Although the British Governments stance on African-Americans wasn’t pleasant (due to appeasement of the USA), a lot of evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that African-Americans were warmly welcomed by British people, and the action of the white Americans in furthering a colour bar was roundly condemned. Stories about Black Americans, which probably had their origins in truth, assumed the status of popular myths. Everywhere, it was reported, pubs were displaying signs reading, ‘For British people and coloured Americans only.’ Similarly bus conductresses in all parts of the country were said to be telling the African-Americans not to give up their seats to whites as ‘they were in England’ now. Probably the most popular story came from a West Country farmer. When asked about the visitors he replied: ‘I love the Americans but I don’t like these white ones they’ve brought with them.’
The people of England-rightfully ignoring the idiotic declarations of their leaders-tended to back up the stories of the black soldiers more often than that of white soldiers, especially after fights that had taken place. Perhaps the most notorious story of the brief sojourn of black soldiers in England during World War II has to do with the story of Leroy Henry. Like countless black men before him, Leroy Henry had been convicted and sentenced to execution on charges of raping a white woman. The utter lack of evidence to back up this contention was trumpeted so loudly by a British newspaper that came to Henry’s defense, that General Dwight Eisenhower was eventually forced to step in and overrule the verdict.
And what did the Americans make of the British response to their race issue as imported by the US military? Time magazine took the view that the British used the question of race as a peg on which to hang their anti-Americanism. Its argument went something like this: there was a view in the country that the United States had again come late into the war, and was leaving much of the fighting to the British. Racial discrimination was one indication that America was less than perfect and this enabled some British people to ‘cook a snook’ at their over-confident ally. The magazine commented that ‘Great Britain… had never faced the “race problem” at home. America’s polite, liquid-voiced, smartly uniformed African-American soldiers were a surprise, a pleasure, and a happy opportunity for them to thumb the nose of moral self-righteousness at the US.
As the British continued what some of the American visitors saw as their “pampering” of African-Americans, White American hostility, and sometimes loathing, began to be directed towards their hosts. A corporal writing home from Cheltenham was bitter about the British and ‘the n***** – believe it or not – the English seem to actually prefer them to the white boys. Especially the girls – not that I give a hang for them anyhow, but it is disgusting, to say the least. Maybe the south is right – keep ‘em in line, one way or another. That is enough to make me inclined to look down on the English in general to start with.’
In May, George Orwell was told by a recently arrived GI that anti-British feeling was general in the US Army. The first question asked by this soldier as he came off the boat was ‘How’s England?’ In reply an American military policeman had told him: ‘The girls here walk out with n******… They call them American Indians.’