In my last story¹ I recounted my teen years in Plymouth. Our gang of young Royal Navy Apprentices and us girls always went dancing on Saturdays at the NAAFI (Navy Army Air Force Institute) Club in Plymouth, Devon.
This particular Saturday the NATO Fleet (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) including the USS Wasp was in town, the largest Aircraft Carrier our city had ever seen.
As we entered the NAAFI imagine our surprise when we saw our very first black men in the flesh (not at the picture house) AND they were doing the twist, the dance craze at the time.
We had never seen black people before, there were none that I had ever seen at that time, in our part of England. In the post-war period in 1950 it is estimated there were no more than 20,000 non-white residents in Britain and almost all born overseas.²
Most migrants who came to Britain after the war, found employment in the textile industries of Lancashire, Yorkshire Manchester and Bradford, cars and engineering factories in the West Midlands and Birmingham and the growing light industrial estates in places like Luton and Slough, near London.
In the South West where Plymouth is located, our economy was based on tourism, agriculture fishing and the Royal Navy Dockyard Devonport, so migration to our part of the country was limited to almost none.
On this particular night, we could not wait to copy these exotic black sailors doing the twist. They started to invite us to dance. One of them asked me onto the dance floor and showed me the ‘moves’ I had such fun and he was a wonderful dancer. The dance ended, and we started to chat.
Suddenly, a large white muscular US sailor inserted himself between me and this boy. ‘You don’t want to be dancing with this n*****’ he said. I was completely shocked, not only by his utter rudeness but his language. I had never heard that derogatory term before. The white sailor then tried to take my hand to dance with me, but I was having none of it, and dodged around him and continued my chat with the black sailor, much to the open disgust of this white sailor. Why was he so disgusted?
The black sailor suggested that perhaps I should not dance with him again, I asked why not? He did not answer but he did become very awkward. We finished our dance but he did not invite me onto the dance floor again.
We girls continued to have fun that night, but we could not understand why the white sailors were on one side of the room glowering at us, and the black ones on the other, and they never mixed or talked to each other.
That night was my first ever experience of racism and segregation and I did not even realise it. We were completely unaware of it, never seen it, and could not understand it. In the rest of the city, the black sailors were treated exactly as any other sailor and apparently, nobody else I knew had any idea of the racism or the segregation they were subjected to, except by their ‘own’ countrymen. I like to think that they at least enjoyed their visit to our city.
Several years later in 1965, after news of racism riots in Watts, Los Angles, my naiveté and innocence was shattered as I suddenly realised what that night out in the NAAFI in my home town had really meant. I had the sudden insight that not all people were equal after all, and racism and segregation had entered my world where it has stayed. A sad commentary on the 21st Century.