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Racism on a dance floor

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.

¹https://genealogyensemble.com/2016/03/04/my-home-town/

²https://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/Arrival_of_black_immigrants_in_London

 

Plymouth Navy Days

by Marian Bulford

Our group or ‘gang’ never went out with the local lads. Every Saturday night we went dancing at the NAAFI and met up with the young sailors from all over the British Isles who were stationed in Devonport. The NAAFI was a huge social club ….
It was always with the young sailors stationed in Devonport, from all over the British Isles that we met every Saturday night when we all went dancing at the NAAFI – the Navy Army Air Force Institute – a social club for all the services and service families situated in the centre of Plymouth and covered a whole city block. At one end, it was a hotel for service families and the other end was a restaurant three bars and a huge dance floor.

I was an excited 16 year old, with the whole world in front of me. Plymouth Devon, in the UK was my home town.

It was a naval port and had been for centuries. Who has not heard of Sir Frances Drake, the celebrated Tudor seafarer, famous for circumnavigating the world on the Golden Hind and fighting the Spanish Armada? Or the Mayflower, the tiny ship that transported the first English Separatists, known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth to the New World in 1620? [1]

Most of my family on both mother and father’s side, were Royal or Merchant Navy and had lived in or around the areas for centuries the same places I lived as a teenager.

Ships of all sizes were always in and out of Devonport, the area I lived in and when a ship arrived ‘home’ there was much celebration in the local pubs and dance halls. This was my town and I loved it.

It was also a very popular summer holiday area with lovely hotels and guest houses. This area of Devon was described as the ‘Riviera of the South’ we even had our own palm trees.

This poster shows ‘Plymouth Sound’ and ‘Drake’s Island ‘ in the background, the beautiful Tinside Art Deco Lido Pool and of course, the sailors. I could have been one of those girls in the poster……

Holiday Poster

Over the last year, my 16 year old school friends and I had built up a close group of boy sailors, ‘Matelot’s’ as we called them, the young 15 to 16 year old Navy boys learning their trades as apprentices on board various ships at the Devonport Dockyard, where many of my ancestors had worked over the centuries.

NAAAFI Building, Plymouth Devon c. 1961

The Plymouth NAAFI Club

We were all very excited in 1961 because the NATO [2] fleet arrived in Plymouth!
About 15 foreign ships would be arriving and the population would swell. The local population was pleased as money would be made and our group noticed a lot of ‘strangers’ in town when the fleet arrived. Lots of ‘ladies’ from London arrived, or ‘unfortunates’ as my Gran called them, and they stood out because of their accents.

Many foreign languages were also heard in the streets of Plymouth, some I was only hearing for the first time, and we tried to communicate with some of the sailors with lots of miming laughing and hand waving.

The biggest ship in town was a United States Aircraft carrier, USS Wasp, which caused great excitement: it was as big as a small town.

But imagine our reaction on the following Saturday, when we went to our usual dance at the NAAFI and saw our very first black men in the flesh AND they were doing the twist, the dance craze at the time!

We had never seen black people before, there were none in our part of England, and especially not ones doing the twist! Boy, they were ever good! Not a patch on us or the local sailors and we could not wait to copy them. But that is another story….

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayflower

[2] NATO Fleet: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 1952,
Greece and Turkey became members of the Alliance, joined later by West Germany.

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