Racism & Murder in WW2 Hull

David Young

WW2 Hull saw terrible bombing and the importation of Jim Crow Laws.
African American Troops in 1945
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Racism & Murder in WW2 Hull

I grew up in Cottingham – one of the claimants for largest village in England, but in effect, a suburb of the city of Hull – in the 1960s, in reality just a few years after the Second World War had ended, although as a child it seemed like ancient history.

I was vaguely aware of the war, read war comics with all their inherent racism and jingoism, and even played in an old air raid shelter hidden in a wooded area behind our suburban, 1950s house.

But what I never knew until I read the pages of the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire project a couple of years ago, while researching my new WW2 Hull-set crime novel Death In Blitz City, was that in wartime there was a battalion of American GIs stationed in my village.

And – even more surprisingly – it was segregated along racial lines between the white officers, who stayed in an old manor house near the present site of Cottingham High School, with the Black GIs in Nissan huts in the grounds.

It was the 256th Port Battalion of the US Army, a non-combatant unit which worked at Hull Docks.

This provided some of the inspiration for the novel – and a key plotline of racism was reflected in real life, although I have fictionalised my port battalion with a different number, and stationed them on the other side of the village.

Many of the real-life black GIs were welcomed warmly by the people of Hull and Cottingham. The American soldiers used to try out their dance moves on local girls at the King Street Rooms on the village square (somewhere I knew well – my parents hired it for one of my birthday parties while at primary school in the mid 1960s).

That led to some close relationships forming, for example between black US serviceman Wylie Young and a girl called Ellen Gulliver, a story recounted by Jane Bielby in a piece for the African Stories project. Wylie was said to be “a proper gentleman, very respectful and also very handsome”.

African American troops in England during the war.

At the time, just a year after the peak of the Hull Blitz (it’s generally considered to have been the most heavily-bombed city outside of London) the blackout was still in force, and Wylie would insist on walking Ellen back to her home in Finkle Street – a few hundred yards from the dance hall.

A friendship developed with the family, with Wylie providing them with treats usually denied British citizens because of wartime rationing.

But the close relationship between a local white family and a black soldier didn’t go unnoticed back at the US base. It led to Wylie’s (white) commanding officer visiting Ellen’s family in person and asking them to “refrain from entertaining black servicemen, as mixing was not permitted”.

The American colonel was told in no uncertain terms that “he was not in America now” and that Ellen refused to be bound by his rules. It’s just a small example of the way Jim Crow laws were imported into Britain by the US military in WW2.

A far more sinister story I learned about during my research – something that was the subject of a controversial Channel 4 documentary in the early 2000s – was the way the Americans were given their own prison (in the Somerset town of Shepton Mallet), and in effect administered their own laws, under the provisions of the United States of America (Visiting Forces) Act 1942.

The prison was used as an execution centre, with executioners ‘borrowed’ from the British – Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint. According to the documentary a disproportionate number of black servicemen were executed, some on very flimsy evidence. Although approximately nine out of ten of the US military were white, ten of the eighteen servicemen executed at the prison were black.

All of these strands provided inspiration for the novel and are subjects my fictional team of detectives — Chief Inspector Ambrose Swift and his deputies Jim ‘Little’ Weighton and Women’s Auxiliary Police Constable Kathleen Carver – have to grapple with, despite apparent attempts by MI5 to derail their investigation.

As a postscript, the main source for the TV documentary alleged in a Guardian story that it had been deliberately pulled from the schedules then moved to a late-night ‘graveyard slot’ to avoid upsetting American sensibilities in the wake of 9/11, a claim Channel 4 denied.

David Young is the author of Death In Blitz City, published by Zaffre.

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