Victoria Grieves explores race and gender in Australia during the War in the Pacific (1941 – 1945) through the intimate lives of women as revealed from their letters and family histories.
The project Children Born of War: Australia and the War in the Pacific has proven a most satisfying and revealing excursion into the archive. The Second World War brought more than one million United States servicemen to Australia, with many more visiting Australia’s ports as merchant seamen. Over 30,000 of the men stationed in or visiting Australia were African American. Many formed intimate relationships with Australian women, including Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, South Sea Islander and white women.
Discovering how the archive documents the intimate lives of Australian women and African American servicemen from the United States, particularly through personal letters that have been kept on record, has been an unexpected and rewarding experience. The archive reveals the complexity of race and gender in both Australian and United States societies as they were played out at that time.
I have had the opportunity to spend many six-day weeks in the National Archive and Record Administration (NARA) archive in Washington DC, as well as other United States based archives in the course of researching this project. A relatively short excursion to the Library of Congress revealed a heart-wrenching letter from Mrs Dorothy Beatty to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the United States of America, written on 31 May 1946.
Initially this letter had no context for my fellow researcher Jennifer Germon and I since we had only archival information, unlike the other families in our database whose histories we were actively pursuing.
As it happened, I received an email from Angela Weldon who lives on the Gold Coast, enquiring about the project on behalf of her mother and her mother’s sister who were both children born of war. These two women Cheryl and Dorothy Hawthorne were added to the database. Angela later said that “My Nan grew up in inner Sydney, Surry Hills, Redfern, and both her and her sister hung out with the American Negro Soldiers, I having been raised by my nan sister (Dorothy), grew up on the stories of that time”.
It was Jennifer Germon, Research Associate, who later established that the letter from Dorothy Beatty was written by Cheryl and Dorothy’s aunt and Angela’s great-aunt. We had just one of many eureka moments on this project!
Angela’s great-aunt Dorothy, who had raised Angela’s mother Cheryl and her sister Dorothy on-and-off, had also raised Angela who refers to her as mum Dot. This letter was a wonderful surprise to Cheryl, Angela and members of the family. Importantly, they were able to contextualise the letter.
In the letter, Dorothy was seeking assistance in her efforts to be reunited with her African-American husband Reuben Franklin Beatty. She had known Reuben since 1942. We have not as yet been able to locate his military record, indeed he returned after the war as a merchant marine, so may have been in the merchant navy during the war. In July 1945 he was put off the ship in Sydney for medical attention and then, according to Dorothy, was allowed to work. Dorothy and Reuben were married in February 1946.
“I thought America and Australia were free countries but they wont let Reuben stop here and they wont let me go to him…”
One week after the marriage there was an attempt to deport him but Dorothy was ill and he refused to leave her. On May 9 the Australian Customs and Immigration officials returned and removed him to prison. The White Australia immigration policy made it virtually impossible for people of African descent to remain in Australia whether married here, with children, or not.
On the last Sunday in May Reuben was placed aboard a ship bound for New York. The couple were told they would be allowed to have a private farewell, “a kiss goodbye”, but they were not. The moments the officials were taking Reuben on board was the last time that Dorothy and he saw each other. By this time, Dorothy claimed in her letter, she was pregnant with a child. We have not been able to verify this; it may have been a ploy to garner more sympathy.
“I’m really broken hearted since they parted us”
Dorothy had a likely insurmountable problem we learn of in this letter. She was refused a visa to travel to the United States because of a criminal charge. Dorothy wrote, ”I’ve been fined, I’ve never served any jail sentence, only fined, I’ve paid the fines but they still wont give me a visa”.
Angela remembers mum Dot’s story that she was convicted of a minor crime of stealing mangoes when visiting Brisbane. We now know there was a more serious charge because, when searching for evidence, Angela found reference to another incident.
Dorothy’s crime, as reported in The Truth in early January 1945, was to assault and then threaten her landlady in Brisbane with a loaded gun after being asked to be quiet and “stop the language”. Dorothy had been drinking spirits as there was no beer and claimed her actions were out of character because she was not used to drinking hard liquor. There was no bullet in the breech of the .45 revolver that Dorothy claimed had been left with her by a “colored serviceman”.
The paper reported that Dorothy, mother of a child of eight years, was a divorcee who had to stop work as a pantrymaid because of abscesses on her leg. She was said to have been “latterly associating with Allied Servicemen”. She was charged with assault and carrying an unregistered firearm and fined five pounds and six shillings for costs or a month in custody and twenty pounds and six shillings or three months in custody, respectively.
“ …if my husband is not allowed back here and I am not allowed over there what are we to do, we don’t want a divorce we only want each other, perhaps there is some place in this world where we will be allowed to live together in peace…”
Evidence from Dorothy’s life, including her testimony in the Brisbane court, and especially her marriage to Reuben indicates a space in Australian society where Australians, African Americans and other people of colour associated closely. She wrote her letter to the NAACP on the advice of other “colored boys” in Sydney who she was in touch with after Reuben’s deportation.
Grandniece Angela was told by mum Dot that she and her sister grew up in a household that entertained African Americans and other people of colour because their father George Herbert Franks was himself a person of colour. His Anglo-Indian father had arrived in Australia from Madras and married a white Australian woman. Mum Dot said that because he was a man of colour, he was “allowed” to have coloured servicemen in his house and entertained them frequently. Her meeting Reuben most likely happened within this regular and ongoing social context.
Though very fair in colour themselves, Dorothy and Joyce found it comfortable and natural to be in the company of people of colour, as they had grown up in such a way that the idea of racial difference was not a factor they held to. Such families have flown under the radar of the predominantly white Australian imaginary, surviving and socialising within a layer of society that is rarely brought to light in our histories. As it happened, Dorothy’s third marriage was to Harold Dias a man of African descent born in Lancashire, England, who was a merchant seaman, indicating that her association with people of colour did not end with the War years. Harold must have been able to slip through the strictures of immigration to Australia because he was a British citizen.
Dorothy May Kathleen Louisa Jane Franks was born in Sydney on 28 June 1916. She had an alternative birth year of 1923 that she kept for a very long time and likely had the beauty and style to carry this off. She was first married in 1933 at seventeen years old to Thomas Benedict Townsend (1911-1964). Her only natural child John (Jack) was born in 1934. She was divorced from Thomas Townsend in February 1945. When twenty-nine years old she married Reuben Franklin Beatty Jr (1924 – 1977) in February 1946. He was then twenty-two: this may explain her second, later birth date. She never divorced Reuben but in 1953 she married Harold Lawrence Dias (1915 – 1997) and in 1955 they travelled to his birthplace in England.
Angela spent a great deal of time listening to mum Dot’s stories about her life during the war and her marriage. She spoke of Reuben and her planned trip to New York City. Dorothy’s story was that an Australian policeman told her he would not allow her to take her son “to live in a slum” but it seems, from the evidence available, she did not get the visa.
As well as raising her son John (Jack) Townsend from her first marriage, her nieces Cheryl and Dorothy on-and-off, great-niece Angela, and Jack’s son Larry, she also raised an Aboriginal foster child Jason who had been in the notorious Kinchela Aboriginal Boy’s Home before coming to live with her. Another foster child Patsy was with her for a time and when she left remained a part of Dorothy’s family in that she went to live with one of her nieces. Mum Dot was much loved and larger than life. Angela has said:
Although we all called her mum even Patsy, we knew that she wasn’t our birth mother and she would take Larry and me to visit our birth parents. Larry would stay at Jack’s place and I would stay at Cheryl’s we would visit Larry’s mother and grandmother but Larry didn’t know until he was 17 that this was his mother.
Larry and Patsy were white and Jason and I were dark skin and mum said when we moved to Tregear, Mt Druitt in 1967 the neighbors were mortified as we all different colours.
I think every second word out her mouth was a swear word and she would tell you how she thought it was but had the soul of an angel and would do anything for anyone, such as would buy food then go and visiting the relations and give away what she had brought, we never went without, but she liked giving, she been driving to the shops and stop to give complete strangers lifts. Mum never drank only time I seen her drink was at Christmas then it would be a shandy and she always worked, smoked liked a chimney though.
This woman Dorothy, who was tragically unable to be with the husband she loved dearly, had a big heart and open arms. She was a woman who defied the constrictions of “respectability” placed on women in her time and exercised her agency to build a life that gave her a great deal of love and satisfaction. Tellingly, she accomplished this against all disappointments, setbacks and heartbreak. Dorothy died in the home of her loving grandniece Angela in 1989 at the age of 82 years.
Dr Victoria Grieves is the lead CI on the ARC DI project Children Born of War: Australia and the War in the Pacific 1941 – 1945. She is an Aboriginal person; an historian engaged in intersectionality, who also works in interdisciplinary ways to progress critical Indigenous theory.
Dr Jennifer Germon, Research Associate on the ARC DI project and Angela Weldon have contributed to the development of this blog post.
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