“We are not alone”

They grew up without their Black fathers, and often without knowing their own family stories. Now a group of Britain’s wartime ‘brown babies’ and their descendants are being brought together for the first time by our innovative new project exploring the role of DNA testing in their lives.

Mindsets and Missions project slide

"I used to say I wasn't bothered, but it's only when you have the opportunity to find out who the other side of you is, you find out you were bothered, you just hid it. And for a lot of people, DNA is the only way to find out who they are."

Those were the words of one of the participants in our ground-breaking new project exploring the impact of DNA testing on the lives of Britain’s ‘brown babies’.

‘Brown babies’ is a term created by the American press during the 1950s to describe mixed children born during World War Two to white British mothers and Black American soldiers stationed in the UK. It is estimated that there were about 2,000 such children born during the war, but the figure may be higher.

Racial discrimination at the time meant that those couples who wanted to stay together were forbidden from doing so, leaving hundreds of children to grow up without their fathers or other Black relatives. Most lived in rural areas of the UK without significant Black, mixed or other ethnic minority populations. While some were brought up in loving homes, others faced racism within their own families or were rejected by their families and brought up in care.

Growing up as a World War Two 'brown baby'

Children outside Holnicote House.

'Brown babies' is a term many in this group are now re-claiming as they explore their histories and identify their wider families, often through DNA testing. Through our project, they, and their children and grandchildren, are now coming together to discuss their experiences and hear from others.

The museum has hosted three online discussion events for the group since October 2023. For many, these events have been the first times they had ever met others from similar backgrounds or been able to share the sometimes painful effects of growing up with this history.

A number of participants commented on the relief of being with others like them. One said it was “amazing not to feel alone”. Another said: “I knew it would be emotional. Thank you for starting this project”. Another expressed her gratitude for the space, because “I haven’t found anyone else who was interested”, and still another said it was very emotional “for someone like me who has been brought up by a white family my whole life”.

Some of those attending were the children and grandchildren of ‘brown babies’, and several participants shared thoughts about the “ripple effect” that parental trauma and loss, feelings of abandonment, discrimination, racism and ‘othering’ was still having on their families, generations later.

Towards a sense of belonging

The nine month-long project, Reclaiming Histories Through Science: DNA testing in the lives of ‘brown babies’ families, is designed to be collaborative rather than extractive, led by a cohort of those directly affected.

This cohort of ‘brown babies’ and their family members is being supported by a project team who met on the Museums Association’s Mindsets + Missions learning programme, which ran from March to April 2023. They are: Chamion Caballero, Director of The Mixed Museum; Damian Hebron, who has a background in working with people with lived experience to share their stories, particularly in relation to genetic research; and Jill Anderson, a mental health educator with experience of facilitating and developing community involvement in health and social care.

The project team also includes Professor Lucy Bland, the historian whose research into Britain’s ‘brown babies’ has done so much to bring this history to light, and Arlene Nelson, herself a ‘brown baby’ who runs a Facebook group for ‘brown babies’ families. The Mixed Museum’s Associate Editorial Director Laura Smith is also a team member, assisting with the documentation of the project. 

A group of people in conversation around a table with a white board with multi coloured notelets stuck to it.
Chamion and Damian with other members of the Mindsets and MIssions cohort at the Leeds Learning Day, March 2023. Photo: Rana Ibrahim.

Funding is allowing members of the ‘brown babies’ cohort to get involved in different ways. These are likely to include helping to organise or participate in a series of ‘conversation’ events based on themes that have emerged from the initial webinars; working with artists to create works in response to their experiences, which can then be shared with the wider public; and supporting the set-up of an in-person event in summer 2024 which will explore the many aspects of this part of British history.

So far, 31 people make up the ‘brown babies’ steering group, and there is scope for more to get involved if they wish. Already, three months in, it has been an emotional experience for many. One person summed it up: “For so long, the brown babies have been silent. But now we know a whole group of people and we are not alone.”

Mindsets + Missions is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and delivered by Museums Association in partnership with The Liminal Space and the Association for Science and Discovery Centres. 

If you are a ‘brown baby’ with experience of DNA testing, or are related to somebody from this background and would like to get involved in the project, please get in touch.