FEATURE: Mixed-race Suffolk woman shares heart-rending story of upbringing in white post-war Britain
It is the early 1950s and a lesson is starting in a Suffolk primary school. Pupils listen attentively – but one little girl at the back of the room is left out.
Her name is Barbara. She is six years old and is slowly realising that people think she is different, although she is not sure why.
The teacher tells the class: “We’ll give her a puzzle to do because she’s not able to learn like you – black children don’t have the same brains as white children.”
Later, in a geography lesson, pupils make a model of a desert island with coconut palms. At playtime, the same teacher says they should ask her to show them how to climb trees, like a monkey.
Barbara Gibson-Ward – known these days as Babs – is now in her 70s. She has retired from a long career in nursing and tutoring, teaches piano and flute, and is about to complete a masters degree in music.
But she still remembers that classroom humiliation and the trauma of growing up as an illegitimate mixed-race child in a very white post-war Britain.
She is part of a generation history has forgotten. They call themselves Britain’s “brown babies” ... children born to black American servicemen and white English women during the Second World War.
Black GIs were forbidden to marry their white girlfriends and, as soon as the war ended, were sent straight back to the States.
East Anglia, with dozens of American airbases, would have seen many such doomed relationships.
Now the children’s stories, some heartbreaking, some uplifting, are being told in a book by Lucy Bland, a professor of social and cultural history at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.
Babs was born in Ipswich. Her mother had a relationship with an American serviceman while her husband was away in the Navy, and became pregnant.
“I was quite fair-skinned at first and her husband thought I was his, but then my skin became more pigmented and, at six months, I was put into care,” said Babs.
“When I was five, I was sent to Montgomery House children’s home in Long Melford.
“There was another mixed-race girl in the home called Roberta and we used to sit together at meals and play together.
“Then I was fostered by a family in Sudbury. I went to North Street School, which, for me, was a disaster. The teacher would humiliate me.
“I felt very isolated. Children I wanted to play with were told by their parents not to play with me. There was a lot of name-calling.”
But, even as a small child, Babs showed the fighting spirit that would lead her to fight the racism she encountered later in life. Eventually, she refused point blank to go back to the school.
Discussions with the truant officer ended with her moving voluntarily to a home and school in Colchester. Supported by teachers, she developed her talent for playing the piano and recorder.
But when she was 14, her biological mother appeared “out of the blue” and took her to York, where she had remarried and had more children.
“It was hell. There was violence and abuse from my mother,” Babs recalls. Her love of music was stifled. The piano at home was locked so she couldn’t use it. The reason she had been reclaimed became clear.
“I was forced to leave school and go to work. My mum said I wasn’t there to enjoy life, I was there to bring home money to her.”
She got a job at a cafe only to be sacked. “A customer complained about a black person handling food. With no job, I was thrown out of home,” she recalls.
After finding refuge in a hostel, she was advised to train as nurse because it would also provide a roof over her head.
Even then, she came up against shocking prejudice. “I was put on a state-enrolled course instead of state-registered and told I didn’t have the same brain as British people.”
Her determination made her battle on and she finished up getting senior roles and going to university.
Almost 20 years ago, she survived breast cancer, and her husband Paul persuaded her to leave her job and go back to university to pursue her first love ... music.
Babs never got the chance to meet her father. Internet research enabled her to contact members of his family in America, but he died in 1989.
Lucy’s interest was inspired by a BBC series, Mixed Britannia, in which presenter George Alagiah featured his brother-in-law Tony Martin – a mixed-race GI baby.
It struck a chord with her because she has several inter-racial connections in her own family, and she began a quest to track down more of the babies and find out what had happened to them.
At first, she did not intend to write a book but the project grew and grew. “The people I talked to were so pleased I was telling their stories. They felt they had been sidelined,” said Lucy.
“When the Windrush generation came over, they didn’t feel part of that either. They had a very confused identity.”
Wartime mixed-race couples wanting to make their relationships permanent faced an impossible situation.
“If the babies were kept by their mothers, the GIs weren’t allowed to marry them,” said Lucy.
“All GIs had to get permission to marry from their COs. This was refused and all registrars knew this.
“Back in America, 30 states had laws banning marriage between black and white people. Even as late as 1967, 18 states in the south still had those laws.
“The GIs had absolutely no choice about going back to America. They were just shipped out.
“A lot of mothers wouldn’t tell the children their father’s name. Many of those I spoke to hadn’t found their fathers.
“Growing up, they were very isolated and couldn’t develop a collective identity. A lot of them didn’t recognise their ethnicity. Some were called names and didn’t understand it.
“They didn’t have role models or anyone explaining things to them. My first question was, why don’t we know about this?
“There are about 2,000 of them, which sounds like quite a small number ... but, at the start of the Second World War, there were only about 8,000 black or mixed race people in Britain.”
Lucy has worked at Anglia Ruskin for six years and has written numerous other books on British sexual and gender history, as well as race relations.
“I hadn’t ever done a book with living subjects before,” she said. “Now I’m getting responses from more and more people.
“A lot have said to me they would like ways of being in contact with other ‘brown babies’ ... that’s what they call themselves. I’m hoping to find someone to set up a website so they can get in touch.”