain. A minority, were raised by their mothers, in some cases with the consent and support, of their British husbands.
Follow up studies of this group are limited and little was heard about the "war babes" as they became known, during the fifties, sixties and seventies. In her book "Bye Bye Baby: The Story of the Children the GI's Left Behind", Pamela Winfield documents the experience of a number of black war babes. On the whole they had enjoyed a level of acceptance and support from their caregivers, however the issue of identify is one that surfaces frequently for this group. There is a sense of isolation that is difficult to describe to others, about being raised in a family or community where literally no-one looks like you. As one war babe of Mexican-American background put it, as she described being with her birth family for the first time, "We went to church and I sat there with people who all looked like me. I no longer stood out with my dark skin. It was a wonderful feeling."
The early eighties saw a period of change in community attitudes toward issues such as illegitimacy. Researching the family tree became a popular pastime and adults adopted as children began to demand the right to information about their birth families. Alex Haley's, "Roots", spearheaded a growth in black genealogy as people re-discovered a pride in their black cultural heritage. These were some of the factors which led to an upsurge of interest amongst war babes, both black and white, in searching for their GI parents.
In 1984 Shirley McGlade, a Birmingham (England) woman, who had been trying to find her white GI father for several years established "War Babes", a support group for other adults wishing to make contact with their American fathers. Elsewhere in Britain, Pamela Winfield who had been a war bride and returned to England following the death of her husband, established Trans-Atlantic Children's Enterprise" (Trace), with a similar aim. Some years later, in 1992 "War Babes Down Under", was established in Australia, originally to meet the needs of British war babes who had migrated. The group, coordinated by Diane Roundhill, now receives the majority of its requests for help from Australian born war babes. Between them these organisations have assisted literally hundreds of war babes to find their fathers.
The process of searching for a GI father is complicated and frustrating, often taking many years. A lack of information or, finding they have wrong or inaccurate information is a common experience for searchers. It is 50 years since the end of the war and memories have faded. Many birth mothers are reluctant to discuss this aspect of their lives with their children and resent them "stirring up" old memories. For those searching for a black father the situation is complicated by the fact that black veterans tend not to keep in touch with their old units in the same way as other GIs and are therefore harder to trace.
Until 1990 the National Personnel Records Centre (NPRC) refused to provide identifying information to war babes searching for a GI father, on the grounds that it was a breach of the Freedom of Information laws. In the late eighties with the support of the Public Citizen Litigation Group in America, Shirley McGlade and "War Babes", filed a law suit against NPRC and the Department of Defense, on the grounds that the information sought was legally available within the FOI Act. In November 1990 a settlement was reached, with NPRC agreeing to a number of demands including that they release information about the city, state and date of whatever addresses are contained in the records of the GI. If the father is deceased the entire address is to be released.
The need for legal action to obtain information which in fact should have been available to those searching for GI parents, raises the broader issue of the rights and responsibilities of governments, servicemen and the children they father. The lives of British women who gave birth to ex-nuptial children were never the same. Some never married but chose to devote their lives to raising their children often in a hostile environment and without the benefit of financial support. Others, married men whom they did not love to provide a father for their child, often with disastrous consequences for them and the child.
For those women who gave birth to black children and chose to keep them within their own families the impact was trans-generational. From that time on their family became a mixed race or minority family, within their own culture. Their decision impacting not only on themselves and the child, but on their parents, siblings and extended family.
Anecdotal evidence regarding how this group of vulnerable children fared, whilst limited, suggests that earlier concerns about their future were unfounded. Not only did they survive they went on to do very well. It is interesting to speculate on the reasons for this. The struggle to survive in the face of adversity often brings out the best in both adults and children. Perhaps, even thousands of miles away from their biological roots and raised in isolation from their racial heritage they could still take strength from it. In the words of Nana Poussaint ("Daughters of the Dust") and Ivanla Vanzant, ("Acts of Faith"), "We are the children of those who chose to survive [and] we move in the power of a mighty past."
If you would like to know more about the work of the organisations mentioned in this article, please contact:
15, Plough Avenue
Birmingham, B32 3TQ, England
Sophia Byrne, Membership Secretary
11, St. Tewdricks Place, Mathern, Nr
Chepstowe, GWENT, NT6 6JW. England
"War Babes Down Under"
Lot 11, Gilbert Street
TARLEE 5411, South Australia
About the Author:
Janet Baker is the daughter of a black World War II veteran who served in England. She searched for over 10 years to locate her father who unfortunately died in 1981. Janet contacted his family with the assistance of "War Babes Down Under", and traveled to America to meet them for the first time in May 1996.
Ms. Baker is interested in hearing from anyone who would like to comment on this article. Contact her at E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
RETURN TO AFRICAN AMERICANS IN WORLD WAR II