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  • The Leroy Henry Case: Sexual Violence and Allied Relations in Great Britain, 1944
  • Mary Louise Roberts (bio)

Around midnight on 5 May 1944 on the outskirts of Bath, England, a married couple was awoken by a tapping on their bedroom window. Looking out, they saw a black American soldier at their front door. His name was Leroy Henry, and he was a thirty-year-old truck driver from St. Louis, Missouri.1 Like millions of other GIs at the time, Henry was stationed in England awaiting the invasion in France. That night, he claimed to be lost and asked the couple if they could help guide him back to camp. The wife, Irene Maude Lilley, answered the door, then accompanied the soldier down the road, supposedly to show him the way. When she did not return, her husband went out in search of her and found her in a ditch by the side of the road. She claimed to have been sexually violated. The couple went to the police, who took them in a car to a doctor. On the way, the car came across Henry walking on the road. Lilley identified him, and Henry was arrested. Three weeks later, Henry was found guilty of rape by a US court-martial and was condemned to death by hanging.

Before the case against Leroy Henry was resolved in an acquittal on 17 June 1944, it became an international cause célèbre. Historian Graham Smith describes the case as “arguably the most widely publicized and discussed single incident during the whole American presence in Britain.”2 Commander in chief Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to pay attention to the case in the first days of June despite a looming Normandy invasion. The British press first brought the case to light, expressing outrage at the hastiness and severity of Henry’s conviction. British civilians then took [End Page 402] up Henry’s cause, running a grassroots petition campaign that produced thirty-three thousand signatures on a petition demanding Henry’s reprieve. There is considerable evidence that British civilians liked black soldiers, even preferring them to white ones. “This feeling is fairly common,” wrote editor Cecil King in the Daily Mail, “that the negroes are nicer and better behaved than the ordinary Yank.”3 A survey conducted by Mass Observation, a British social research organization, found in 1943 that 75 percent of the British disapproved of an incident relating to the American “colour bar.”4 US Army reports also referred to the “very friendly” relations between civilians and black soldiers.5 Once the Henry conviction was protested by British civilians and the press, it then caught the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York. This black civil rights organization entered an official plea for Henry’s release and spread news of the case in the African American press. Under international pressure and after further review, Eisenhower acquitted Henry of all charges.

British historians have examined the Henry case for what it reveals about social relations in wartime Britain.6 The case has also been taken up by African American historian Christopher Moore in order to demonstrate the cruel vicissitudes of court-martial justice for black soldiers.7 By contrast, I emplot the Henry case within a transnational frame, emphasizing its central role in a number of different intersecting histories. The case, I argue, developed at the juncture of two dramatically changing colonial formations: the British Commonwealth and Jim Crow segregation. The Jim Crow system was the effort in the US South to segregate black from white Americans; it also represented systematic discrimination against black Americans in housing, employment, and other aspects of social life.8 The [End Page 403] controversy surrounding the Henry verdict exposed global shifts in attitudes toward race and empire due to the extraordinary circumstances of the Second World War. For the US Army, the debate brought new visibility to its segregationalist policies, which stood in direct opposition to the US government’s claim to be a world leader of democracy. For Britons, the controversy presented an opportunity to reassert their traditions of equal justice in the face of emergent...