Terry’s GI Dad and the African American uprisings in WW2 Britain

Terry's Gi Dad Trailer

In 1943 and 1944, major race riots erupted in Lancashire, Leicester, Bristol and Cornwall. But these weren’t riots involving British people. The fighting on the streets involved African American soldiers, stationed in Britain, rioting against their own US military police and the Jim Crow segregation being enforced. The dramatic consequences that followed would change civil rights in Britain and America but also leave over 2,000 children of African American GIs born in Britain cut off from their fathers.

Terry’s GI Dad is a feature documentary looking at this dramatic social history through the story of Terry Harrison from Leicester who was the son of one of these black GIs.

Terry never knew his biological father and since his mother died, has been on a search to find out the truth.

His journey has taken a major new turn as a result of DNA testing and help he is receiving from the charity GI Trace.

African American men and women were the first GIs to arrive in Britain in 1942, but they were colour-barred from being soldiers, instead only allowed to serve in support roles: building the bases, transporting supplies, engineering, medical support and postal work.

The racism towards African American GIs led to race riots and trouble at many US military bases across the country. The rebellion against segregation in Britain resulted in the British public and press supporting the African Americans. As veteran Wilford Strange said, this was the initiation of the civil rights movement against racism, discrimination, and racial violence.

The British public widely opposed the discrimination and some of the bravest supporters of the Black GIs were local women.

Patricia Venn from Bristol recalls: ‘My sister and I met black soldiers at local dances who taught us to jive and jitterbug. The men worked at the docks in Avonmouth. They also drove supplies all over the country and some were medical orderlies. They were polite and cheerful and brought gaiety to our drab lives. British children were having a hard time. The black Americans were very kind to them. From ‘42-’45 we made lots of friendships. Our narrow world opened up with picnics, ice-cream, Christmas parties.

Many relationships blossomed between the black GIs and local women and some resulted in what some newspapers referred to as “brown babies”. Most of these children were born out of wedlock because black GIs were refused permission to marry by their commanding officers and. Back in the US, 30 of the then 48 states had anti-miscegenation laws.

Many of the children were given up for adoption or grew up in foster care. Growing up in white communities they lacked black or mixed race role models. Many experienced persistent racism. Although Terry’s mum did keep him, she suffered abuse for it and he had a difficult upbringing with the stigma of illegitimacy hanging over him and a denial of his identity and Black American heritage.

Terry’s Journey

Although Terry never knew his GI dad, he followed him in pursuing a military career, in his case becoming a Royal Marines Commander. Terry is also a campaigner, a keen gardener and proud Leicester City FC supporter. For all his achievements including becoming a magistrate, not knowing who his real father was left a void in his life. Now through DNA testing the full truth is emerging for him and the documentary will help him set the record straight and complete his journey in American.

The documentary began thanks to Lucy Bland’s landmark book “Britain’s Brown Babies,” (which features Terry) and with the help of the charities GI Trace and The Mixed Museum.

2022 marked the 80th anniversary of the first arrival of GIs in the UK in 1942. In the past, there was little representation of African American service personnel and their vital contribution at major museums. Today, after numerous campaigns for change, there are finally photos and information on display in US museums like The National WWII Museum in New Orleans and in Britain at the Imperial War Museum. British born Hollywood star Thandiwe Newton OBE, posted movingly last year about Lucy Bland’s book on Instagram to raise awareness on what has now become a growing cause to heal historic wrongs and improve awareness on the subject. Like British villagers at the time, we can see that what happened was wrong. Many Brits at the time stood up for the civil rights of these GIs and today though we can’t change the past we can make progress through remembering.

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