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Black People in Britain: The 1930s

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.

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