Cultural historians from the School of Language and Global Studies marked the 70th anniversary of the infamous African American Black GI mutiny just outside Preston known locally as the Battle of Bamber Bridge on the weekend of 21-23 June 2013. In an innovative collaboration with Preston Black History Group and with the enthusiastic backing of their chair Clinton Smith, Professor Alan Rice organised a combination of University and community events to make sure that the “battle” was both academically scrutinised and appropriately remembered.
The Symposium at UCLan
With support from the Embassy of the United States and the Collegium for African American Research, SOLLIS held a symposium on the incident which involved the American military police, African American troops and local residents.
Speakers from the symposium with members of Preston Black History Group
Academics examined what happened and reflected on its importance as a landmark event that illustrated the American military importation of their racist Jim Crow tendencies to Britain and the more enlightened response of British civilians like those in Bamber Bridge who welcomed their fellow fighters against Nazism to their small tight-knit community. The one day international seminar was called “When Jim Crow met John Bull: The Battle of Bamber Bridge 1943”, attracted 35 participants and took place on Friday 21st June 2013.
It included a series of academic talks from British and American scholars. Cultural highlights were the world premiere of the new one hour version of the film Choc’late Soldiers from the USA, produced by Gregory Cooke, and a performance fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of Lie Back and Think of America, a play by Natalie Penn of Front Room Theatre both of which featured academic input from SOLLIS’s Professor of English and American Studies, Alan Rice.
Dr. Graham Smith described the mutiny itself and its ramifications for the black troops involved and the local people drawn into it. The incident had started in Bamber Bridge’s The Hob Inn over a trivial matter, but soon escalated due to the deep distrust between the segregated black troops and the white American Military Police into a violent incident running up and down the streets of the ‘Brig’ that culminated in the death of one black soldier Private William Crossland and injuries to many others as well as the arrest and prosecution of dozens of African American personnel at military tribunals. Professor Neil Wynn (University of Gloucestershire) contextualised the incident in terms of American military practices of segregation and wartime racism and reactions to it by African American. He noted that race riots in Detroit earlier that month contributed to a feeling of unease amongst the troops even as far away as Lancashire.
Dr. Valerie Jackson (Texas A & M University) discussed relations between black troops and the community of mixed ethnicity in Tiger Bay, in Cardiff, enhancing our contextual ideas about added freedoms gained by African American GIs in a British context, and previewed her soon to be released documentary, Tiger Brides: Memories of Love and War from the GI Brides of Tiger Bay. Finally, Dr. Simon Topping (University of Plymouth) gave an interesting paper about the Northern Irish context of welcome to black troops and how the history of sectarianism there gave a different tenor to the welcome and left some of the black troops baffled at its manifestations.
Natalie Penn’s virtuoso performance in Lie Back and Think of America in which she herself played around a dozen different characters that enabled the telling of multiple narratives about the wartime experience in Britain was a real treat. An after-show discussion highlighted the importance of Cooke’s documentary and Rice’s advice in developing the play’s inclusion of forgotten narratives from Britain’s wartime experience.
The new hour-long version of Choc’late Soldiers was a real treat as the longer version allowed for more first person testimony from veterans about their experience in Britain. Gregory Cooke, our special guest from Philadelphia, gave an impassioned talk about the film’s importance and talked about his upcoming Invisible Warriors film project that looks at the hitherto unacknowledged contribution of African American women to the war effort.
Professor Alan Rice, who organised the event, said: “The event is still remembered in local folklore and American military history and on this anniversary weekend of the incident we felt the time was ripe for reflection on its importance as a landmark event for different constituencies on both sides of the pond.”
Commemorative Events in Bamber Bridge
Over the following weekend there was a series of events to memorialise the event organised by Preston Black History Group, building on the partnership with Professor Rice, including a first showing of Choc’late Soldiers in Bamber Bridge, a church service and a tour of the site of the “battle” by local historian, David Hunt.
Filmmaker Gregory Cooke and Professor Alan Rice meet Eunice Byers.
On the Saturday evening Choc’late Soldiers was shown at the Methodist Church – a wonderful event with around 30 (mainly locals) in attendance – in particular Eunice Byers was there who witnessed the event – now 96 she told her story and chatted to all. She was very sprightly and keen to talk about the events of that night and the overall welcome given to the African Americans. The film was very well received and the `Minister, Matthew Slaney (literally got into the spirit of the event) inviting everyone to the Hob Inn where underneath the old newspaper report about the mutiny they kept the pub open late.
Sunday, there was a marvellous ceremony led by the minister dedicated to the mutiny with its centrepiece a short interview with Eunice who told the congregation of her memories of the “battle”. This was followed by a guided walk around the sites of the mutiny. Around 80-100 residents and others turned up despite the inclement weather at Ye Olde Hob Inn walking down Station Road, past Corporation street where Private Crossland was shot to the only remaining building at Adams Hall, which had been the entrance to the American barracks. Highlight of the walk was the arrival of a 90 year old witness, Elizabeth Cole (nee Watson) whose home overlooked the gates of the camp. She witnessed the storming of them by the military police and her house was commandeered by them to act as a lookout place. Ably guided by local historian David Hunt who discussed the mutiny in the context of other key events that happened in the Ribble Valley during the war, the lively walk was often interrupted by locals adding to the story. Finally, the walk went up to up to Brown Edge where David pointed out a community hall where dances had been held during the war where the black troops were welcomed. After this we all proceeded to the Catholic Church for much needed refreshments.
Overall, the event was an excellent combination of academic inquiry, artistic responses and thoughtful commemoration.
More on Professor Jackson’s project in Cardiff
Some Responses from those who contributed and took part in the event:
“I attended the symposium at Uclan on the Friday the 21st June as well as the church service and history walk around the battle site on Sunday 23rd June- and I can honestly say what a fantastic weekend of events this was. The academic event on the Friday offered such great insight into not only the events of the battle of Bamber Bridge 70 years ago, but also a wider insight into other areas of broader black history and race relations in Britain at the time . In comparison the events on Sunday offered a real local perspective and brought the ‘battlefield’ to life. Well done to all that helped to organise this spectacular event and a huge thank you for all those that came from far and wide to deliver their work and who gave great descriptions of their performances, research and film documentaries - it was fantastic to have this input.” – Christina Cooper, Secretary of Preston Black History Group.
The “Jim Crow Met John Bull Symposium” was an overwhelming success. It was refreshing to be part of a forum where scholars and “regular folks” come together to learn about and discuss an historical event that had such broad implications. -Gregory S. Cooke, Producer: Choc’late Soldiers from the USA