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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Lucy Bland, Professor of Social and Cultural History, Anglia Ruskin University

Lucy Bland is Professor of Social and Cultural History, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. She will be speaking about research for her forthcoming book in the session Love, Sex, Race and War on 24th October, 6.30-7.30pm.

 

Question: What prompted you to write your forthcoming book on children born to Black GIs and British Women in World War 2?

Lucy Bland: I first heard about such children when in October 2011 I watched the second episode of the three-part BBC series Mixed Britannia - a history of mixed-race people in Britain in the twentieth century. It opens with the presenter, George Alagiah, going off to meet his brother-in-law, Tony, a mixed-race GI baby. Later in the programme another war baby, Brian, also talks about his childhood. Both had been fathered by black American servicemen and given up by their mothers, but while Tony had been happily fostered, Brian had remained in Liverpool children’s homes until he was fourteen.

I had never heard of these GI war babies. At the time I was working on a book on the 1920s, but resolved that I would return to the topic of these children at a later date. So in 2013 I went back to the subject and discovered that not much had been written. This appeared to be a history that was very largely unknown. Histories of the British experience of the second world war are extensive, but they rarely feature these war babies.

Further, although everyone knows about the arrival of the ship the Empire Windrush in 1948, it is generally assumed to be the starting point for the growth of a post-war British black population. But about 2,000 mixed-race GI babies were born in Britain a few years prior to the Windrush’s arrival. This may not sound a large number, but if we take into account that the pre-war black British population was an estimated 7,000-10,000, these children represented a not insignificant 20 to 28 percent increase in the numbers of people of colour over a couple of years.

 

 

Q: How did you go about tracing the people you interviewed for your book?

LB: I managed to find and then interview Tony and Brian from the BBC programme. Brian in turn put me in touch with three other men who had been with him in the same Liverpool children’s homes. Through the online organisation ‘GI-trace’, which helps people find their GI fathers and relatives, I interviewed more people and contacts snowballed.

But the biggest breakthrough came when I appeared on BBC radio 4’s Women’s Hour in October 2016 alongside Deborah, one of these ‘children’ (now in their early seventies) who I had recently interviewed. In the end I talked to 37 ‘brown babies’ born in the 1940s (this was the term given by the African-American press), eight relatives of ‘brown babies’ where the person was ill or deceased and I drew on two memoirs, giving accounts of 45 British wartime mixed-race GI babies in all. I also talked to two mixed-race war babies with Jamaican fathers, because their situation was very similar to the GI babies, and to six ‘brown babies’ born in the 1950s with GI fathers.

 

 

Q: How many had no contact with their American family?

LB: Of the 45 British wartime mixed-race GI babies, 16 have had no contact with their American family and for another six the process is still on-going, in other words they have acquired recent DNA information and are waiting to hear back. So 21 have had contact with their American family, of which seven have met their fathers. For the others, their fathers had, unfortunately, already died.

 

 

Q: How many had tried to trace American relatives and how difficult was that?

LB: Only a few have not tried to trace their US relatives. Whether or not they were in a children’s home (as were 21 of the 45) or living with their mother or grandmother, it appears that most of these children were told little or nothing about their birth fathers, and the little they were told was often inaccurate or misleading. There was help in the form of two organisations set up in the 1980s: War Babes, founded by white GI baby Shirley McGlade, and TRACE, now online and renamed GI-trace.

In trying to obtain information about her father in the 1980s, McGlade came up against enormous barriers, as did all the GI babies. This was, of course, before the arrival of email and of digital data accessible via the internet; there was no easy way of searching. But the greatest barrier was the stone-walling by the US military. It was true that many of the US military records had gone up in flames in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St Louis, destroying approximately 80% of the military personnel records for army veterans discharged between 1912 and 1960, with no back-up records.

But remnants from the fire had been retrieved and it did not affect all military veterans. However, the US army refused to divulge any information, invoking the Privacy Act. With great determination, Shirley McGlade, aided by several civil rights lawyers in the US, took on the Secretary of the Department of Defense at the Pentagon and War Babes finally managed to change the law in 1990. The US military from then on was obliged to help under Freedom of Information legislation. With the recent and extensive use of DNA testing, finding US relatives is now proving a great deal easier, although it is rare that a father is still alive. AncestryDNA has the largest US data with over five million people registered. Some people who have searched for 30 years are now finding relatives.

 

 

Q: Were there some common themes in their stories?

LB: There were a number of common themes. Many of the children suffered stigma and racism as a child, not simply for being mixed-race but also for being illegitimate as the US army refused to allow the black GIs to marry their white girlfriends. The girls were often mocked for not meeting white western standards of beauty and hated their hair, who no one seemed able to deal with. The children also experienced a sense of loss in not having a father and identity confusion because they were generally growing up in very white areas and had no role models. They often lacked a sense of belonging. For those who were placed in children’s homes, very few were adopted as adoption societies would not take mixed-race children on their books because they were thought ‘too hard to place’.

 

 

Q: How were their mothers treated?

LB: Their mothers were frequently subjected to name-calling, such as ‘nigger lover’ and were taunted too for having an illegitimate child. Many were pressurised to give their baby up, but quite a few bravely insisted on holding onto them.  

 

 

Q: Do you feel the experiences of mixed race Britons have not had enough attention in academic research or generally?

LB: Absolutely. Until recently there has been little attention given to mixed-race Britons, but a wonderful new book has just been published, Mixed Race Britain in the Twentieth Century by Chamion Cabellero and Peter Aspinall, which will make a big difference.