During World War II, of the three million American GIs stationed in Britain, approximately 8% were African-American. Their relationships with British women resulted in the birth of around 2,000 mixed-race children, called ‘brown babies’ by the African-American press.
Black GIs, in the then segregated US Army, were generally forbidden to marry their white girlfriends – and as a result, nearly half of the mothers of these babies placed their children in children’s homes. Prof Bland’s project is the first in-depth study of these children and the difficulties they faced, such as racism, lack of a father or a clear identity.
Lucy is a social and cultural historian specialising in British gender history, the history of race relations, and the history of sexuality. She leads the MA History degree at ARU.Find out more about Prof Lucy Bland Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO
There has been minimal study of Britain’s ‘brown babies’, who are now in their 70s. Prof Bland’s project drew on more than 60 first-hand accounts of this aspect of Black history and of World War II. Through these accounts, we learn more about the period’s practices and beliefs concerning race, prejudice, illegitimacy, and child welfare.
We also gain insight into some of the difficulties the children faced:
Interviewees also noted a sense of self-worth if and when they found birth fathers or US relatives.
The research also shone a light on the difficulties that faced the mothers of these children.
Prof Bland was the sole researcher for this project, with the interviews transcribed by professional transcribers.
There have been a number of notable outcomes, first among them being the sense of well-being and community it has fostered among those born to black GIs and British women in World War II.
Many met each other through the project, and their stories have helped to change public understanding of this largely unknown part of recent history.
The ‘brown babies’ histories have been presented on radio, television, in a book, and through two exhibitions. The interview tapes were edited for storage at the Black Cultural Archives, where they can be accessed by the public.
Prof Bland’s book, Britain’s ‘Brown Babies’, has sold over 2,000 copies and won the Social History Society’s Book of the Year prize. Published articles explored the British Government’s ambivalence about these children being mixed-race and half-American; the bravery of the mothers who kept their children; and the children’s search for their fathers’ roots.
Meanwhile an exhibition was launched at the Black Cultural Archives in November 2019 before starting a tour of the country. With the tour interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical exhibition instead became a digital one. Greatly expanded, it was uploaded onto the Mixed Museum website in September 2020. In 2021 it won a prestigious national Museums Association award, the Digital Engagement Award. More and more people are contacting Prof Bland with their own stories having seen the online museum.
Prof Bland’s research is innovative in creating a self-sustaining community of participants which will last well beyond the end of the research project.
One of those interviewed commented: ‘I have an official history, as a member of a collective. It feels good to have an opportunity to contribute my small piece in the telling of that story… I feel like I belong here in the UK just that little bit more.’
Prof Bland’s interviewees found the process of telling their stories to be cathartic. Since everything written about each interviewee was shown to them for approval, they feel a real stake in the final product. One interviewee wrote:
‘I can't thank you enough. It feels like vindication for what was a difficult start in life. My grandchildren will read it one day and hopefully learn about how it was in the words of us who lived it. If I could have put into words what I hoped for at the end of my life it would have been a book that told my story – you did that.’
Many of the interviewees were present at the launch of Prof Bland’s book, Britain’s ‘Brown Babies’, in 2019. Two gave speeches, with one declaring: ‘It was a tonic to talk to someone who really wanted to know about me and how my life had been.’
At this launch they formed a private Facebook group; and membership of the group is growing as Prof Bland comes into contact with more ‘brown babies’ and directs them to it. It is a forum for sharing stories, photographs and meeting each other and is seen by its participants as hugely valuable. One wrote: ‘It is so comforting to know that we all share very similar experiences which until now we could not express. I am sure most of us felt alone in our anguish of those early days.’
When Prof Bland first interviewed her participants, many said they knew little or nothing about their fathers, often not even a name. She encouraged them to undergo a DNA test then join the free organisation GI Trace, an online group that traces GI relatives, and seek the advice of a freelance DNA researcher.
The researcher has so far helped more than 20 of Bland’s interviewees. She commented: ‘Without a doubt finding American birth families has changed people’s lives. There is a common phrase used by many people, Thank you, you have given me my roots.’
One interviewee recently found his half-sister and commented: ‘The ‘brown babies’ story is still unfolding, even as we speak. It's important to know where you come from. It can mean so much to so many people.’
The wider public has benefitted from hearing about Prof Bland’s research, learning about a little-known aspect of British Black history, World War II, and the post-war childcare system.
The Brown Babies exhibition encourages the writing of a ‘Responses’ section, which in turn is creating a new archive for researchers. A museum in Norfolk, Ancient House Museum, has used the findings from the book and the online exhibition in their educational programme with schools.
One exhibition visitor noted: ‘The powerful nature of the personal stories, which are so moving, and also the amazing power of old photographs when well explained and contextualised. A really engaging exhibition – full of life, and in turns poignant, sad and joyful.’
Another added: ‘…The truth of our ‘official’ histories hides the stories people don't tell – because we don't ask. My aunt, who survived Auschwitz, only told her own story after seeing Schindler's List. I hope others will be inspired to ask more questions, and to hear more stories.’
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