When Uncle Sam came to Bristol: the American military’s attempts to segregate a city of slavery

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Bristol has a contradictory identity. It is at once one of the most prominent sites of slave trading in the 17th century and a hub for the foremost advocates for racial equality. The city’s history as the home of Edward Colston, a figure himself who is divided between being a generous philanthropist and an inhumane slave trader, has long stained its reputation. This set of contradictions was exemplified in The Guardian piece by Jamie Doward, which read “‘Before 1760, they were up to their eyeballs in it'” Concurrently, Bristol is lauded for having torn down a slave trader’s statue and denounced for having it constructed it at all.

Part of the inability for perceptions to move on is the inextricable way in which Bristol is tied to the slave trade; from the harbourside to the houses of Clifton, it is inescapable that many of the houses and other properties were bought or built through slavery. The plantation owner Phillip John Miles owned King Weston House in Lawrence Weston while the slave merchant Richard Bright acquired property near Pill. The relationship is not limited to the housing itself, but naturally those who inhabited them too: Bristol had the second highest concentration of plantation owners outside of London in 1833. Perhaps most shockingly for contemporary residents, removed from the immediate horrors of the slave trade, was the revelation that up until 2015, Bristol tax payers were still paying off the debt incurred to reimbursed slave owners. Wherever you turn in the city, you cannot lose the legacy of slavery.

Some moments in history, however, are easy to forget. The Park Street Riots of 1944 are one such case, which do not necessarily fit amidst Bristol’s direct links to the slave trade. Some might say it is excusably forgettable. Afterall, there was something of a war on. This line of argument is unjustifiable in age of relentless information and unparalleled access to history.┬áThat the Park Street Riots are still a little-known event within Bristol itself is a shocking example of the dangerous oversights of accepted history. The focus of general studies on Bristol has, rightfully so, been on its participation in the slave trade during the 18th century, but Bristol’s history is even murkier with the inclusion of the mid 20th century.

Still segregated during the war, Black American G.I.s were billeted in and around Bristol, staying in Henleaze, Bishopston and Shirehampton. They were sent not to fight or train, but to labour, another crime often overlooked in favour of the glory of wartime. Only a few days after the D-Day landings of the 6th of June, the number of African-American soldiers numbered at around 300,000.

There was still established racism present in the city, exemplified by one Somerset resident’s six point plan to deal with the intake of African-Americans, including instructions to “cross the street if you saw one approach; move away if one sits next to you in the cinema; shops should serve them as quickly as possible and make it clear they should not return. And ‘on no account must coloured troops be invited into the homes of white women.'”

“Segregation has, however, been of concern to British politicians throughout the postwar period… their responses have inadvertently sustained rather than ameliorated racial inequalities in the structure of residential space.” – S J Smith

The segregation which had burdened and divided the United States since its creation was now imposed upon a city in England. Local shops, unused to changing servicing for different customers, were forcefully encouraged to comply with the American intervention. The products were the horrendous ‘White Wednesdays’ and ‘Black Thursdays’ which now filled the average week in the city.

The events of 1944 stand as testaments to the continuing and complicated narrative of racism’s story in Bristol. It attests to the messy role the city has played and its undefined relationship with what has become Bristol’s most infamous institution. First sponsor, partner, then perpetrator of racism in the slave trade, the Park Street Riots add a new layer to Bristol’s history with racism: as a victim.