Britain's brown babies tell their story

Babs Gibson-Ward as a child, with a teddy bear

When Terry Harrison walked down the street with his mother as a child in the 1950s, neighbours in their rural Leicestershire village would rattle dustbin lids in disgust.

Others crossed the road to avoid them, and even family members broke off contact.

Terry and his twin sister Susan, born just after D-Day in June 1944, were the children of an affair between their married white mother and an African-American GI posted to Britain during World War Two. The twins were two of some 2,000 mixed-race babies born to white British women and black US servicemen after wartime relationships that defied the racist laws and social codes of the era.

Like many of his fellow ‘brown babies’, as the children were dubbed by the African-American press, Terry experienced prejudice and abuse in a Britain that, at the time, was still almost exclusively white. While the twins were brought up by their mother and step-father, almost half of the mixed-race infants were sent away to children’s homes, burdened with the combined stigma of illegitimacy and black heritage.

The complex and often traumatic histories of the ‘brown babies’, untold for decades with the scattered children barely aware of each other’s existence, are now being recognised at last following research by Lucy Bland, Professor of Social and Cultural History at ARU. Professor Bland stumbled on the babies’ extraordinary story by chance, while taking part in a BBC series on mixed-race Britons. Finding little had ever been written about them, she began in 2013 to track down the mixed-race GI babies, starting with two featured in the programme.

“It soon started to snowball,” Professor Bland says. “People came to me – I didn’t want to twist their arms. A lot of the women told me about abuse they had experienced. It was like opening a Pandora’s Box: many of them hadn’t told their story before and it all poured out.”

While almost 1,000 of the babies were placed in children’s homes, few ever found new families: adoption societies claimed mixed-race children were “too hard to place”. In school, they faced taunts from fellow pupils and humiliation from teachers: one little girl in Suffolk was made to do jigsaws while her classmates learned spellings because she “lacked the ability to learn”.

Some of the babies were kept by their mothers in defiance of social opprobrium, but unwilling stepfathers were rarely kind and pressures on single mothers were enormous. Most children were lied to about their biological fathers, leaving them to attempt to understand their “difference” on their own.

For the babies’ parents, marriage was never an option: the US military banned black GIs from marrying white women, just as the majority of American states had laws forbidding mixed marriage. Likewise, the US army was still fully segregated: the 240,000 African-American troops based in Britain over the period 1942-5 (around 8 per cent of the total 3 million GIs) carried out support roles such as building air bases and maintaining planes but were never permitted to fly. “They experienced extreme racism and violence,” says Professor Bland. “The black GIs were fighting a double war: against Hitler and against racism in their own ranks.

Growing up in white areas such as East Anglia, the West Country and Lancashire, the mixed-race babies and their mothers struggled with prejudice and isolation. “The children had no models in terms of people of colour. Sometimes they didn’t even initially know they were different skin-wise, even though they were called names because of it. One described looking in a mirror at 14 and realising she was black.”

All those interviewed by Professor Bland shared “a strong sense of lack” at not having a father. “They all had a sense of difficulty and a lack of belonging.” Even as the Windrush generation arrived and Britain’s population began to change, the ‘brown babies’ remained isolated, feeling themselves “not black enough” and with no collective identity. As adults, many wanted to find their fathers, but their mothers were often reluctant to give even a name and for many years, the US military refused to disclose information.

With the new ARU research, however, the ‘brown babies’ have begun not only to share their experiences but to uncover more about their own past. Even where information is scarce, many have used DNA testing to track down and even meet relatives including half siblings and cousins. The stories of 45 of the group are told in Professor Bland’s book, Britain's 'Brown Babies' and an exhibition on their experiences has been touring libraries.

“Telling their story has been very cathartic for them,” says Professor Bland. “So many say this has transformed their lives: they have met so many others in the same situation or have been helped to find their family. So many have said, ‘Now I have got a history, I feel part of this country because I am one of many.”

You can find out more about Professor Bland's research through the Mixed Museum's Brown Babies digital exhibition.