‘A permanent jukebox, a weekly orchestra, drinks on the very soft side, and charming red cross hostesses who savvy how to keep the boys clear of the doldrums’. Such was the description provided of the Duchess Street branch of the American Red Cross service clubs by David H. Orro, war correspondent for the Chicago Defender. ‘The Duchess’ was the most notable of a series of London Red Cross clubs catering for black GIs and Women’s Army Corps members during the Second World War. These clubs played a vital function in keeping morale high, and played host to thousands of troops throughout the war – both those stationed in London and others passing through…
The U.S. armed forces which fought in the Second World War were heavily segregated, with white Americans separated from African-Americans at the divisional level. Many black units, distrusted by the white military establishment, were assigned to support roles under the supervision of white officers; for example the 643rd Port Company were tasked with unloading war materiel at the docks. Segregation, however, went further than military roles and permeated other aspects of soldiers’ lives from eating to socializing (with the notable exception of sports). Nurses serving with the armed forces were also subject to the same divisions.
Thus when the American Red Cross set up clubs for GIs and nurses to relax during their time off – most famously at “Rainbow Corner” in Shaftesbury Avenue – there was a perceived need to create blacks-only clubs as well. These clubs were to be created and run by African-Americans, and many saw the clubs as an opportunity to show the stupidity of racial discrimination. As George W. Goodman, the African-American Director of the American Red Cross in London, put it, his mission was ‘to indicate as nearly as possible that color really does not run off and that human impetus comes out of the mind, not the complexion’.
Goodman was joined in his task by an army of civilian professionals from the United States. These professionals, mostly coming from teaching and social work backgrounds, (the director of the Duchess Club, ‘Long’ Harry Parker, had been an American football coach) came from cities as varied as New York, Chicago and St. Louis. They accepted significant pay cuts in order to help run the clubs, and had to face the deprivations and shortages of wartime London – not to mention the threat from German bombs.
By far the most popular of the African-American Red Cross clubs were the Liberty Club near Euston Station and the Duchess Club north of Oxford Circus, which was founded in an abandoned mansion on Duchess Street. Both clubs became known to black soldiers throughout the U.K. for their fun events and affordable alcohol. The clubs also reached out to servicemen. For example, the men of 643rd Port Company, serving in South Wales, were invited to spend Christmas of 1944 at the Liberty Club. They spent the day at the club with local children, who happily played with the men they referred to as ‘chocolate soldiers’.
The clubs also attracted non-Americans. The famous Trinidadian activist George Padmore visited the Duchess Club in 1943 and was surprised to meet one of his countrymen, pilot Kendrick Rawlins – who described himself as a frequent visitor – alongside a Canadian, Private Sherwood. White soldiers also visited the Liberty Club, forging friendships across racial barriers with the African-American men there – friendships mostly forgotten after the war’s end. The only people not welcome to partake in the club’s services were civilians, with the flamboyant Chicagoan reporter David H. Orro being removed from the premises of the Duchess Club on more than one occasion. Orro kept returning, however, drawn both to the Club’s lively social scene and the beautiful women who staffed and visited the place.
The African-American Red Cross service clubs were born from baleful circumstance – racial segregation in the U.S. military. They did, nonetheless, provide a valuable space where black servicemen could relax and socialize, and many veterans looked back at their visits to the clubs as their most enjoyable memories of the entire war. The clubs’ successes were extraordinary in a city as devastated as London was, and only possible thanks to a legion of dedicated U.S. civilian workers who saw in their work an opportunity to strike decisively against prejudice.