270 : Two black American soldiers, May 1944

United States forces in wartime Britain had complete control and jurisdiction, with US laws applying, over the thousands of American military personnel in the islands as preparations for the invasion of France were being scheduled for June 1944. The relationship between the hosts and the various allied armed forces (which included Czechs, Poles, French, Dutch, Belgians, Norwegians and Danes) were varied but there is little doubt that the British found difficulty with white American attitudes to black Americans. The experiences of two black soldiers in May 1944 reveal something of the problems.

Private Wiley Harris, a 26 year old ‘coloured American soldier’ [Belfast Telegraph, 25 May 1944, p 5] was tried and found guilty on a charge of murder in Belfast. Northern Ireland had been the first place in the United Kingdom to receive many black Americans – who erected camps, delivered supplies, constructed airfields and camps all over the United Kingdom. He had stabbed a Belfast dock labourer and was scheduled to be hanged on 26 May 1944. The city’s mayor, trades council and religious leaders sought a reprieve, even contacting prime minister Winston Churchill. Harris was executed at the military prison in Shepton Mallet, Somerset on 26 May. [see wartimeni.com/person/wiley-harris-jr] Harris had stabbed his victim, described as a pimp, seventeen times.

At the beginning of May Leroy Henry was involved in an assault on a woman near Bath, and like Harris was tried by an all-American jury, which sentenced him to be hanged. Rape was not a capital offence in Britain (unlike parts of the U.S.A.) and there was quite a fuss, with questions being raised in parliament and petitions (one had over thirty thousand signatures) to General Eisenhower who put invasion plans to one side, and freed Harris who returned to his work as a fuel delivery driver. [see crimescribe.com/2014/08/16/the-strange-case-of-leroy-henry; and spartacus-educational.com/2WWcrime.htm]

Graham Smith, When Jim Crow met John Bull (London: Tauris, 1987; New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987) has the Henry case. http://www.somersetlive.co.uk/news/somerset-news/dark-somerset-wartime-gis-executed-1701295 lists the eighteen Americans executed in Shepton Mallet in World War Two, including Henry. His body was later taken to France and buried with ninety-five other ‘dishonoured dead’ by the U.S. in a military cemetery some 100 miles of Paris. The graves have no names.

Maggi M. Morehouse, Fighting in the Jim Crow Army (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000; pb 2007) is a useful overview.

blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/brown-babies-second-world-war/ relates to Lucy Bland’s Britain’s ‘Brown Babies’ (Manchester University Press, 2019).