The forgotten story of a group of Ramsgate residents who tried to overturn the town’s ‘Colour Bar’ is the subject of a new exhibition at Turner Contemporary.
Between 1951 and 1958, 2,500 United States Air Force (USAF) personnel were stationed at RAF Manston. Two hundred were Black, and there were also non-white American personnel from indigenous and other ethnic groups.
US airmen abroad still had to obey stateside legislation, including observance of Jim Crow laws, which were statutes enforcing segregation and marginalisation of non-whites by denying suffrage, education, freedom of movement, employment, and other basic rights. Defiance of Jim Crow laws commonly resulted in verbal abuse, fines, arrests, jail sentences, physical violence, and death. US Armed Forces encouraged the establishment of similar segregationist practices.
While the white personnel had the freedom of the Isle when off-duty, the Black and Native American personnel were restricted to Ramsgate and were actively banned from visiting Margate.
In August 1957, Ramsgate’s Mayor, Alderman Rev. Harcourt-Samuels sought to join Margate, by banning the Black USAF servicemen from the town.
A number of Ramsgate residents wrote to the local papers in support of the Black personnel, and their advocacy made the local event a much bigger story.
Exhibition curator Sabina Desir discovered the story, and sought to bring it to the fore, in Banned: Place, Belonging, Identity. However, for me, it is artist Charlie Evaristo-Boyce who really brings it to life.
He has created 200 portraits of servicemen in a bold, pop art style, clearly referencing the work of Andy Warhol. Twenty are on show in the Clore space at Turner Contemporary. He says: “Because of the layers and the way colour pops through, you can see the personality in them”. And you really can – these are now real people, with real stories, not just black and white photographs.
He has also blown up contemporary press cuttings, and ephemera like a USAF squadron’s badge, and screenprinted them onto a raw canvas at a huge scale. This act has taken the story from being a few press cuttings to something that fills a gallery, making a story largely forgotten outside of local history circles into something that can’t be ignored.
Evaristo-Boyce is a familiar local artist – his screenprints of the word Amazing in various sizes are iconic, and represent a certain phase of Margate’s regeneration story. And he has explored his own ancestry before, with portraits of his ancestors which were exhibited in Turner Contemporary’s Open exhibition. But this exhibition feels like a step up, a maturing of his work and a refinement of the ideas he’s interested in.
Three photographs by Richard Birch, of the children of USAF servicemen from Manston, connect the history to the present.
Together, Desir, Birch and Evaristo-Boyce have ensured that a story of racism – and importantly the people who challenged it – is not forgotten. It’s a simple, elegant, but powerful exhibition.
Banned. is part of a two-year project led by Sabina Desir, Artistic Director and Creative Producer of the Ramsgate-based Freedom Road Project. The exhibition runs from Saturday 4 February – Monday 8 May.
Dan Thompson regularly writes about the arts for Isle of Thanet News. Living in Ramsgate and based at Marine Studios in Margate, he works for one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations, B arts in Stoke-on-Trent, and is on the board of another, Talking Birds in Coventry.
What I’d be really interested to know is whether this ban was at the request of the USAF establishment or, was an organic Margate decision.
At the time, British forces personnel of different ethnicities mixed freely. Whilst the U.S. armed forces banned inter-colour fraternisation.
I am just concerned that nobody unable now to argue otherwise mistakenly gets portrayed as something they were not.
Feelings are important, but less so than facts.
Just going to add this in “US airmen abroad still had to obey stateside legislation, including observance of Jim Crow laws, which were statutes enforcing segregation and marginalisation of non-whites by denying suffrage, education, freedom of movement, employment, and other basic rights. Defiance of Jim Crow laws commonly resulted in verbal abuse, fines, arrests, jail sentences, physical violence, and death.
US Armed Forces encouraged the establishment of similar segregationist practices within Ramsgate’s local communities and further afield.”
Your comment contradicts President Truman’s executive order to de-segregate the US Armed Forces of 1948. Clearly this Presidential decree didn’t remove racism from the US forces but do you have more details?
Perhaps visit the exhibition that Dan has written the review for? The newspaper cuttings from the time are part of the exhibition.
Yes Kathy, I’ll do that.
Interesting… but surely this belongs in a museum rather than an art gallery?
Yep, but nice to see something of value at the Turner for once & TDC has had no interest in their museums for decades.
Some useful background to this.
President Truman signed his executive order (9981) on 26th July 1948 that required all US armed forces to de-segregate.
The last all-Black unit was deactivated late in 1954. So the Mayor, whatever his motivation, was out if touch to the social movements in the USA.
I’d be very keen to know how this all came about. If the USAF asked for the ban they were in mutiny against their Commanding Officer, the President. If it was the Mayor I wonder about why. Perhaps links to some UK based white supremacist group?
Truman came from Missouri as was an outspoken white supremacist until he saw black servicemen, on return from WW2, being harassed, beaten and murdered by white USAsians.
Well done Turner and Sabina for this exhibition.
Coincidentally I remember it well there used to be a night club in “Turner Street” Ramsgate it was called The “Golden Ball”better known by locals as the Golden Goo lie. The airman from Manston were their best customers with many local ladies also in attendance.
Much of what I’m reading since the beginning of the year is politics in art, sexual orientations being politicised etc. There seems to be a big push now, to get everyone to go all lefty.
Claude, seems you have been looking in the label box anyone today who is not known to oneself has to be labelled in one’s mind. Lefty / gay / bisexual / straight / racist /trans/ Woke / right wing fascist and many more.
This is history that needs telling, I lived I kingsgate surrounded by USAF families nearly all white and now I know why. To us kids they were fantastic people, I will be down to see that exhibition Something learned today!
I remember Rev Harcourt-Samuel from my days in the late 60s and 70s as he was a head governor of Clarendon House. Never liked him then.
And the planes over Ramsgate never affected my 7 years of eduction there!
Well done Sabina Desir 👏 can’t wait to see it. I really hope you’ll get to travel round schools with this important exhibition too. ❤️
To easy to traduce a long dead local priest and mayor, without context, there is too much one sided history .
This is history and should be told. But I’d like more context, why was this Mayor trying to ban black USAAF personnel from Ramsgate? The US President had desegregation its armed forces by 1954, years before this sorry business.
What was the Mayor’s reasoning and motivation? Could it be he was a member of the British Union of Fascists, or The League of St.George, perhaps a buddy of John Tyndall or a run-of-the-mill racist?
I can’t find anything.
Is there any form of plaque or memorial to Harcourt-Samuels that should now be smashed and dumped in the harbour ? ? ?
I was in the Ramsgate Sea Cadets during 1953 – 1957 and when walking to our unit for parade nights we were often stopped by the black USAF men who asked if we were actually in the Navy and they showed great interest in cadet units, plus they were always very polite. It was a case of WHITE Margate and BLACK Ramsgate and never the twain shall meet. Funny how all praised the USAF Band as they led the Carnival parades through Ramsgate. Thankfully we appear to be changing our attitudes now.
I have heard ther were signs on the platform at Westgate saying “n……. not welcome here remain on the train “ or something similar, is this true?