Black History Month
To mark Black History Month we are sharing with you some extracts from our oral history collection about the black GIs that were stationed in Northern Ireland during the Second World War.
Segregation in the US armed forces during the Second World War has been well documented but in short, black Americans served in their own units and were often given noncombat, support roles such as quartermasters or cooks. These were designated as ‘colored’ units and were based in locations such as Cookstown, Donaghcloney and Spring Farm (Antrim).
For many of our interviewees, their encounters with black Americans was their first time seeing anyone of a different skin colour. Ida Thompson recalled first meeting a black person at an American Christmas party for local children when she was around seven years old. She stated that ‘it was the very first time that I’d seen a dark skinned man, he offered me an ice cream… but I didn’t see the ice cream I could see a big dark face and I sort of recoiled… afterwards, I realised that he was no different from anybody else they were all the same but it was just the surprise of meeting this person… I just hadn’t come across anyone different and nobody had told me’.
Artist James McKendry remembered seeing black Americans who were stationed in a camp near him in North Antrim, he stated ‘that was the first time I’d ever seen black people and they were just very friendly and the people here were very friendly with them. You know, I think we just really appreciated them being here, and those guys, a lot of them lost their lives in France… I’ve read a bit about that since then and they were impressed by the Irish, they thought we were terribly friendly’.
Kathleen Porter remembered one-night walking home in Dundonald past where the Ulster Hospital is now ‘when a nice polite boy asked to walk with me’. He was a black American GI who was stationed at Rose Park in Knock, and she remembered being shocked as she had never met any black GIs at dances (which she supposed was due to military segregation), regardless she walked with him and ‘enjoyed talking to him’ telling him about three trees planted nearby called faith, hope and charity. As Kathleen alluded to, American soldiers were not only segregated in their units but also socially. In Belfast, American Red Cross clubs have been recorded as being ‘white staffed’ and ‘negro staffed’.
Despite little local experience with black people before the war it seems that for the most part, black GI’s were treated the same as any American stationed here and were appreciated the same for doing their part. Maureen McAllister ‘didn’t take any notice of them’ stating that they had heard ‘in America they weren’t allowed to sit on the same side [on buses] and that they didn’t understand why as ‘their blood’s still the same no matter how it comes… nobody passed any remark and I didn’t see anything wrong with them’.
Others interviewed remember seeing more examples of American racial segregation and racism. Roger Weatherup told us that ‘there were two camps outside Carrickfergus, there was an estate there and one camp was entirely white combat troops but the other one was a black service battalion because during that stage of the war, the black Americans weren’t allowed to carry arms’. He recalled an interaction his aunt had when returning to her home from collecting dulse and whelks at the seashore in the evening ‘this Jeep pulled up beside them and a voice said “What are you ladies doing walking these roads at this time of night?” and they looked round and it was two black American military policemen. So they told them what they were doing and he said “well ma’am you just get in and we’ll take you up home”… so they took them up and invited them in and gave them coffee’.
Alan Cook recalled another incident when the squadron leader who was billeted in his house had American visitors, ‘there was young man called Colonel Bacon who came down to visit and he came down in a car and went upstairs… my mother decided that she would ask the driver in for a cup of tea into the kitchen, so she did, and he was black. When Colonel Bacon came down to say goodbye to my mother he saw this black driver sitting there, and he told him to “Get out!” in very specific terms and my mother just turned to him and said “If this man leaves my kitchen, you leave it with him” and there was very, very strong segregation between black and white at that time, and that was just a very small incident but typical of their attitudes’.
The caption to the Signal Corps photo (SC-169783) below reads ‘First American negro troops to arrive in Northern Ireland line up in formation in a warehouse at a dock in Belfast before going to a camp 7/14/42’.
Despite President Truman signing Executive Order 9981 in 1948 that abolished discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin” in the US armed forces, examples and instances of segregation and racism persisted. During the Second World War, no black American was awarded the Medal of Honor. However, in January 1997 President Clinton awarded the medal to seven recipients (six of whom had their Distinguished Service Cross upgraded) after an extensive review. Only one, Vernon Baker was still alive to receive his in person.
If you are a relative of a black GI or have any memories of black GIs in Northern Ireland and would like to share your experiences, please get in touch with our Oral History Coordinator by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07588 634847.