African-American GIs

During WW2 around 3 million American service personnel came to Britain. Among them were 130,000 African-Americans, including the 8AF Combat Support Wing, who arrived in 1943-44 and were stationed in airbases across East Anglia.

In segregated units African-American GIs contributed to the war effort constructing the airbases, driving trucks and tanks and flying bomber planes. More often than not African-American troops were given lower grade pay and more menial tasks than their fellow White GIs.  Segregation meant that White women were often prevented from dancing with or dating African-American GIs. Attacks on Black GIs and fights between White and Black troops were a regular occurrence in pubs and dances across the region. In an attempt to stem the violence, and often at the request of White GIs, many local pubs and transport facilities were segregated.

…we had open wars, especially in the dance halls and various places of entertainment, with the local Whites as back up on our side…we got along very well indeed.

However, despite segregation laws, White British locals and African-American GIs did come into contact, and often strong friendships that transcended race, colour and religion were struck up. A former African-American corporal of the 490th Battalion who spent time in Britain during WW2 stated:

“My time in England was the first time I had really felt free in my life”

The famous cartoonist Giles struck up close relationships with the African-American GIs stationed at nearby Debach and spent many a night drinking with them in his local pub. Today his cartoons of the African-American GIs are kept in the British Cartoon Archive.