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Black People in Britain: The 1930s

Part of the series Black People in Britain
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Barbara Bush looks at the experience of black people in 1930s Britain.

On September 23rd, 1934, 'Winifred Holtby wrote to her closest friend Vera Brittain that at tea she had entertained Eric Walrond, 'a Negro poet from New York’, Una Marsen, 'the Jamaican dramatist' and her cousin, Daisy Pickering. 'Would you think that party would mix?' she asks Vera, 'What time do you think the last departed? 9.45! Was I tired? But it was interesting. We turned the colour question, miscegenation... and race prejudice inside out'.

Winifred's letter reflects an upsurge of interest in liberal-humanitarian circles in the 1930s in 'race relations' (though this term as such was not used in the way it is today). Before the First World War, apart from the discussion of the 'general relations between the so-called white and coloured people' at the Universal Races Congress in London in 1911 and the paternalistic interest of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society in aiding destitute Africans, for most whites there was 'no recognised colour problem in Britain'. The few 'friends of the Africans', such as E. D. Morel, the trenchant pre-war critic of colonialism, channelled their reforming energies into championing the cause of 'helpless natives' and their racial attitudes were tinged by the strong enthno-centrism of Victorian Britain.

But during the First World War the influx of coloured colonial seamen, munitions workers and others substantially increased the numbers of the British 'coloured' population. In the aftermath of the war, British white liberals – the section of the community with a broad sympathy towards the problems of blacks which stretched back in the liberal, humanitarian tradition to the abolitionists – were confronted for the first time with a sizeable domestic 'race problem'. From this time an embryonic form of the modern concept of race relations began to emerge.

Initially, the problem of race surfaced in the 1919 race riots in Cardiff, Liverpool and other British sea-ports. Returning white soldiers, bitter and resentful over the scarcity of employment, directed their frustrations against black workers, who had 'stolen' their jobs while they were away. Blacks were physically intimidated and harassed and the tense situation finally erupted into rioting. In response the Government proposed repatriation schemes, an idea raised consistently throughout the inter-war period. Restrictive legislation, such as the Aliens' Order, 1920 and the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order, 1925 was enacted to check any further influx of 'coloured' people.

The serious and persistent unemployment of the inter-war period, combined with the discrimination by white unions and employers against black workers increased the poverty and distress in local black communities. In 1935, rioting broke out again in Cardiff, the result of accumulated bitterness over discriminatory employment practices. A sympathetic informal report on the troubles, isolated 'the smooth co-operation of the Trade Union (National Union of Seamen), the Police and the shipowners'. Before unrest broke out there had been 'wilful misapplication' of the Aliens Acts, when black seamen of undisputed British nationality had been classified as aliens. The report concluded that the distressing situation was 'a new monument to economic ignorance and racial animosity' in Britain.

Although the black community in Britain was still very small during the bleak 1930s racial prejudice permeated all levels of white society, reinforced through popular literature, cinema, the content of school curriculums and the patriotic propaganda of Empire Day celebrations. Most people were unconcerned about the problems that blacks faced. Even on the Left, prejudice was deeply rooted and at times openly apparent as in the controversy which surrounded E. D. Morel's article 'Black Horror on the Rhine', published in 1919, which played heavily on the sexual threat to white women posed by black soldiers in Europe.

Why, in such an atmosphere did a small number of British people become aware in the 1930s of the pressing need to improve relations between the races? Apart from concern for the plight of black workers and their families, a number of significant factors acted as a catalyst. In the inter-war years, for instance, the 'colour question' was inseparable from the 'colonial question'. In the non-self-governing colonies, rare-consciousness and anti-colonialism were almost synonymous. In Britain, colonial students began to express their grievances more forcefully.

The growing discontent in the British colonies attracted interest among the members of the international community organisations, particularly in the early 1930s. Communist commentators diagnosed the race problem as a symptom of the inherent class conflict in imperialist society. In this analysis, the overthrow of European colonialism by the 'toiling negro masses' would topple capitalism and thus eradicate race prejudice. Such ideas were popular in more radical black circles in the 1930s and seemed to pose a serious potential threat to the stability of the Empire. It may be argued that some white liberals were spurred into action by their deep apprehension of Communism.

The 1930s saw the establishment of the first 'race relations' organisations in Britain. The two major groups were the Joint Council to Promote Understanding between White and Coloured people in Great Britain, and the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP). The Joint Council, instigated in 1931 by the Quakers, was modelled on the multi-racial South African Joint Councils. (There were strong links between South African and British liberals during this period.) The LCP was founded in the same year by Dr Harold Moody, a long time black resident in Britain, and throughout the 1930s it had more white members than black.

Both the Joint Council and the LCP were voluntary organisations dependent on charitable subscriptions and enshrined the gradualist, Christian liberal-humanitarian approach to improving race relations. They were concerned primarily with individual instances of racial discrimination, (the 'Colour Bar'), encouraging a 'wide appreciation' of 'the contribution of Coloured people to human welfare' and philanthropic aid for black workers and their families. Together with other interested groups, mainly Christian, they held multi-racial social events and church services and a number of conferences. In 1935, as interest began to pall, the LCP and its journal, The Keys underwent a radical shift as a result of the Italo-Ethiopian crisis. Articles in The Keys argued that British imperialism and the economic exploitation of blacks was the root cause of racial injustice. Paul Robeson on stage in a Eugene O'Neill play performed in London in 1925. Black and white began to diverge; the LCP remained a moderate organisation but the fervent multiracialism of the early 1930s was no more.

Increasingly, blacks began to reject white 'help', well intentioned though it may have been. As pan-African sentiments grew in strength, the need for self-help and solidarity among Africans and people of African origin throughout the world was emphasised. As one contemporary black writer put it, in the eyes of whites 'you are not a person, you are a problem. And every crusading crank imagines he knows how to solve your problem'. By the late 1930s many blacks had decided that their 'problem' could be solved only by themselves.

In assessing the white liberal involvement with black causes in the 1930s an interesting factor which emerges is the prominent part played by women, such as Winifred Holtby. A number of black activists have testified to the 'dedication, kindness, friendship and sympathy' of British women. Whatever their reasons – identification of sexual inequality with racial equality; the need for educated middle-class women to have a worthy cause; exoticism – they risked public disapproval. Because it was fashionable in avant-guarde society for women to have black lovers (one such woman is satirised by Winifred Holthy in her novel Mandoa, Mandoa ) the friendships women had with black men often had to be staunchly defended.

In their efforts to improve race relations white liberals worked from a middle-class perspective, and thus to them 'racial equality' usually implied equality for cultured, Europeanised blacks such as Paul Robeson and Harold Moody. Although Robeson underwent a political transformation and rejected his white patrons, many of the black members of the LCP for instance, who mixed in white circles, were too elitist to identify with the problems of the black working-class. For more radical blacks such as Padmore and Ras Makonnen, multi-racialist organisations like the LCP only deflected blacks from a more radical and effective line.

Barbara Bush is a research student in the department of Economic and Social History at the University of Sheffield.



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