History

 

Blacks and the blitz: Britain's best kept wartime secret

As Luftwaffe bombers set London ablaze, blacks volunteered for the toughest wartime civilian tasks. They helped quell raging fires, patrol docks and factories, protect shabby working class terraced houses, guard the grand homes and squares, evacuate children, feed the urban masses, warn against enemy attacks, care for the sick and wounded and bury the dead.

Heroic exploits
That black people were among the brave home front defenders is not as surprising at it seems. At least twenty thousand born-in-Britain blacks had lived in Britain for several generations. Many thousands more colonial Africans and West Indians had come as students and professionals. Others came as voluntary workers to defend "democracy and their mother country".

Mr Harold Moody

Prominent names in the honour roll of blacks in the blitz are the Jamaicans Buzz Barton, Sam Blake and Granville Alexander; Trinidadians G.A.Roberts, E. Gonzalez and Singh; the Sierra Leonians Billy Williams, Charles Allen and A.K.Lewis; Laryea from the Gold Coast; Nigerians Ita Ekpenyon, Ote Johnson and A. Kester; D.E.Headley from British Guiana, the South African E. Mahlohella, the Liberian S. Shannon. Many others in the legendary band of ARPs - the Air Raid Precautions service - are still to be acknowledged.

Moody the man
Probably the heroic exploits of black people in the civil defence would have gone unheralded, but for one man. Harold Moody (1882-1947), a Jamaican born doctor and founder of the campaigning League of Coloured Peoples, reported their contributions in trouble spots across the beleaguered nation in his journal, The Keys.

Tending victims of the ferocious Nazi blitz attacks, Dr Harold Moody, an army medical corps officer and devout Christian, felt strangely comforted that the good Lord had given him and other "coloured colonial subjects" a chance to prove their worth in the 1940s battle of Britain.

A hero in his own right, Dr. Moody once risked his life in a V2 rocket attack at New Cross, south London, that claimed 200 lives. He picked his way over puddled streets day and night to heal the sick and wounded amidst the danger of falling bombs. And his first-aid post at a Deptford hospital became a model for other teams of rescuers.

But Moody was a visionary black champion, too. He knew that in the midst of national trauma and devastation it would be far too easy for Winston Churchill's government to overlook the crucial wartime contributions of blacks in Britain and the colonies.

Neither foreign tyranny nor home-based prejudice
For Moody and the League, the defence against Nazi tyranny was indivisible from the cause of black people. Colonials cried out for self-determination and black Britons sought respite from deep-seated racial prejudices.

Britain's black defence workers - tank and aircraft makers, mechanics, instrument repairers and Home Guards - were unwelcome in many pubs and clubs after their arduous labours. Black children evacuated to small towns and villages were often scorned and unwanted by their hosts.

Black women in the Women's Voluntary Services were often singled out for abuse. Black volunteers to the Woman's Land Army, that took over farm work while the men were away, faced rejection by local people when seeking accommodation. In one publicised case, Amelia King, born in Stepney of third generation West Indian parents, with her father and brothers in the navy, was turned away by farmers and villagers who did not want a black person billeted near them.

Strange cocktail
Black air raid wardens in underground stations and street shelters suffered obscenities and raging animosity from Londoners unused to taking instructions from blacks. Though targeted as scapegoats the wardens stood fast. The ARP service man Ita Ekpenyon, a Nigerian from Calabar, calmly responded to his racist tormentors saying: "Though I am an air raid warden in London, I am still an African...and would like to see a spirit of friendliness, co-operation and comradeship prevail."

On the fighting fronts the travesty of wartime values was also apparent. Trinidad and Jamaica had sent entire squadrons. Tens of thousands from the Empire came without hesitation. Yet, "Black service personnel found their reception in Britain a strange cocktail of genuine welcome and direct discrimination," recalled one ex-serviceman. Challenging the authorities, Dr. Moody petitioned Winston Churchill's wartime government to end the colour bar in the British armed forces, saying: "As British citizens we claim this as our due".

Knocking at the door
As the battle of Britain progressed, bombs and danger could not halt Moody's crusade. He deeply believed that black-white co-operation to end Hitlerism must also lead to equality of all subjects of the Crown in Britain and the colonies. Campaigning zealously, he petitioned Parliament, and thundered in the pages of The Keys, "We are knocking at the door and will not be denied."

Removing race and colour barriers, creating tolerant public opinion, and launching programmes for black advancement are essential, he said in a rousing manifesto to The Times, September 12th, 1940,. Though dismissed by some observers as a dangerous alarmist for rocking the boat of wartime harmony, Moody secured the signed agreement to his views of practically every leader of Christian life and opinion.

Finest hour
This exceptional media victory was followed by an even greater honour, according to his biographer David A. Vaughan. Dr. Moody attended the presentation of a generous gift to Britain - a fleet of 35 mobile canteens paid for by colonial peoples - that was accepted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace on December 12th, 1940.

There, in the midst of wartime Black Britain's finest hour, Dr. Harold Moody, "the Negro of Jamaica and Peckham received the recognition of the Royal House of the British Commonwealth of Nations," said his biographer, "the champion of the coloured races stood and conversed with the First Lady in the land."


Note and selected sources:

A casual glance at the shelves in a major London bookshop reveals no mention of black people in the copious notes and photographs in two books devoted to Britain's wartime civil defence services:Carroll, David (1999) The Home Guard. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, and Brown, Mike (1999) Put That Light Out: Britain's Civil Defence Services at War. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd.

 

Useful information sources include:

Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA), 28 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DS

Black Cultural Archives, 378 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London SW9 8LF

Black Presence - http://www.blackpresence.co.uk/html/moody.html

Bourne, Stephen, "We also served", BBC History Magazine, vol.1, no 5, September 2000.

Fryer, Peter (1984), Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press

Scobie, Edward (1972), Black Brittania: The History of Blacks in Britain. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.

The Keys, official organ of the League of Coloured Peoples, launched July 1933.

Vaughan, David A. (1950), Negro Victory: The Life Story of Dr. Harold Moody. London: Independent Press Ltd.