Jim Crow in Britain
IntroductionOutside South Africa under the apartheid regime in the second half of the twentieth century, systematic racial segregation has been most closely associated with the Southern United States, from its introduction in the 1890s until it was gradually dismantled in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. 'Jim Crow', as it was known, actually emerged in the North in the 1840s, when the term was first used in Massachusetts to refer to the railroad cars reserved for black passengers. For a century or more, African Americans travelling to Europe often expressed their pleasure at being able—for a time at least—to mingle freely with others in public places.
International condemnation has not prevented 'Jim Crow' exercising its influence beyond borders of the United States. It has on occasions crossed the Atlantic, when British authorities seemed willing to accommodate the anxieties of those visitors who were fearful of the consequences of racial mixing away from home. This essay will examine two case studies. Firstly, a much-publicised example of racial discrimination by the Cunard shipping line in the 1840s. Secondly, some responses to the presence of the segregated US army in Britain during World War II. Focusing on the often difficult decisions faced by British politicians, officials and entrepreneurs, these illustrations may help us to identify the conditions under which transatlantic segregation was possible, and the extent to which it was open to challenge. They also contribute to our greater understanding of the export of American socio-political practices to Britain, as a ‘negative’ version of Americanisation.
Jim Crow on the Cunard line in the 1840sInstances of segregation on stage coaches and passenger vessels in the US were reported from the 1820s, and the practice was adopted by several railroads built in New England in the 1830s. But it was not until 1841 that the practice was established enough to be given a definite name: ‘Jim Crow’—a song and dance routine popularized by the blackface entertainer Thomas Dartmouth Rice—came to be adopted in Massachusetts for the car reserved for black travellers (Ruchames 1956: 62).
Segregation emerged in response to racial anxieties prompted by the mixing of strangers in urban public spaces where there were significant numbers of free black people, but especially by the mixing of black men and white women. The earliest tensions were most keenly felt not in the smoky, all-male environment of the second-class railroad cars but in the more genteel first-class cars in which ‘ladies’ (white women) travelled (Smith 2002: esp 88-89 and 135-49).
Among the contemporaries who documented the emergence of segregation were the authors of the antebellum slave narratives. Much has been made of the way these narratives ‘arose as a reponse to and refutation of claims that blacks could not write’ (Gates 1985: xv). But we might also say that they challenged those who felt they should not be allowed to travel: they tell the story of a transformation of the protagonist from one who is moved by others to one who moves of his or her own accord. Many fugitive slave narrators celebrate overcoming restrictions on movement, through their descriptions of clandestine flight, and of victories over segregation in Northern cities. But those narratives that told of journeys further afield were able to further taunt their detractors by pointedly dwelling on the pleasures of mixing freely in public places beyond the borders of the United States.
For example, in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, published in 1855, Frederick Douglass recalls his first trip to Britain ten years previously, touring to promote his first autobiography and to lend his support to the British anti-slavery movement. He quotes from a letter he sent home from Belfast in 1846:
In the southern part of the United States, I was a slave, thought of and spoken of as property … In the northern states, a fugitive slave, liable to be hunted at any moment, like a felon, and to be hurled into the terrible jaws of slavery—doomed by an inveterate prejudice against color to insult and outrage on every hand […] denied the privileges and courtesies common to others in the use of the most humble means of conveyances—shut out from the cabins on steamboats—refused admission to respectable hotels—caricatured, scorned, scoffed, and maltreated with impunity by any one, (no matter how black his heart,) so he has a white skin. But now behold the change! Eleven days and a half gone, and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man. (Douglass 1969: 370-1; see also Brown 1852: 8-9)Douglass makes much of the contrast between Great Britain and the United States, setting it up to so as to reverse the usual expectations. The monarchy is morally superior to the republic not just because it has abolished slavery, but also because it fully recognizes the humanity of its free population.
This ‘strategic Anglophilia’ (Rice 2003: 180) served an important purpose for the transatlantic anti-slavery movement (winning British support through flattery, North American through shame), although it could only have been convincing if the widespread evidence of racial prejudice in Victorian Britain were conveniently ignored. Some of this prejudice is alluded to (if obliquely) by Douglass himself in his letters, and autobiographies (see e.g. Rice 2003: 172-87), but is addressed most directly in his accounts of his experiences when crossing the ocean on the Cambria of the British and North Atlantic Steampacket Company (later known as the Cunard line). On the outward voyage, he found he was barred from dining with other first-class passengers in the saloon; and on the last evening of the voyage he was invited by the captain to deliver a speech on slavery, only to be shouted down by other passengers with a near riot ensuing. Boarding the same vessel in Liverpool two years later, he faced discrimination yet again, as he explained in a letter he wrote to the London Times:
Sir,—I take up my pen to lay before you a few facts respecting an unjust proscription by which I find myself subjected on board the steamship Cambria, to sail from this port at 10 o'clock to-morrow morning for Boston, United States.The newspaper takes up his case in an editorial that appeared two days later, expressing its ‘disapprobation and disgust at a proceeding wholly repugnant to our English notions of justice and humanity.’
On the 4th of March last, in company with Mr. George Monbay, of the Hall of Commerce, London, I called upon Mr. Ford, the London agent of the Cunard line of steamers, for the purpose of securing a passage on board the steam ship Cambria to Boston, United States. On inquiring the amount of the passage I was told 40l. 19s [i.e. 40 pounds, 19 shillings, or £40.95]. I inquired further, if a second class passage could be obtained. He answered no, there was but one fare, all distinctions having been abolished. I then gave him 40l. 19s and received from him in return a ticket entitling me to berth No. 72 on board the steam-ship Cambria, at the same time asking him if my colour would prove any barrier to my enjoying all the rights and privileges enjoyed by other passengers. He said, 'No.' I then left the office, supposing all well, and thought nothing more of the matter until this morning, when in company with a few friends, agreeably to public notice, I went on board the Cambria with my luggage, and on inquiring for my berth, found, to my surprise and mortification, that it had been given to another passenger, and was told that the agent in London had acted without authority in selling me the ticket. I expressed my surprise and disappointment to the captain, and inquired what I had better do in the matter. He suggested my accompanying him to the office of the agent in Water street, Liverpool, for the purpose of ascertaining what could be done. On stating the fact of my having purchased the ticket of the London agent, Mr. M'Iver (the Liverpool agent) answered that the London agent, in selling me the ticket, had acted without authority, and that I should not go on board the ship unless I agreed to take my meals alone, not to mix with the saloon company, and to give up the berth for which I had paid. Being without legal remedy, and anxious to return to the United States, I have felt it due to my own rights as a man, as well as to the honour and dignity of the British public, to lay these facts before them, sincerely believing that the British public will pronounce a just verdict on such proceedings. I have travelled in this country 19 months, and have always enjoyed equal rights and privileges with other passengers, and it was not until I turned my face towards America that I met anything like proscription on account of my colour. (The Times 1847a)
The plain fact of the matter appears to be, that Mr. DOUGLASS being a man of colour, was not allowed to go out on an equal footing with the rest of the passengers on board the Cambria. It signifies very little to us how contemptible the Americans may make themselves by the prejudices they act upon in their own country, and it concerns, perhaps, none but themselves […] We, however, are not in any way bound to tolerate the introduction into this country of any of the degrading peculiarities of society in the United States, nor can we observe with calm indifference any tendency to import among us prejudices utterly at variance with our feelings and character. We therefore do not refrain from expressing our most intense disgust at the conduct of the agents of the Cambria, in having succumbed to a miserable and unmeaning assumption of skin-deep superiority by the American portion of their passengers (The Times 1847b).A response from Charles Burrop, who describes himself as the US-based ‘Head manager of the Cunard Company of Liners’, claims that it is not the company that is racially prejudiced—‘the fare of one man is as good as that of another’—but argues that if the majority of its passengers (‘particularly of white women’) experience ‘an absolute and invincible disgust [...] to come into close contact with blackamores’ to the extent that they would give up their berths, obtain a refund, and sail with a competitor rather than risk such contact, then ‘we are compelled by our own interests as a commercial company to place upon the issue of tickets to blacks such restrictions and conditions as were specifically stated to Mr. Douglass’ (The Times 1847c).That the newspaper gladly takes up Douglass’ assertion of what might be viewed as English exceptionalism suggests how successful his ‘strategic Anglophilia’ was. But it is also worth noting that the editorial cleverly reworks the sexual and racial rhetoric of ‘American’ segregation drawn on by Burrop. Against the ‘disgust’ prompted by mixing, The Times expresses ‘disgust’ at the attempt to prevent it. If in the United States, the duty of white men is to protect white women from the sexual attentions of black men, on a British ship the duty of the steamship company is to protect Douglass from the intrusive prejudices of American passengers. In failing, the company’s masculinity, as it were, is in doubt, as it ‘succumbed’ to the threat – or, as Douglass put it in a letter to the Liberator , ‘had not the virtue to resist the demand’ (The Liberator 1847) - and placed the feminized abolitionist in a position of some danger.
Samuel Cunard himself replies next, pointing out that Burrop (whose claim to be connected with the company he refutes) is mistaken, and that this blunt commercial argument is not acceptable. He concludes: ‘No-one can regret more than I do the unpleasant circumstances respecting Mr. Douglass's passage; but I can assure you that nothing of the kind will again take place in the steam-ships with which I am connected’ (The Times 1847c). Samuel Cunard's promise to end discrimination - which evidently reassured Douglass (for he warmly commends Cunard’s intervention in his autobiography) - proved an empty one. Similar incidents were recorded on his ships until at least the Civil War.
A clue as to why the company was not able to sustain such a principled stand (as Douglass and The Times called for) is found in another letter to the paper. Cunard’s agent in Liverpool, Charles McIver, argued that the restrictions applied to Douglass were not due to his race, not even to the commercial imperative to pay heed to the prejudices of his fellow passengers. Rather it was prompted by the incident on his outward voyage:
… when coming from the United States some months ago in the same vessel, the Cambria, as a steerage passenger, was invited by some of the cabin passengers to enter the saloon, and was the cause, whether intentionally or unintentionally on his part, of producing, by the observations he made use of, serious disturbance on board, which required the authority of the captain to quell, in order to restore peace and safety. Under these circumstances I told Mr. Douglass that had he entered into the arrangements which had been completed, I should undoubtedly have considered it my duty to require of him, before allowing him to embark, a distinct pledge that he would neither of himself, nor at the desire of others, follow such a course as was likely to lead to a repetition of such scenes of confusion as had formerly occurred. I added that, from the conversation that had just taken place between us, it was unnecessary I should act or say more upon the subject. I moreover told him that I should have taken the same course had his name been John Jones, or anything else, instead of Frederick Douglass, or had he been the whitest man in the world. These were my words. (The Times 1847c)MacIver takes Douglass to task for suppressing this conversation, for this information does complicate the issue. Douglass himself had provided an account of the earlier incident in letters published in the abolitionist press in 1845, where he argued that, having been invited by the captain to address the passengers on the last evening of the voyage, some of them had taken exception to his anti-slavery sentiments, angrily denouncing him as a liar. Although he represents himself as an innocent victim, threatened with being thrown overboard, he does render the tensions of the voyage as an escalating exchange of insults, as if both his supporters and his adversaries were Southern ‘men of honour’ heading for a duel. At any rate, it seems clear that violence was only averted when the ‘gallant captain of the ship’ threatened to put the ‘salt water mobocrats’ in irons (Douglass 1969: 366-67).
Jim Crow in Britain during the 1940sFollowing the defeat of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, the federal army occupied the South and forced the rebel states to pass legislation allowing blacks to vote and hold public office, and encouraged the provision of universal education. Nevertheless, customary segregation—which predated the war in some cities—became more, not less, commonplace, as the new Reconstruction governments responded to the exclusions of blacks from public facilities by promoting the introduction of separate facilities, in order not to overly antagonize whites. With the historic compromise that ended Reconstruction in 1877, Southern governments rolled back much of the progressive legislation of the previous decade, and gradually the customary segregation became codified and legally enforced (no doubt partly in response to an increasingly confident black middle class unwilling to remain ‘in their place’). The increasing proliferation of local and state measures were ultimately sanctioned by the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld Louisiana’s separate car law. (Homer Adolph Plessy tested Louisiana segregation laws in 1892 by refusing to move from his seat in a first-class coach. Judge John H Ferguson rejected his plea that the law was unconstitutional. Plessy’s lawyers, supported by the railroad company, took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, however upheld the original decision by a majority of seven to one). The complex web of segregation legislation that subsequently developed in the South touched almost every aspect of social life, from maternity wards to cemeteries. ‘Jim Crow’ was the subject of international condemnation, but continued to flourish through the 1950s (see Kennedy 1959).
While the desegregation of the American armed forces began in 1948—becoming one of the few places of employment for African Americans that afforded some genuine chance of training and advancement—at the time of the entry of the United States in World War II, it was still very much a segregated institution. In 1940, when African Americans made up a tenth of the US population, they represented only 1.5% of the US Army. Political pressure led to the more vigorous recruitment of blacks, and while this proportion reached 7.4% in 1942 blacks tended to be allocated service rather than combat roles: drivers, construction workers, cooks, freight-handlers, and so on. Furthermore, they were placed in segregated units. There were very few black officers, and none were in command of white GIs; white officers however could command blacks.
In Britain, US forces grew from 130,000 at the end of 1942 to 1,500,000 by D-Day in June 1944 (of which just under a tenth were black). Anticipating the tensions that would arise with the arrival of a segregated army into the country, the British government held high-level discussions in 1942 over the official policy to be adopted in relation to the ‘American policy of segregation’. Some ministers argued that while this policy was ‘the best practical contribution to the avoidance of trouble’, they nevertheless strongly rejected that ‘we ought by any process, visible or invisible, to try to lead our own people to adopt as their own the American social attitude to the American negro; nor should we succeed’ (quoted Thorne 1988: 267-68). In the end, however, the Cabinet decided that ‘it was desirable that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured troops’ (quoted ibid.: 268) and confidential ‘Instructions as to the advice which should be given to British Service Personnel’ were circulated to senior officers, and some newspaper editors (who were asked not to make reference to the existence of the instruction).
This decision effectively endorsed the unofficial notes issued by Major General Arthur Dowler earlier that year (reprinted in Bousquet and Douglas 1991: 162-65). Dowler was the administrative head of British Southern Command whose main function was to liaise with US troops in this area. ‘Dowler’s Notes’—as Smith (1987: 56) points out—could almost have been written by a nineteenth-century Southern slaveholder. Recommendations include: ‘White women should not associate with coloured men’ and ‘Soldiers should not make intimate friends with them, taking them to cinemas or bars’ and ‘[A]void such action as would tend to antagonize the white American soldier’ (Bousquet and Douglas 1991: 164-65).
So, no official stand was taken by Britain against the racial policies of the US armed forces, which managed to transfer segregation to British soil effectively intact. American commanders provided separate accommodation and canteen facilities in their own camps, and this segregation had ramifications beyond the perimeter fences. Measures were taken by the army to prevent black and white GI’s mixing in neighbouring villages and towns by rotating passes, and local pub and cinema proprietors were encouraged to segregate their facilities, for example. In these ways the social practice of US racial ideology was exported and imposed on largely white Britain.
The practical daily consequences of this in civilian life may be gauged in contemporary newspaper accounts, despite wartime censorship. The Daily Herald reported that ‘coloured American soldiers’ in Eye, Suffolk, had ‘been refused admittance to the town’s reading room, which has billiards, ping-pong tables and a dart board, as well as facilities for reading and writing. At the moment they have nowhere to go when off duty’ (Daily Herald 1942). A British soldier revealed that ‘in an English port part of a well-known restaurant is barred to coloured troops’ and that his unit was ‘instructed … not to eat or drink with coloured soldiers’ (New Statesman and Nation 1942a). In the last month of the War, a meeting of Birmingham City Council discussed a ban imposed by the military authorities on members of the US Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps using a particular public baths (Birmingham Mail 1945).
If some of these restrictions were imposed by—or under pressure from—the US military authorities, it would be wrong to conclude that they were imposed on a unanimously unwilling public. In Somerset, Mrs May, a vicar’s wife, drew up a ‘six-point code which would result in the ostracism of American coloured troops if they ever go to the village.’ This code, which echoes some of the recommendations made by Dowler, stipulates:
1. If a local woman keeps a shop and a coloured soldier enters, she must serve him, but she must do it as quickly as possible and indicate as quickly as possible that she does not desire him to come there again.Every point of this code—drawn up for a hypothetical eventuality (‘if they ever go to the village’)—concerns the mixing of black men and white women, suggesting the significance of the sexual motive behind segregation, the white fear/fantasy of miscegenation. As one journalist was at pains to point out, it was important to understand that the nervousness of the authorities was largely due to the ‘feeling of white troops from the “deep South”’ who ‘take it for granted that it is their duty to interfere if they see black troops with white girls.’ He argues that the authorities, in turn, have a duty to ‘use every device of persuasion to let white Southern troops know that it is against discipline to treat negro soldiers in a way to which their training and education has accustomed them’, but admits that ‘discipline and re-education will not work nearly quickly enough’. He concludes that ‘very unhappy incidents’ will occur for the foreseeable future (New Statesman and Nation: 1942a).
2. If she is in a cinema and notices a coloured soldier next to her, she moves to another seat immediately.
3. If she is walking on the pavement and a coloured soldier is coming towards her, she crosses to the other pavement.
4. If she is in a shop and a coloured soldier enters, she leaves as soon as she has made her purchase or before that, if she is in a queue.
5. White women, of course, must have no social relationship with coloured troops.
6. On no account must coloured troops be invited to the homes of white women. (Sunday Pictorial 1942)
One such incident was reported in the same publication the following month. An account of a ‘really good dance’ at a village hall was followed by reference to a previous occasion, when the band ‘contained a West African’. No one took exception to him while he was on stage, but when he—now referred to as a ‘West Indian’—‘took the floor with the wife of one of his colleagues in the band, one of the southern American boys promptly went across the room and struck him’ (New Statesman and Nation: 1942b). In another episode, some white GI’s reacted fiercely when a ‘Negro soldier’ walked up to the British girl they were talking to and it became clear she was his date. ‘One of the white soldiers snatched off his hat and flung it to the ground’ (Ottley 1942: 4). In some towns, tensions between black and white military personnel led to major disturbances, notably in Bamber Bridge, near Preston, in which five soldiers were shot, two of them fatally (Smith 1987: 141-151).
Given that incidents such as this took place, it is not surprising that concern about discipline and public order tended to confirm in the minds of the military authorities the need to separate black and white US personnel. And British civilians may to some extent have appreciated that segregation—unfair as it was widely perceived to be—had to be tolerated in the interests of military discipline. After all, civilians themselves faced wartime restrictions on their own freedom of speech and movement, and most willingly complied. In that sense, the authorities were in a similar position to the various employees of the Cunard company. If the overriding concern was to avoid conflict on board ship, then they had to risk a practical solution that was unjust but possibly more effective than a more principled stand might have been. And, as with the Cunard line, segregation in World War II had other motivations and excuses too. It was sometimes simply a question of money. Roi Ottley, in Britain as war correspondent for several African American newspapers, reported:
What’s true of the United States seems equally true in England: The customer is always right. When the manager of a restaurant was questioned recently about refusing service to a Negro soldier, he had a ready answer. ‘White Americans say they will not patronize my place if Negroes were served.’ (Ottley 1942: 7)There is no record of the actual exchange of view in the Birmingham debate over the colour bar imposed on the Kent Street baths, but the conclusion of the Deputy Mayor – who said that ‘if military authorities put any place out of bounds the City Council could not put that place in bounds’ – may be viewed as a sign of resignation rather than endorsement (Birmingham Mail 1945). For ‘Jim Crow’ was by no means uncritically accepted by the British. The six-point code drawn up by Mrs May in Somerset so shocked her fellow parishioners that ‘they told their husbands’, and one of them, a local councillor, prepared ‘a full statement to be sent to the Ministry of Information.’ More importantly, they told Sunday Pictorial, whose reassurances echo those expressed in The Times a century before. The article ends:
Any coloured soldier who reads this may rest assured that there is no colour bar in this country and that he is as welcome as any other Allied soldier.And indeed, there were cases of small but heroic cases of resistance to ‘the prejudice which certain white soldiers are intent upon imposing,’ as Roi Ottley was keen to point out. He goes on to tell of an incident in which
He will find that the vast majority of people have nothing but repugnance for the narrow-minded uninformed prejudices expressed by the vicar’s wife.
There is—and will be—no persecution of coloured people in Britain. (Sunday Pictorial 1942; italics in original)
US soldiers boarded a bus in London and tried to eject two Negro soldiers from seats they already occupied.Ottley also refers to the more implicit opposition to Jim Crow that is suggested by the fact that ‘[e]very Monday morning the newspapers are filled with reports of Negro activity with the British—such as hikes and picnics. Negroes are seen at churches, groups of them even taking over the choir loft on occasion’ (Ottley 1942: 7).
‘You can’t do that sort of thing here,’ a woman conductor protested. ‘We won’t have it. Either you stand or off you go.’
They stood. (Ottley 1942: 6-7)
Historians tend to stress the predominantly welcoming attitude of the British. ‘I don’t mind the Yanks, but I don’t care much for the white fellows they’ve brought with them’, was a quip that achieved wide circulation (Reynolds 1995: 303). And official educational programmes suggest that white Americans were not unaware of the need to need to critically examine their own habits and prejudices. The irony that ‘Jim Crow’ resembled some of the policies of the fascism the Allies were fighting against was not lost on some. Ottley ends his survey, ‘Dixie Invades Britain’, with the following overheard conversation:
‘Personally,’ a town councillor said, ‘I have no feeling of race prejudice. I’ve been led to believe, however, that our relations with American white troops will be better if we conform to what I understand to be American practices of discrimination.’
The answer to that came from a white American officer. ‘Discrimination is not American,’ he said. ‘Even less so today, when we are fighting a war to preserve and extend democratic values in the world’ (Ottley 1942: 8).
ConclusionThese two case studies have examined 'Americanisation' in the form of highly controversial codes regulating public spaces being allowed to take effect in areas beyond the jurisdiction of the United States. By focusing on the way segregationist decisions were made in a local and immediate daily context, it is possible to develop an approach towards ‘Americanisation’ that avoids trying to make sense of ‘Jim Crow in Britain’ in terms of the ability of one nation to impose its will on another.
Despite the very different relations of power between Britain and the United States in the 1840s and 1940s, some striking continuities are evident. In each case, the mingling of white and black Americans in public places was perceived as a potential source of disorder. Wherever they were likely to encounter each other, a wide range of agencies and individuals – from public authorities to those working in the tourist, entertainment and transport sectors – faced difficult decisions: whether to take steps to separate them, by allocating them different spaces or at least different privileges within the same space.
As we have seen, transatlantic segregation was practised unevenly and unpredictably. These decisions took account of a number of factors: the nature of the public space in question (for instance, the availability of resources for containing disorder should it break out), the need to attract future customers (with a certain spending power), knowledge of or assumptions about the character of the individuals concerned, the ideological position and international context, and the existence of official advice, rules and regulations. In any given situation, these factors may have pushed the decision-maker towards conflicting courses of action. Where there was a perceived threat of disorder in a place that was hard to police, segregationist practice usually followed. In other cases, British civilians were more likely to stand up and defend the right of African Americans to occupy public spaces on equal terms. The ideal conditions in this case were specific occasions at which hostile white Americans were unlikely to be present (abolitionist meetings, for instance, or private functions to which black GI’s were invited).
The dominant idiom in which direct public statements about segregation were voiced in Britain in both the 1840s and 1940s characterises it as a product of ‘American’ racial prejudice. Nevertheless, even in the absence of white American soldiers, black American men still frequently posed a problem for the hosts, especially if they were perceived as mingling too closely with white women. Both Burrop’s ventriloquized ‘disgust’ and Mrs May’s six-point code play on the anxieties of British readers, even while those who publish their views are at pains to distance themselves from them.
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- The Times (1847b), 8 April.
- The Times (1847c), 13 April.
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