In 1942, following the USA’s entry into the War, American troops started to arrive in Britain in large numbers. The British government was anxious to foster good relations with our allies, and made a number of suggestions as to how people should be hospitable. For example, if it was at all possible, you might want to invite some American soldiers to your home for tea.
An elderly middle class spinster living in a suburb of Bristol decided that she should do her bit, and so she wrote to the commandant of the nearest American camp. She would like, she wrote, to invite half a dozen of his men to her home for tea the following Sunday afternoon. Being no more or less prejudiced than others of her race and social class at the time, and having heard that there were lots of Jews in America, she added a PS: “No Jews please”.
Come Sunday, there was a knock at the door and she opened it to six big African-American soldiers. Of course being a lady of her race and class at the time, she was horrified at the idea of inviting black men into her home. “Oh dear,” she says. “I think there must have been some sort of mistake …”
“I don’t think so ma’am,” said one of the soldiers removing his cap politely. “Our colonel, Colonel Cohen, he don’t make mistakes.”
While this story looks as though it might well be a Jewish/American joke, it was told to me as gospel truth in a pub in Bristol by an elderly gentleman many years ago. It might even be true, or perhaps an exaggerated version of a true story.
While the popular image of the GI invasion of Britain – “oversexed, overpaid and over here” – tends to be of white soldiers, many African-Americans served in the US forces during WW2, and there were large numbers of them in Bristol.
The US Army in the early 1940s was a reflection of American society in general. Formal and informal barriers were placed in the way of promotion for black soldiers, and most of them were incorporated into segregated units. The brass did not at first trust black troops in frontline combat roles (though they were to amply prove their worth before the war was out) and they were relegated to second-line duties. Bristol, as a major Atlantic port and point of entry for American troops, saw many African-American servicemen working in logistics, or even as dockers. In their free time they went into town, and formed friendships with local women. White American troops, particularly those from southern states, did not like this, and resentments boiled over into a full-blown American race riot, in Bristol, in 1944.
Meanwhile, you have to wonder if younger people would understand the above story, or the racial prejudices of a stereotypical middle class Englishwoman born during the reign of Queen Victoria. Anti-Semitism in Britain wasn’t as murderous as it was in many parts of Europe, but it certainly existed.
* This story, and a number of others, feature in an iPhone app about Bristol urban legends. The app was made by the University of the West of England with the help of Bristol Festival of Ideas. It will be showcased as one of the fringe events at the BBC Radio 4 More Than Words listening festival in Bristol. Details of these will be on the Radio 4 website over the weekend of 16–18 March.