The story of Negro soldiers in World War II has been told before by people more qualified than I. One particular little corner of this historical documentation is less well known than the larger story, however. Beginning in 1942 black soldiers found themselves in England in such large numbers that it has been estimated the black population of Britain swelled ten times the number it had been before their arrival. World War II changed or began the changing of the face of many aspects of culture in America, but what about elsewhere. In some instances, black soldiers in England during World War II were the first people African heritage with dark skin that many had ever seen. That’s a hard thing to believe now, and while there were certainly not great numbers of British men and women and children who’d never actually seen a black person in person before, they did exist in pockets. How did the British react to this influx? With amazing adaptability, in part because the black American soldiers did not look down upon certain British customs and ways of life.
At the same time, the political machinery headed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was decidedly more ambivalent. In fact, Churchill’s World War II Cabinet had at first attempted to halt the arrival of black American soldiers, and when that didn’t work they accepted the American rules of segregation of black soldiers from white soldiers. (One wonders what would have happened if Churchill had suggested segregation based on blood color.) To his credit, the British Secretary of War James Grigg was the only member of Churchill’s Cabinet to openly suggest that perhaps segregating American soldiers was no better than the Jim Crow laws that dominated the racist southern United States. Nevertheless, the official stance of the British government while black soldiers joined to fight World War II to save their pasty asses was that citizens should “avoid becoming too friendly” with black GI’s.
Another little known fact about the history of black servicemen in England is that they routinely found themselves involved in scrapes, fights and fracases with their white brethren. In fact, the general consensus is that a fight broke out between black and white American soldiers almost five times a week in that cold winter that tied 1943 to 1944. Perhaps surprisingly, the people of England-rightfully ignoring the idiotic declarations of their leaders-tended to back up the stories of the black soldiers more than often than that of white soldiers. Perhaps the most notorious story of the brief sojourn of black soldiers in England during World War II has to do with the story of Leroy Henry. Like countless black men before him, Leroy Henry had been convicted and sentenced to execution on charges of raping a white woman. The utter lack of evidence to back up this contention was trumpeted so loudly by a British newspaper that came to Henry’s defense that General Dwight Eisenhower was eventually forced to step in and overrule the verdict.