Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

186 : Americans experience London racism, 1903?

In over thirty years of investigating evidence of the activities of people of African descent in Britain, concentrating on the decades 1830 to 1920, I have come across very few reports of incidents of the larger society’s actions affecting black people in Britain which deserve to be classified as racism.  The treatment of African Americans travelling on British-flagged ships was sometimes in line with American practice, and two fine individuals – anti-slavery lecturers Frederick Douglass and Sarah Remond – were discriminated against by the Cunard line. This is not to say that there was no antagonism in the British Isles, for the white British thought they were superior, and the riots of 1919 were of certainly of no consequence.

Two incidents in London in 1903 which I reported in 1983 were  [1] :

 

The Cecil Hotel, London, May 1903. The Hotel Cecil was Europe’s largest hotel, with over 800 rooms, opened in 1896 and popular with American visitors. The eighty or so performers in the New York show In Dahomey: a Negro Musical Comedy which opened at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre on 16 May 1903 were led by conductor-composer Will Marion Cook. The Berlin-educated Cook (who favoured a Kaiser Wilhelm moustache) was detailed in some of the many London newspapers including the St James’s Gazette and the Weekly Dispatch and more extensively in the Daily News (‘The Dawn of New Music – Negro Aspirations’) published on the day the show opened. Cook told the interviewer

‘There is no feeling against us here. As for the [white] Americans – well, this will show you. We wanted to put up at the Cecil, and the management were willing enough to take us, but the Americans stopping there objected to our presence, so we had to go to another hotel’.

 

The Shaftesbury Avenue public houses, September 1903. The Shaftesbury Theatre was in the heart of London’s theatreland, at the junction of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road.[2] The success of In Dahomey attracted ‘a number of undesirable nigger loafers’ to a nearby pub, as the Weekly Dispatch reported on 13 September 1903. The pub manager said ‘They have been getting more rowdy every day, fighting and using bad language, until I have been obliged to refuse them…After the row we had the other day…[so he ruled that] no more niggers were to be served at this house’.

The Westminster Gazette reported ‘A colour line in London?’ (9 September 1903, p 6) and the Weekly Dispatch headed its report ‘Black Man’s Rights’ (13 September 1903, p 3) for the news had reached journalists through a reporter based at the nearby Marlborough Street magistrate’s court. It is unlikely we would know of this Edwardian colour bar otherwise.

The Daily News (9 September 1903, p 9) reported the court appearance of ‘a coloured man of gentlemanly appearance’ who, ‘speaking in a cultured manner’ informed the magistrate that ‘he and some friends had been refused refreshment by a publican simply because of their colour. Their behaviour had been quiet and proper.’ The magistrate advised that a publican was not obliged to supply food or refreshment unless it was to a traveller and added ‘I cannot compel the publican to serve you’.[3] The applicant said ‘I have been looking the law up since last Thursday. I merely wish to know what is the status of coloured men in the heart of the British Empire’. The Westminster Gazette reporter had found out that one of the victims was American sociologist  and future race spokesman W. E. B. DuBois.

The Westminster Gazette report (‘A Colour Line in London? Publicans and “Nigger” Customers’ [9 September 1903, p 6]) stated ‘the incident, while not isolated (my italics), must not be taken to indicate that the colour problem which is so acute in America is to become established here’.

What did they mean by ‘not isolated’? Surely that suggests similar incidents were known to the Gazette? That the Cecil Hotel was prepared to refuse bookings for at least forty rooms struck the newspapers as uncommercial, but the nationality of its manager/decision maker is not known. The In Dahomey troupe continued at the Shaftesbury into late December 1903 then toured Britain. Did they meet similar rebuffs elsewhere? Did their management not advise accommodation providers that these men and women were black? Who were the ‘loafers’? Who were Du Bois’s colleagues?

 

SEE PAGE 001 OF THIS WEBSITE

[1] Jeffrey Green, ‘In Dahomey in London in 1903’, Black Perspective in Music (New York), Vol 11 No 1 (Spring 1983), pp 26-27, 37-39; Jeffrey Green, ‘The Coloured Man’s Complaint’, New Community (London), Vol XI 1/2 (Autumn/Winter 1983), pp 175-178.

[2] The current but renamed Shaftesbury Theatre was opened in 1911; the original was destroyed by bombing in 1941 and now is the site of a fire station.

[3] The magistrate was (mis)guided by the 1898 case of cyclist Lady Harberton when the landlady of the Hautboy pub (near Ockham, Surrey) refused to serve her ‘in the place set apart for general visitors’. The Daily News (10 September 1903, p 6) pointed out that the landlady had agreed to serve Lady Harberton, who was wearing ‘rational dress’ and she refused to take refreshment in the room allocated – and the case had been lost. See Pall Mall Gazette (London), 5 April 1899.