Race relations in Bristol

Bristol has an interesting history of race relations. Racism in football started here, yet the ‘race riots’ of the 1980s were not just about race.

Black footballers first started playing for professional clubs at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the first black professional footballers was Walter Tull, who played for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. His grandfather was a slave on the Caribbean island of Barbados. His father came to Britain in 1876 and married and had six children. Both parents died, and the Tull children were brought up in an orphanage in Bethnal Green, London. Despite this poor start in life, one of the brothers became a dentist and Walter became a footballer and the first black officer in the British Army. He died in the Battle of the Somme in the First World War.

Tull was a very good footballer. He played the position of inside left. The first recorded incidence of racism in football occurred in 1909, when Tull played for Tottenham Hotspur against Bristol City. At the City ground, the fans chanted racial abuse at him simply because he was black. Such racist chanting became commonplace in football matches in the late 20th century, but in 1909 it was unheard of. Reports of the match condemned the abuse. One football paper referred to it as ‘language lower than Billingsgate [fish market].’ Racism in football is now a major problem. All the professional clubs, including Bristol City, have joined in campaigns like Kick It Out to try and end football racism.

During the Second World War, a large number of American troops were stationed in or near Bristol. They included black soldiers, who were based in Muller’s Orphanage on Ashley Down in Bristol. Bristol people were on the whole friendly towards the American soldiers, including the black soldiers. The white American soldiers were horrified to see white women dancing with black men. But there was no racism in Bristol’s institutions at that time. An actress working at Bristol’s Little Theatre during the war met a black American soldier in one of the city parks. He came up to talk to her and her friends. ‘He wasn’t trying to pick us up or anything. He explained that he was desperately lonely and how lovely it would be to talk to some women… So we invited him to tea.’
At least one Bristol woman met and married a black American soldier. Patricia Edmead, who married Louis Edmead, remembered that the black Americans were ‘…so full of life… In spite of everything they had to put up with, they were so cheerful.’ And the black soldiers did have a lot to put up with. The white soldiers were used to an America where blacks and whites did not mix, and found it hard to cope with the different attitude towards black people in Britain. The American Military Police dealt with all American army problems in Britain. The Military Police were white and tended to deal more harshly with black soldiers than with white. In one case in Bristol, a local woman was prosecuted for trying to stop a Military Policeman from beating up a black American soldier. Black soldiers were also dealt with more harshly by the American system. American soldiers were under American law, even when stationed on British soil. Under American law, the sentence for rape was death. In British law rape had not been punishable by death since 1861. In Shepton Mallet jail in Somerset 29 American soldiers were hanged for rape, by the American Military Police. Out of this number, 25 were black. Yet less than 10% of the men in the American forces in Britain were black. Accusations of rape against black soldiers were common, and they were more likely to be hanged for it than their white companions. In the American army, black troops were in segregated or separate units. Black and white rarely mixed, which was not surprising since racial separation was still legal in many American states. Most of the black troops were used to do menial tasks, not as fighting troops. The 92nd Infantry Division were black frontline troops, who fought in the American Civil War, the Spanish American War and in the First and Second World Wars.

Black Americans joined the fighting troops in the Second World War because they hoped it would help to change attitudes and gain civil rights for black Americans. What happened was that, after the war, the part played by black soldiers was ignored by their country and by history. Black soldiers were not allowed to march in victory parades when they got home. African-Americans had to wait longer for their civil rights.

Racial discrimination in Britain was perfectly legal in the 1950s and early 1960s. Some of the Caribbean men and women who came to Bristol at that time can remember what it was like finding work and somewhere to live. The open refusal of the publicly-owned Bristol Omnibus Company to hire black drivers and conductors was not challenged by the bus workers’ union, the Transport and General Workers Union. The discrimination on the buses triggered the first black-led civil rights campaign in Britain, in 1963.

This campaign, which included a boycott of the buses, was organised by local African-Caribbean people and by Paul Stephenson, a black youth worker from Essex. Stephenson’s family had been in the country for many generations. The boycott received national and international attention and involved the then-MP for Bristol East, Tony Benn, and the international cricketer and diplomat Sir Learie Constantine.

Support for the boycott cut across colour lines. The local churches, both black and white, stood back from getting actively involved. The campaign caught the attention of Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, and pressure was brought to bear on the Bristol Omnibus Company by its London managers. The Company began to hire black drivers and conductors. Ragbir Singh was the first ‘coloured’ bus conductor, taken on in 1963. A few African-Caribbean bus crew followed, but it was never clear whether discrimination had ended or whether a racial quota had been instituted. Was there open recruitment, or was it agreed that only so many black people would be employed at any one time? For the black crew members there were problems with the ‘canteen culture’ of the company and the white crew members. A white conductress remembered the way things were. ‘You went in [to the canteen] for your meals but you never sat with them. Well, you just didn’t, did you, just sat with the other women and had our tea and the [white] men sat with the [white] men… But you don’t know what to talk about with them, do you?’. Though some white workers got on well with the black staff, there was continuing racial tension. Black and white crew members might drive around Bristol on their bus without ever talking to each other during their shift.

Racial discrimination in employment remained legal in Britain until 1968. The Bristol Bus Boycott helped to challenge the official complacency about racial injustice in Britain. It may have contributed to the Race Relations Acts which followed.

In the early days of Caribbean immigration the new arrivals in Britain were mainly male. As is typical with any influx of young men, their impact on an area could have some disruptive effects. The young Caribbean men tended to stay up late playing their music, whilst their white neighbours went to bed early. In Bristol in the 1960s, a petition was organised by the white residents of Martin Street, Alfred Street, Princes Street and Union Street in the St Paul’s area, complaining about the ‘disorderly conduct’ in several houses. They also called for prostitution to be stopped. A growing number of mixed-race babies caused some concern and alarm in local government circles. This concern was based partly on the poverty endured by many of these children. It was also a product of the long-standing disapproval of black and white romance and sexual relations. White women consorting with black men were automatically thought (by white people) to be prostitutes.

It was often felt that as black people moved into an area, they lowered the area and turned it into a ghetto . In fact, this was not quite the case. The men and women who moved to Bristol from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s found it hard to find anywhere to live. They ended up in the areas that were already run down because they could not find housing in better areas. The landlords of the rundown properties they rented, who were both black and white, could charge as much as they wanted and do nothing to the houses as they knew that their tenants could not find housing anywhere else. As one Bristol public servant wrote in a report at the time: “Exploitation by undesirable landlords is the real problem in fading housing areas, not immigration per se.”