Relations and racial tensions in wartime Northern Ireland

Throughout the Second World War, Northern Ireland welcomed United States Army soldiers regardless of race. There was no colour bar in Ulster.

Between January 1942 and the end of the Second World War in Europe, over 300,000 United States Army troops passed through Ulster. For the most part, relations between locals and the visiting troops were good. Complications sometimes arose due to issues imported along with the military. This was Northern Ireland's first experience of the racism that was rampant in the United States at the time.

In 1943, the first African American soldiers arrived in Northern Ireland. They served in segregated units as part of the Quartermaster Corps or the Transportation Corps. Although mostly based in Co. Antrim, some found themselves in more rural areas of Ulster such as the 303rd Quartermaster Railhead Company in Bessbrook, Co. Armagh.

In August 2005, Anthony Carroll of the Newry Journal recounted a story from Councillor Billy McCaigue. Billy remembered the black American soldiers based at Derrymore House, Bessbrook, Co. Armagh.

One afternoon one of the soldiers came into the shop in the village and the young lady asked: “Sir, what can I get you?” The soldier wondered who she was talking to as he was the only person in the shop. “I’m sorry,” he said: “It’s just that no one has ever called me ‘Sir’ before. Being black I’ve been called many names but never ‘Sir’.”

This attitude was prevalent in the early years of the American presence in Northern Ireland. Local people, for the most part, treated the troops as equals regardless of race. Lorna Niven lived in Moneymore, Co. Londonderry where her father was the village school teacher. She tells of her parents’ friendship with a young black soldier named Brent (or Brett) “Mudd” Johnson. He was a regular visitor to the Niven home for games and meals and continued to send the family Christmas cards after the war.

There is not any coloured people in Ireland, but the Irish people treat us as if we were one of them.

US Army Private

In the early days, media on both sides of the Atlantic documented the warm reception given to the regiments of African-American troops. In late 1942, a survey reported an 80% approval rating of the British by black soldiers. The following quotes all come from black servicemen based in Northern Ireland.

[The Irish are] fine people who have never heard of discrimination and stuff like that. This is a great country here and the people are very friendly. I am living the happiest days of my life.

US Army Corporal

Black Steward on board a US Destroyer

Imperial War Museum Photo: A 9196 (Part of the Admiralty Official Collection). Black stewards serving in the ward room on a US destroyer, one of the first which arrived at the Londonderry naval base in January 1942 after escorting a convoy across the Atlantic. Copyright Lieutenant HW Tomlin - Royal Navy Photographer.

Race and Relationships

British and American soldiers and sailors were part of the problem as tensions flared in Northern Ireland. Back home in the USA, relationships between black men and white women would be more than frowned upon. Such relationships often led to public beatings or worse. No such taboos existed in Great Britain or Northern Ireland.

All the girls are crazy about us. Get a load of this. I am loaded down with these Irish girls.

US Army Corporal

Many African-American soldiers enjoyed the company of local girls across Northern Ireland. White American GIs observed this fraternisation.

They shipped in some of them black boys and the people act as if they never saw any of them before. The gals go for them in a big way here, they think they’re cute.

US Army Sergeant

One Unionist MP made disparaging comments not only about black GIs but also Catholic girls.

[Local girls stepping out with black GIs were] mostly of the lowest type and belong to our minority.

Along with the troops shipped over from the southern states came racist attitudes. These underlying tensions along with the huge impact the troops had on rural Irish communities would lead to flare-ups. One white American Sergeant predicted trouble.

It seems that several outfits of colored troops preceded us over here and have succeeded pretty well in salting away the local feminine pulchritude. The girls really go for them in preference to the white boys, a fact that irks the boys no end, especially those of the outfit that come from the north. No doubt there will be some bloodshed in the near future.

He was to be proven right. After the murder of a black GI in September 1942, the US Army encouraged racial segregation in Northern Ireland. This meant separate lodgings, dances, parties, etc. where possible. This came into effect in several towns and villages west of the River Bann. The aim was to protect the American troops from each other rather than protect them from locals.

Letter from a "colored" soldier

The ill-feeling of the time is recorded in a letter from an unnamed soldier held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. (CAB/CD/225/19).

Dear Sirs,

I am an American, colored, soldier. My group of fellows have been stationed here in Antrim for 9 months. We are trying to do our part in the fight for freedom, but since we have been here we have met so much segrergation [sic], prejudice and strife. Some time we doubt the allied cause. We are stationed near Antrim, located in the town, at the establishments of Hall’s and Murphy’s. They are hotel owners. In visiting these establishments, we have been segrergated [sic]. To describe one incident, a friend and I visited Hall’s, they refused to serve us because we are colored.

Dear Sir, you and I both know that regardless to color, we all are human. We come to Ireland not because we wanted to, but we came just to do our part in this war. Since being here we have gained the respect of the people in Ireland. One town in particular is Carrickfergus. We were there for five weeks and I can assure you that we were perfect gentlemen. When we left the people cried; they want us to stay there. The people of that town is giving us a party on the 23rd of this month. Sir, for the people like us then we must be gentlemen. The wee kids here they cried for us to return to them. We visit them at every opportunity. The people are always glad to see us. If we treat the people nice, then they should treat us the same.

I believe that you are a man of justice and I think that you believe is right. Regardless to where a man is born or regardless to his colour, every man has his right to enjoy life here on this earth. Just because I am a dark man doesn’t mean that I am not intelligent. The anatomy of the white man is the same as the dark man. God created all men as brothers, and my belief is that since we are all here in Ireland we should live as brothers and not as enemies.

We hate to walk the streets of Belfast merely because we are insulted. They use the words ‘nigger’ and ‘darky’. Those are two words that we hate. Those words were brought here by the American whites. The American whites taught the people those words in order to start strife and envy among the people and us. The Americans are the lowest breed of the human race. They fear us because of our ability to advance in knowledge. We want to be friends of the Irish, not enemies. We want the people to like us not hate us. If your people visit Africa, or some dark continent, they would be treated as human.

Sir, will you try your influence on the people? To show our love for the Irish children, our battalion raised a fund to support an Irish orphan for five years. We love the children and they love us. As I walked through the streets of Ireland, accepting insults, I sometimes wonder if the people are ignorant to the fact that they are insulting us. Please try your influence to correct the people on these errors. Print it in the paper that we are colored Americans not niggers or darkies.

Lately we have had fights with British sailors and soldiers. They call us Black Bastards, sons-of-bitches. We take these to a certain degree. Carrickfergus is the only town in Northern Ireland that we like because when we visited there we are treated like human. I believe all Irish are kind. I would reveal my name but if I did the American Authorities would Court Martial me. They don’t like the truth.

I close in the name of the God of all men,
A colored soldier.

Soldier vs Soldier

In some cases, the influence of white American troops influenced local feelings towards the black GIs. Local people would try to curry favour with the white troops and higher-ranking officials. One black soldier based in Northern Ireland called out the locals:

We Negro soldiers have tried hard to show what our people can do ever since we have been here, but it is so hard. We don’t mind doing our share, but the Paddies do everything to make us look like dogs to the English people. Not only the privates but the officers. It seems like the big shots who run this army don’t care and all the little paddies know it. I know an awful lot of our boys are getting awful mad and mean about this, and there is going to be lots of trouble. You wouldn’t believe the lies they have told everybody about us. They go in gangs and beat you up and then if our boys have to cut some of them to keep from getting hurt they say Negro soldiers are bad.

As the war went on, racial tensions demoralised some of the racially segregated regiments. AWOL rates increased and the early good feelings gave way to despondency.

I would like to get away from this damn place. It gets worse everyday.

US Army Soldier

Nowhere to go except to a show. I am not going to town at night. It is too dangerous. Our white soldiers make our life miserable and I do not want to come into a fight. In case that something should happen the colored fellow so and so would not get any justice.

US Army Soldier

Another black soldier in Northern Ireland summed up the situation quite succinctly.

I began to wonder whether I had been sent overseas to fight against our white soldiers or against the Nazis.

An end to segregation

As early as September 1940, President Roosevelt had signed the Selective Training and Service Act. This contained an anti-discrimination clause. Entrenched racism continued to prevail in everyday American life. This included the higher military ranks.

Soon after the Second World War, segregation in the United States Military officially came to an end. Time spent serving together in places such as Northern Ireland no doubt had an influence on this. The people of Ulster look back fondly on the time spent here by the American GIs regardless of their creed or colour.