During World War Two, enlistment of black American troops was higher than ever. More than one million served in the armed forces, predominantly in the US Army.
Like America as a whole, segregation was rife in the military. No black troops at all served in the Air Force or Marines.
Before World War Two, the US Navy only accepted African-American servicemen as cooks or waiters but with the pressures of war, the USS Mason became one of two US Navy vessels manned by African-American crews.
The welcome those men received in Belfast made headlines in the African-American press back home.
Irish first to treat USS Mason as Americans.
In the entire US Army, there were only five black officers. Roles were often reserved to non-combat units and there are even stories of black troops having to give up seats to Nazi prisoners of war.
World War Two would mark the end of racial segregation in the US military. President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948. This would be the end of a long and complex history and between 1942 and 1944, some of that would play out in Northern Ireland.
Between 1942 and 1945 some 130,000 African-Americans were stationed throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The black population of Britain at the outbreak of World War Two was between 10,000 and 15,000. By 1943, estimates show there were around 37,000 black American troops in Northern Ireland. For the most part, the people of Ulster welcomed the troops but as is often the case in Northern Ireland, differences would later cause trouble.
A warm welcome in Ulster
In August 2005, Anthony Carroll of the Newry Journal recounted a story from Councillor Billy McCaigue. He remembered black American soldiers in Bessbrook, Co. Down in 1943-1944.
One afternoon one of the soldiers came into the shop in the village and the young lady asked: “Sir, what can I get you?” The soldier wondered who she was talking to as he was the only person in the shop. “I’m sorry,” he said: “It’s just that no one has ever called me ‘Sir’ before. Being black I’ve been called many names but never ‘Sir’.”
This attitude was prevalent in the early years of the American presence in Northern Ireland. Local people, for the most part, treated the troops as equals regardless of race.
Moneymore resident Lorna Niven’s father was the village school teacher. She tells of her parents’ friendship with a young black soldier named Brent (or Brett) “Mudd” Johnson. He was a regular visitor to the Niven home for games and meals and continued to send the family Christmas cards after the war.
In the early days, media on both sides of the Atlantic documented the warm reception given to the regiments of African-American troops. In late 1942, a survey reported an 80% approval rating of the British by black soldiers. The following quotes all come from black servicemen based in Northern Ireland.
There is not any coloured people in Ireland, but the Irish people treat us as if we were one of them.
US Army Private
[The Irish are] fine people who have never heard of discrimination and stuff like that.
US Army Corporal
This is a great country here and the people are very friendly. I am living the happiest days of my life.
US Army Corporal
Beginnings of racial tension in Ulster
Bad feelings towards black GIs was not reserved to the public. British and American soldiers and sailors were equally to blame. Back home in the USA, relationships between black men and white women would be not just frowned upon but violently protected. No such taboos existed in the United Kingdom or Northern Ireland.
All the girls are crazy about us. Get a load of this. I am loaded down with these Irish girls.
US Army Corporal
While the African-American soldiers enjoyed the company of the Northern Irish girls, the fraternisation was noted by other US GIs.
They shipped in some of them black boys and the people act as if they never saw any of them before. The gals go for them in a big way here, they think they’re cute.
US Army Sergeant
One Unionist MP made disparaging comments not only about black GIs but also Catholic girls.
[Local girls going out with black GIs were] mostly of the lowest type and belong to our minority.
Underlying racial tensions shipped over from the southern states and the huge changes enforced on small Irish communities would inevitably lead to flare ups.
One white American Sergeant predicted trouble:
It seems that several outfits of colored troops preceded us over here and have succeeded pretty well in salting away the local feminine pulchritude. The girls really go for them in preference to the white boys, a fact that irks the boys no end, especially those of the outfit that come from the north. No doubt there will be some bloodshed in the near future.
He was to be proven right. After the murder of a black GI in September 1942, the US Army encouraged racial segregation in Northern Ireland.
This meant separate lodgings, dances, parties, etc. where possible. This came into effect in several towns and villages west of the River Bann. The aim was to protect the American troops from each other rather than protect them from locals.
Letter from “a coloured soldier”
The ill-feeling of the time is recorded in a letter from an unnamed soldier held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. (CAB/CD/225/19).
I am an American, coloured, soldier. My group of fellows have been stationed here in Antrim for 9 months. We are trying to do our part in the fight for freedom, but since we have been here we have met so much segrergation [sic], prejudice and strife. Some time we doubt the allied cause.
We are stationed near Antrim, located in the town, at the establishments of Hall’s and Murphy’s. They are hotel owners. In visiting these establishments, we have been segrergated [sic]. To describe one incident, a friend and I visited Hall’s, they refused to serve us because we are coloured.
Dear Sir, you and I both know that regardless to colour, we all are human. We come to Ireland not because we wanted to, but we came just to do our part in this war. Since being here we have gained the respect of the people in Ireland.
One town in particular is Carrickfergus. We were there for five weeks and I can assure you that we were perfect gentlemen. When we left the people cried; they want us to stay there. The people of that town is giving us a party on the 23rd of this month.
Sir, for the people like us then we must be gentlemen. The wee kids here they cried for us to return to them. We visit them at every opportunity. The people are always glad to see us. If we treat the people nice, then they should treat us the same.
I believe that you are a man of justice and I think that you believe is right. Regardless to where a man is born or regardless to his colour, every man has his right to enjoy life here on this earth. Just because I am a dark man doesn’t mean that I am not intelligent. The anatomy of the white man is the same as the dark man. God created all men as brothers, and my belief is that since we are all here in Ireland we should live as brothers and not as enemies.
We hate to walk the streets of Belfast merely because we are insulted. They use the words ‘nigger’ and ‘darky’. Those are two words that we hate. Those words were brought here by the American whites. The American whites taught the people those words in order to start strife and envy among the people and us.
The Americans are the lowest breed of the human race. They fear us because of our ability to advance in knowledge. We want to be friends of the Irish, not enemies. We want the people to like us not hate us. If your people visit Africa, or some dark continent, they would be treated as human.
Sir, will you try your influence on the people? To show our love for the Irish children, our battalion raised a fund to support an Irish orphan for five years. We love the children and they love us.
As I walked through the streets of Ireland, accepting insults, I sometimes wonder if the people are ignorant to the fact that they are insulting us. Please try your influence to correct the people on these errors. Print it in the paper that we are coloured Americans not niggers or darkies.
Lately we have had fights with British sailors and soldiers. They call us Black Bastards, sons-of-bitches. We take these to a certain degree. Carrickfergus is the only town in Northern Ireland that we like because when we visited there we are treated like human.
I believe all Irish are kind. I would reveal my name but if I did the American Authorities would Court Martial me. They don’t like the truth.
I close in the name of the God of all men,
A coloured soldier.
Notable incidents involving GIs
There were, of course, unsavoury incidents during the GIs time in Northern Ireland. These were not restricted to black troops but two stories in particular would go down in history. In both cases, executions took place at Shepton Mallet by the hand of the famous Thomas Pierrepoint.
Twenty-five year-old Private Wiley Harris Jr of Greenville, GA was convicted of murder of a pimp in Belfast. Private William Harrison Jr of Ironton, OH stood accused of sexual assault and murder of a young girl in Co. Tyrone.
Another case in March 1943, saw a fight break out between black servicemen and civilians in Donegall Street, Belfast. Instigated by the civilians, they came off worse suffering stab wounds. One serviceman later admitted brandishing a knife and was punished by US military authorities.
Such cases were not the norm and most outbreaks of disorder came among GIs themselves as racial tensions flared.
Locals side with the Officers
In some cases, the influence of white American troops influenced local feeling towards the black GIs. Local people would try to curry favour with the white troops and higher ranking officials. One black soldier based in Northern Ireland called out the locals:
We Negro soldiers have tried hard to show what our people can do ever since we have been here, but it is so hard. We don’t mind doing our share, but the Paddies do everything to make us look like dogs to the English people. Not only the privates, but the officers. It seems like the big shots who run this army don’t care and all the little paddies know it. I know an awful lot of our boys are getting awful mad and mean about this, and there is going to be lots of trouble. You wouldn’t believe the lies they have told everybody about us. They go in gangs and beat you up and then if our boys have to cut some of them to keep from getting hurt they say Negro soldiers are bad.
Tensions rise in Northern Ireland
As the war went on, racial tensions demoralised some of the racially segregated regiments. AWOL rates increased and the early good feelings gave way to despondency.
I would like to get away from this damn place. It gets worse everyday.
US Army Soldier
Nowhere to go except to a show. I am not going to town at night. It is too dangerous. Our white soldiers make our life miserable and I do not want to come into a fight. In case that something should happen the colored fellow so and so would not get any justice.
US Army Soldier
Another black soldier in Northern Ireland summed up the situation quite succinctly.
I began to wonder whether I had been sent overseas to fight against our white soldiers or against the Nazis.
As early as September 1940, President Roosevelt had signed the Selective Training and Service Act. This contained an anti-discrimination clause. Entrenched racism continued to prevail in everyday American life. This included the higher military ranks.
The years after war
It was time spent in places like Northern Ireland that made black American GIs aware that racial prejudices did not exist everywhere. On their return from war, many of them found it hard to accept the continuing racism at home. In July 1945, President Truman signed an order to end US military segregation.
The defiance of black servicemen overseas during World War Two paved the way for the resistance to follow in the 1950s and 60s. With segregation brought to an end in the army, navy and air force the road to civil rights was opened to all. The troops based in Northern Ireland would, for the most part, look back fondly on their time there.