Photographs of the Coloured Soldiers and Sailors Club, London

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Description

Five photographs taken by the Alfieri Picture Service showing African, African American, and West Indian servicemen at the Coloured Soldiers and Sailors Club, London 1919. The images show that black men served in a variety of British regiments and depict a number of formal and informal settings, also featuring black and white women welfare workers.

Context

The Coloured Soldiers and Sailors Club ran under the auspices of the YMCA International Hospitality League from 1918. Located at the corner of Drury Lane and York Street (now Tavistock Street), London, the club supported West Indian, African, and African American soldiers and sailors on leave, becoming a hub of pan-African interaction in the capital. These photographs were taken during demobilisation when many black servicemen had become radicalised by discrimination during military service. The Jamaican writer, Claude McKay, visited the club during 1919 where he distributed African American newspapers, such as The Crisis, The Messenger, The Chicago Defender, and The Negro World. McKay reported in The Negro World that money and decent food were in short supply among black servicemen in London; racist remarks in the street were common.
McKay suggests that radical affiliations were discouraged by Mrs Alice Newcombe, who managed the club with her daughter Dorothy (pictured in AWM HO1356). McCants Stewart, founder of the African Progress Union, is seated at the bottom left of this image. Lewis Earl, the club secretary, painted a different picture of the Newcombes in a letter to The Crisis, praising their ‘wonderful grit’ in keeping the club doors open seven days a week. AWM HO1350 highlights a fascinating, underexplored aspect of cultural interaction – the contribution of black women to the war effort. Two women of African heritage are shown selling YMCA red triangle badges worn by several men in the photographs. Studies of the black presence in First World War Britain often focus on miscegenation anxieties and relationships between white nurses and black troops. This image suggests that black women supported black servicemen in welfare and possibly religious roles, perhaps providing respite from the harshness of post-war London, albeit in a partially segregated setting.