This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine
Carole was born in December 1944 in Birkenhead, near Liverpool. Her mother was 21 years old and single, her father was a black American serviceman. “My mum’s family, they just shunned her, it was horrible,” says Carole. “I can remember walking down the street with her. She said ‘hello’ to them and they just ignored her. My mum’s sister, if she saw me walking down the road, she would cross over the road in case she had to tell people who I was.”
John’s mother was married and lived in Weymouth, Dorset, but like Carole’s mother, she had an affair with a black GI. “My mother had a guest house from 1941, and in 1944 there were some black soldiers billeted with her.” John was born in May 1945. When his stepfather returned, demobilised the following year, he allowed John to stay, but never forgave his wife for what had happened. “He punished her for what she did. She wasn’t allowed out… She was allowed to go shopping from 10 to 12 on a Thursday, and that was it… And he punished me!… Racist, nasty… And he was violent.”
The fathers of Carole and John (we haven’t used any surnames as some of the interviewees for this article have requested these be withheld) were two of the approximately 240,000 African-Americans who were in Britain during the Second World War. These black troops represented 8 per cent of the 3 million American soldiers who passed through the country from 1942 to 1945.
The stories of Carole’s mother and John’s mother illustrate some of the difficulties facing a woman bearing an ‘illegitimate’, mixed-race child in the 1940s: the stigma of illegitimacy, the extra ‘scandal’ of having a mixed-race child, rejection by family and neighbours, and the control of their movements. It is estimated that, during the war, 2,000 mixed-race babies were born to British women and black GIs. While many of these babies were kept by mothers and even grandmothers, possibly a third to a half were given up to children’s homes, and the stories of men and women now in their early 70s have rarely been shared outside of immediate friends and families. I have interviewed 45 of these ‘brown babies’, to use the affectionate term given to them by the African-American press – a contrast to the racist term commonly used in Britain at the time, ‘half-castes’.
Legal barriers to marriage
Why did some of these babies’ mothers want to give up their children? One reason is probably that British women in relationships with black GIs were frequently condemned as loose women. However, it is important to recognise the difficulties of formalising these relationships. To marry, GIs had to receive permission from their commanding officers, but such permission was invariably refused to African-Americans, the rationale being that 30 of the (then) 48 US states had anti-miscegenation laws that criminalised mixed-race relationships. In addition, many were already married: the women’s husbands away fighting; the men’s wives back in the US.
Women were bearing mixed-race children in a society that at the time had only a small population of black people – about 8,000, largely concentrated in Liverpool, Cardiff, and London. While a number of the babies were born in Lancashire, and thus near Liverpool, the majority were born and grew up in the areas where the American servicemen were largely stationed, namely East Anglia, southern England and the South West, areas almost exclusively white. Racist name-calling was widespread for these children. For example, when Jennifer started school, she was called “blackie” and “little chocolate girl”. Michael and Stephen were both called “Sambo”. When Gillian went to secondary modern school, “They used to call me ‘Gillywog’.” Many were called “nigger”.
If the children were not kept by their mothers, they were usually given up for adoption, although it is likely that the majority spent their childhood and early adolescence in children’s homes, with some fostered for a period of time. Adoption societies did not like to take on a ‘half-caste’ child. The idea that there would be difficulty in placing black or mixed-race children for adoption was widespread, presumably relating not simply to racist attitudes, but a desire on behalf of the adopter that the child should look like them physically and could pass as a biological child. If the illegitimate child was that of a white GI, it was no doubt possible to pass it off as the husband’s child, so long as the dates roughly fitted. But this was clearly not feasible in the case of a mixed-race baby where the husband was white. The mother of one of my interviewees, Babs, was married. Her husband initially thought Babs was his, because she had a fair complexion, but after about six months her skin darkened. She was sent to a Dr Barnardo’s Home in Suffolk.
A number of homes were established across England specifically to house these children. One such home was the African Churches Mission in Liverpool, headed by Nigerian Pastor Daniels Ekarte. Ekarte had set up his mission in 1931, originally to work with black seamen in the city. He explained to an interviewer that during the war he had answered a call “to rescue the negro babies”. The mission was not big enough to take more than about nine children, although Ekarte had more than 100 children on a waiting list and wanted to find bigger premises.
Man and a mission
In 1949, Liverpool City Council ordered Ekarte to close the home on health grounds following spot-checks on the mission. While the children had been found to be happy, healthy and well fed, their home was condemned as unsuitable, in part because of bomb damage. Home Office inspectors in February 1949 found broken windows and insufficient chairs for the children. Jim, who lived at the mission, remembers: “There were holes through the ceiling.”
On 31 May 1949, the Home Office issued a 28-day notice to close the mission. Brian, another child resident there, reflects: “If he would help a white person, bringing up white children, he would have got all the funds he wanted and he felt that it was because it was a black community that he didn’t get the funds.” On 3 June, 11 days before the period to appeal had expired, local officials and the police pounced. Brian, aged five at the time, vividly recalls what happened: “They came at about seven o’clock in the morning and I remember it as though it was yesterday… We gave them the run-around. They’d locked Pastor Daniels in his office and they had to bring in reinforcements to get us because they just couldn’t catch us… I remember biting one official.” Brian thinks the closure of the home was political: “Mr Ekarte would always champion the likes of the black seaman and so on to the council, and he made himself a nuisance and I think this was their way of getting back at him.”
Forced to move
The children were eventually forcibly removed. They loved kind Pastor Ekarte, they had never known another father figure and they had no desire to leave what for many of them was the only home they knew. Brian had been taken to the mission as a three-month-old baby. His mother, who was just 16 years old when he was born, was living at home with her mother in a two-bedroom house, and her mother already had two children and was expecting a third.
Jim was also given up as a small baby. His mother and his aunt Joan, who had learning difficulties, had given birth just nine days apart. Yet while his mother took her sister’s baby, who was white, as her own child, Jim was taken to the mission. Most of the children removed from the mission ended up at Fazakerley Cottage Homes, also in Liverpool, composed of more than 20 detached villas for around 700 children. The facilities were of a higher quality, but the homes lacked the warmth and love offered by Pastor Ekarte and his housekeeper, Mrs Roberts.
Another home for mixed-race babies was Holnicote House, a National Trust building requisitioned in 1943 by Somerset County Council, initially for use as an evacuation nursery. With so many GIs stationed in the county, mixed-race children were increasingly taken onto the council’s books. By 1948, Somerset had 45 such children, more than half of them at Holnicote House.
One of the babies at the nursery was Deborah, born in March 1945, who was given up by her recently widowed schoolteacher mother. “Because of her position in the community, and because I was going to come out black, it was decided that she wouldn’t keep me,” says Deborah. “She was a reasonably important figure in her local community and the disgrace or the shame of it would have been quite difficult for her to deal with.”
Accounts of living at the home portray it as a happy place, with the children looked after by loving young nursery nurses. Deborah recollects: “We were always together. We were always like a little family. It was lovely, all I felt was safe.” As it was a nursery, the children had to leave when they were five. A few were adopted, but the others went to children’s homes that were not necessarily so nurturing.
Long lost families
Whether or not they were in a children’s home or living with their mother or grandmother, it appears that most of Britain’s ‘brown babies’ were told little or nothing about their birth fathers – and the little they were told was often inaccurate or misleading. Seven of my interviewees have met their birth fathers. Dave was unusual in that he always knew about his father: “[My mother] used to show me his photographs. ‘This is your dad.’ She loved him, with a passion.”
In 1999, Dave’s friend Chris, a Mormon, offered to help Dave find his father. The Mormons own the world’s largest genealogical database, run by the non-profit company FamilySearch. “Via access to this database, Chris had given me this list of possibles with the name Greene in different parts of the States, and I phoned this guy, and I had in my mind that my father’s name was David Otis,” says Dave. “Mum always thought his middle name was Otis… I spoke to this guy – said: ‘I’m calling from England. I’m trying to locate David Otis Greene.’ ‘My name’s David Otto Greene,’ [in an angry voice] and he was really stroppy… I thought: ‘Crikey!’ I had a vision of a Germanic person [because of Greene’s middle name]… I said: ‘OK, sorry to have troubled you.’”
Dave got a bit more information about where his father was likely to be living and a few months later he rang this number again: “Phone rings, he picks it up: ‘The news is on! Don’t you know the news is on?!’ ‘Yeah, yeah, but I’m phoning from England, and I’m looking for David Otis Greene.’ He said, ‘I’m David Otto Greene.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m phoning from Yeovil in Somerset. Were you there during the war?’ He said, ‘Well, yeah, I was.’ ‘Do you know Joan Bagwell?’ ‘Yeah, I do.’ I said: ‘That’s my mum, You’re my dad!'”
Two-and-a-half hours later they were still chatting and then Dave flew out to the USA. They got on brilliantly. It was a life-changing experience for Dave, as it has been for others who have found their fathers, or at least found US relatives. It has given the ‘brown babies’ a sense of completeness and a sense of heritage. As Monica expresses it: “There’s one thing we have in common and that’s the need to know who our fathers are or were. Nothing else seems as important and before we each shuffle off this mortal coil then we should do all we can to find the answers.” As Monica also reflects, telling their stories has helped too: “At last we have been recognised as a legit group of human beings.”
Lucy Bland is professor of social and cultural history at Anglia Ruskin University. Her most recent book is Britain’s ‘Brown Babies’: The Stories of Children Born to Black GIs and White Women in the Second World War (Manchester University Press, 2019).
Different times: the lives of mixed-race children
Leon was initially put into a children’s home in East Anglia. The British government had forbidden most attempted adoptions by “putative” fathers, so it was with great difficulty that Leon’s black ex-GI father managed to have his son flown out to the USA, in January 1949. The African-American newspaper Pittsburgh Courier called his arrival “the story of the year!” But Leon had a difficult childhood: his stepmother was hard on him for his father’s philandering.
Ann was the daughter of a married mother and a black GI. Born in Somerset in February 1945, she was put into Holnicote House children’s home. When she was five she was happily adopted by a Welsh family. When she married she lived with her husband’s parents, but her mother-in-law told her that “she didn’t want no niggers as grandchildren”. Years later, Ann traced her birth father but found he had already died. She attempted to meet her father’s wife but was met with the response: “What makes you think that I want to meet my husband’s indiscretion?”
Monica‘s mother, who gave birth in 1944, was a 26-year-old single woman living near Liverpool with her father and six brothers and sisters. Her mother had died when she was 10, and as the oldest daughter, she had had to leave school early to look after her siblings.
Monica suffered racist abuse at school. Later on, she looked for her father, but he had died. But she’s seen photos: “That’s my dad. I know who I am and it just wipes out all the pain.”
Terry was born in 1944 in Leicester to a married mother who already had five children. When her husband returned, he grudgingly allowed Terry and his twin to remain. Terry was told his father had died in the war. In the 1990s, he discovered that his father, John L Hendricks, who had been moved to Wales before Terry’s birth, had been shot by a white American shore patrol. Black GIs in a Jeep had seemingly not heard an order to halt and the patrol fired into the vehicle. The white GIs were exonerated.
Separated by the law and the Atlantic
Black GIs who wanted to care for their children had to overcome huge hurdles
In December 1945, Somerset County Council approached home secretary James Chuter Ede about having the ‘brown babies’ in their children’s homes adopted by the children’s putative fathers, near-relatives or other ‘coloured’ families in the US.
Chuter Ede pointed out that, as the 1939 Adoption Act only allowed children to be sent abroad to live with British subjects or relatives, African-American couples who came forward to adopt were thus excluded, and as putative (literally ‘reputed to be’) fathers only (DNA testing was not introduced until the 1960s) the black GIs were not legally deemed to be relatives. In the US, however, a group of upper-middle-class black women in Chicago had formed a Brown Babies Organizing Committee, which had compiled a list of more than 500 couples wishing to adopt.
On 5 April 1947 the US adoption endeavour was set back by a sensational story in the Daily Mail claiming that “5,000 dusky ‘problem babies’… left behind by coloured US troops” were about to be shipped to America. The Home Office denied the story, but the rumour spread widely. One Mississippi Congressman declared: “[I am] unalterably opposed to bringing to this country a lot of illegitimate half-breed negro children… the offspring of the scum of the British Isles.”
In January 1948, there was a change in Home Office policy. An agreement had been arrived at with the Americans: a child would be permitted to travel to its putative father (or his relatives) in the US, if this was deemed to be “in the best interests of the child”. No mention was made of this countering the Adoption Act. But it appears that, through 1948, the authorities became increasingly concerned about being seen to be shirking responsibility. In the event, few children actually got to the US. Just over a year later, the Home Office made a further volte-face and refused to allow children to leave.