Bristol’s Surprising Link to the US Civil Rights Movement

Did you know during WWII Bristol had a key involvement in breaking up segregation amongst African American GI troops who were stationed in the city? All thanks to a little place called The Colston Arms.

During the war, despite being leagues away from home, the American army still kept their strict segregation laws in order, housing African American troops into different units and continuing to keep them separated from the other white soldiers within their social circles and camps.

However, when the African American GI’s were able to explore the city as civilians they experienced a slice of life they never thought was possible while living in the United States: being able to socialise with white men and women and go about freely as human beings. According to the BBC, “for the first time in their lives, they could be just young soldiers, out on the town, doing their own thing.” It was as if they were in another world, savouring these experiences and this newfound independence of being treated as equals; riding public transportation without being forced to sit at the back or entering any establishment from the front without immediate threats of violence.

When the US army tried to implement their segregation laws outside of their military communities by ordering pubs like the Colston Arms to either serve white or “coloured” GI’s, they were immediately hit with opposition. The Colston Arms was the first pub in Bristol to fight against the US army’s order of segregation by deciding to serve both white and black troops at the same time and refusing to enforce any kind of separation rules. Because the Colston Arms took a stance against the army’s racism, it motivated other pubs in Bristol to soon follow their actions.

Since these African American soldiers were able to intermingle with the Bristol community, they shared their food, culture, and music with locals and brightened up the wartime nightlife scene by introducing jazz and exciting new dances like the jitterbug.

Despite life in Bristol seeming like a utopia for most African American troops, the tension still continued to grow amongst other white GI’s in the city as the African American’s popularity grew with the local girls. In 1944 the rising conflict even led to a massive riot in the Park Street area. Unfortunately the “details of the confrontation between hundreds of soldiers and military police were downplayed in the press under WW2 censorship.” African American GI’s who were stationed in Bristol were so moved by the city’s stance against racism it inspired them to come together and fight against their own oppression when they returned to America. “The other young GIs had seen another world and had taken a thirst for similar freedoms back home with them. It had given them a kind of humanity and brief equality.” Obviously segregation in America didn’t disappear overnight, but it’s still moving to know the Colston Arms and Bristol were part of the fight and helped impact the US civil rights movement.


Words By Nia Alavezos – 03/10/19

Picture – Intermission Bristol

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Illustration with Poan Pan

Illustration with Poan Pan

Illustrator Poan Pan tells us about how his atmospheric and light-hearted works, which focus on every day life and social awkwardness.

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