The 1940s began with world at war. In 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbour, over three million African American soldiers would enlist, with 500,000 seeing action overseas. Fighting for freedom, whilst lacking freedom for themselves. Amidst segregation, discrimination and racism the Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly Black newspaper launched the ‘Double V Campaign’ a victory at home, and a victory abroad.
Weeks after the fall of Nazi Germany, the end of the Second World War, African and Caribbean leaders from all over the world gathered in Chorlton Town Hall, Manchester, for the Fifth Pan African Congress in October 1945. The congress ran for six days, a rare depiction of historical international Black powerhouses coming together under one roof; these included figures such as Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Amy Ashwood Garvey, W E B Du Bois, George Padmore and Ras Makonnen. The Congress was held in Manchester, rather than London, because of Ras Makonnen and Dr Peter Milliard who had established strong community roots, founding the Negro Association in the city in 1943.
In 1948, US Armed Forces were integrated under executive order by President Truman (although this move was likely urged by the fear of military confrontation with the Soviet Union). In that same year, the National Party officially instigated the policy of apartheid in South Africa. The African National Congress (founded in 1912) was remodelled as a mass movement in protest.
The economic difficulties shared by countries around the world, intensified migration flows from commonwealth countries to help rebuild the economy of Britain, ‘the mother country’. In March 1947, the SS Ormonde transported 108 migrants from Jamaica to Liverpool; and in December, the Almanzora docked with new migrants. In the nation’s history of migration, these two ships and their passengers are now largely left in the shadows of history.
Early examples of British television and radio showcasing Black talent began to evolve, with Variety in Sepia aired by the BBC in 1947. The programme featured Black British singer and actress Evelyn Dove, Trinidadian folk singer Edric Connor, trumpeter Cyril Blake and pianist Winifred Atwell, alongside African American tap dancer Mable Lee and jazz singer Adelaide Hall.
In 1948, The British Nationality Act was passed as legislation, in the spirit to maintain and enhance the bonds between Britain and the Commonwealth. The same year, people from across the Caribbean, as British Citizens travelled on the SS Empire Windrush to start new lives in the UK. The National Health Service (NHS) was founded in July 1948 and coincided with the wave of Commonwealth migration to Britain, heralding what has become to be defined as the Windrush era.
During the Second World War, African American GIs joined other African and Caribbean regiments. In Leicester, Black ordnance and quartermaster battalions were stationed in Evington Lane, with Black Supply and Service Units based in Gaddesby Hall, were some of the first US troops to arrive in the city. The African American troops were largely welcomed by people in Leicester, although tensions grew with the arrival of the white 82nd Airborne Division. In February 1944, a riot broke out between Black and white American soldiers, with at least 12 service men injured. It is considered to be one of the first race riots of the modern age in Britain. Sparked by white American Military Police using racial expletives, the Military Police were surprised to find local people ready to side with the Black GIs.
Many volunteers from the West Indies joined the Royal Air Force and were stationed across the central England and the East Midlands. Many servicemen chose to settle in the region after the war including Clifton Robinson, Mervyn Ishmael, Eric Hudson, Frank Henry, Ronald Rochester.
Clifton Robinson had served in the RAF from 1944-1949, becoming an early pioneer of Leicester’s African Caribbean community. He later taught at Mellor Primary School in Leicester and was Leicester’s first Black Justice of the Peace.
A scheme sponsored by the Colonial Office also sponsored nurses from the commonwealth, with records of Caribbean nurses working at Leicester General Hospital from 1945. Many student nurses from the Caribbean also trained at Leicester University College.
Bourne, S. (2012). The Motherland Calls: Britain’s Black Servicemen & Women, 1939-45. 1st ed. Cheltenham: The History Press
Chessum, L., (2000). From Immigrants to Ethnic Minority, Making Black Community in Britain. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Olusoga, D., (2016). Black and British, A Forgotten History. 1st ed. London: Pan Macmillan
Archive pictures show Leicester’s Abbey Park over the years. Available at: https://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/news/leicester-news/gallery/archive-pictures-show-leicesters-abbey-2295514 (Accessed on: 25 July 2019)
British Nationality Act. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo6/11-12/56/enacted (Accessed on: 20 July 2019)
Variety in Sepia – Surviving Fragment. Available at: https://archive.org/details/VarietyInSepia (Accessed on: 20 July 2019)
Picturing Race in the British National Health Service, 1948- 1988. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/tcbh/article/28/1/83/2671026 (Accessed on: 10 September 2019)
Black History Milestones. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-milestones (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)
The History Engine. Available at: https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4682 (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)
Liberation History Timeline, 1940 – 1949. Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/liberation-history-timeline-1940-1949 (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)
Apartheid, 1948 – 1994. Available at: https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/apartheid-1948-1994/ (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)
The West Indies Ships That Arrived Before The Windrush. Available at: https://londonist.com/london/history/the-west-indies-ships-that-came-over-before-the-windrush (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)15