Monday 28 January 2013

Black servicewomen sailing to UK in wartime

Black women's history is so hard to find. But in exploring who sailed where and why and how in WW1 and WW2, I've found some things by accident, not least because the original label doesn't say 'black' or 'African-'.

First there's this great picture which has been put in Wikipedia Commons (by the US National Archives and Records Administration) meaning everyone can use it. Hopefully it should give these African-American nurses sailing in WW2 a high profile. Most people in Britain know about we had black GIs here, but not women too. These women are sailing into Greenock on Tuesday 15 August 1944.

Having seen hundreds of images of white women and men in transit it seems to me that what it shows is par for the course on wartime voyages. You're marshalled in batches. There's nowhere to sit and have a hot drink (a joke!). You wait around, for this, then that, then wait again. And if you're lucky it isn't raining as you queue on an open deck.

Although these 'enforced travellers' were be thrilled at being selected for the 'adventure' of going overseas and really keen on contributing to the war effort, days of mal de mer often took the shine off arriving. (Women are twice as likely as men to be seasick too; it's a not-understood physical problem connected to women being more prone to migraines than are males. Even nurses didn't get issued with motion sickness tablets, which were anyway still in their chemical infancy. Clever ones bought their own Mothersills).

At least they were crossing in summer (less choppy), As it was just after D-Day, they had grounds for being optimistic about victory. They'd be nursing troops injured in that successful Allied landing in occupied France two months earlier.

These women's crossing from the segregated US must have had gendered and racialised aspects, but obviously they are not officially recorded in publicity photos. That's why doing oral history is essential.

Some of my finding are in a light article (2,000-ish words), Searching for Histories of Black Women’s Service across the Seas in the Second World War which is newly posted on the History Workshop blog. It has been tweeted a lot already, as 'interesting'.

There's also a great film about Afro Caribbean women's experience here, Frances Anne Solomon's Reunion.

No comments: