Where Do They Belong?—Adoption of Mixed-Race Children in Late 1950s and Early 1960s Britain
Everywhere the British … resented the sight of a black man with a white woman, reacting rivalrously, sometimes violently as though to an outrage, to the thought that an alien man was being admitted to the closed society, through a woman violating her social trust.
There are 1,000,000 Negroes in Britain today. Hundreds more are arriving every month. Thousands of them are already married to white girls. What do relatives and neighbours think about it? How do the children suffer? What is the price in insults, hardships and tears?(Cited in Buettner 2009)
2. Researching Adoption in the Context of Racism and Decolonisation
Great Britain is the Family Hearth, the Homeland. Close round it stand the Dominions, the Five Free Nations of the Empire—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland … the Five … owe allegiance to the same Sovereign; have common traditions with the people of Great Britain, a common Citizenship and common interests. All rests upon free consent and good will.
Race is not so much a given as it is something that gets materialized through the uncertainty of relating the individual to the social contexts that precede and condition it. […] Adoption reminds us that racial identification is located in that space of anxiety and insecurity between world and self in which social norms are continually in flux.
The problem of coloured children in care was discussed at a meeting on 21 April […] It was agreed that in general it was right for the Home Office to maintain an attitude of not drawing specific, official attention to coloured children as a separate problem from that of other children in care. Nevertheless, it might be desirable by way of conferences and discussions, to disseminate information about the background and customs of coloured communities and use these opportunities for general discussion of special problems arising.9
We have not so far considered it desirable to issue any special guidance to assist Children’s Officers and their staffs in dealing with coloured children as it was felt that nothing should be done which might tend (or be alleged to tend) to encourage local authorities to introduce any element of race discrimination into their treatment of children in their care. It seems right to adhere to this principle.10
It has not hitherto been the practice of the Home Office to obtain any separate statistics about coloured childre(n) in care and it seems desirable that this policy should continue. It would give offence to publish statistics relating to “coloured” children as a category: if such statistics were to be acceptable at all, they would have to be based on “country of origin” and not merely on colour. This would considerably complicate the compilation of statistics by local authorities and would have to be the subject of prior consultation with the local authority associations. Moreover, since an increasing number of coloured children will in future be born in this country, statistics by country of birth would be misleading.11
3. Care System and Adoption in the UK
The father [of an illegitimate child] is too uncertain a figure for the law to take any cognizance of him, except that it will make him pay for the child’s maintenance, if it can find out who he is. The law recognises no rights in him in regard to the child, whereas the mother has several rights… The only father it recognises as having any rights is the father of a legitimate child born in wedlock.(Cited in Fink 2000, p. 189)
4. The 1950s—The Beginnings of Decolonisation “at Home”
5. “The Child Is Extremely Fair, with Blue Eyes and Gives Not the Slightest Indication of His Parentage”—Case Studies
Compared with the first year of activity, there has been an overall increase in the number of female migrants and young children. This has caused a certain degree of pressure on our workers as the differences in family relationships provide us with numerous enquiries to help unmarried mothers and their children—mainly due to shortage of nursery places as well as the difficulty of finding foster mothers or adoptive parents.12
Asian, African of half-cast children are difficult to place, as there is a very narrow field of choice among suitable couples of their own race resident and domiciled in Great Britain. While there are plenty of white couples for any white child for whom adoption is desired, the coloured child is likely to be left to other kinds of care, unless a suitable couple of its own race happen to turn up.13
When adoptive parents are truly accepting of their role, they are unlikely to be unduly concerned about the child’s looks. If people are very specific about appearance, insist on fine bony structure, curly hair, green eyes etc. it is often a danger signal indicating that they are unrealistic, non-accepting of difference, and generally unready for adoptive parenthood. Nevertheless, most parents really enjoy having children who resemble them and adopters are no exception. In fact, especially during the early years, it helps to assuage the wounds of not being able to have a biological child. In the long run, approximate similarity in build and stature is more noticeable than colouring or features. A short, squat child may look and feel out of place in a very tall family just as an exceptionally tall child could be ill at ease amongst all small relatives. This will be particularly true for girls for whom unusual height is generally a discomfort.
Looking like parents is not as important as fitting into the whole family group. Most adopted children dislike comments about their adoptive status by strangers and need to feel kinship with their relatives; this is surely harder if the child stands out as obviously different from a family gathering. This is carrying difference to the point of uncomfortable accentuation.
Placing a Negro or Indian child with a white family is an extreme difference which shocks many people. Almost inevitably there will be problems for any child so utterly unlike his parents. If suitable homes with families of the same race were available in sufficiently large numbers, it would be questionable if placement across racial lines would be kind or right for the children, even though it helps to break down racial barriers. However, in England for the Negro or mulatto child it is usually a choice of white parents or no parents at all. These youngsters desperately need the security of a loving home if they are to overcome the rudeness, snubs and discrimination to which, unfortunately, they may be all too often subjected.
Neither pity nor a sense of duty is a sufficient motive to enable people to make good parents to a child of another race. But when genuine concern leads to real affection, and people love a child for himself and not just because he is black, if for them it is a difference that does not matter, then we must beware lest our own prejudice or rigidity deprive a child of parents.
Although the putative father is half-Jamaican, the child is extremely fair, with blue eyes and gives not the slightest indication of his parentage. As you mention the difficulty of finding foster homes for coloured children, I wonder if in this case, such a difficulty would arise as the child is so like his mother in colouring.
It is true that we are prepared to consider adoption for babies such as he if and when the opportunity arises, which I am afraid is very seldom. At the present time I have no adopters with whom I could place a partly Jamaican baby, only a part Indian child if he is of good background.
I am afraid I must explain to you that it is not possible for the Society to arrange direct adoption for children with coloured blood, and the matter has, therefore, been passed to the Case Department for attention.
I will enclose a set of our Forms for completion regarding his admission into the Society’s care and if it is found that he is suitable, we would then (try to) place him with fosterparents, with a view to their adopting him later on. As [the boy] is fair, this may well be possible, and as soon as their forms are to hand, I will approach my Admissions Committee for consideration.
The skin colour of mixed-race babies tends to darken as they get older. Some mulatto babies look almost white at birth. If they are going to get darker the process has usually started by the time they are three or four months old. A fairly good idea of their ultimate skin colour can be obtained by the age of six to nine months, but this is by no means infallible as some children will get darker still. One helpful hint is to look at the third joint of the fingers and between the fingers on the back of the hand. If there are dark smudges it is an indication that the child will develop darker skin. If they are not visible the child will probably remain very light. Children of Negro ancestry usually have a distinct colour difference between the back and front of the hands and the tops and soles of the feet.
Careful studies of these neurotic young women make it clear that many of them had emotional difficulties long before their pregnancy. Many of them are driven by an unconscious need to have a baby without a husband. […] Inmates of Homes and Shelters and those who seek adoption placement for their children will always include a far higher proportion of these unhappy, disturbed people than will a sample of the total group of unmarried mothers, or a group of those attending a pre-natal clinic in a predominantly working-class area […] It is not rare for these troubled women to choose most unsuitable men as sexual partners, the degree of unsuitability usually mirroring their degree of disturbance. White girls who have illegitimate babies by coloured men are often emotionally ill as well as socially defiant.(Ibid., p. 14ff)
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Conflicts of Interest
About the particular role of mixed race children in the context of adoption Karen Dubinsky argues: The practices of interracial adoption, and the activism of parent groups such as the Open Door Society, helped to create a public persona for the transracial adopted child, a figure I’m calling the Hybrid Baby. […] I am drawn to the term—which in this context can signify the multiracial origins of adopted children as well as children of one race (black, Native, or Asian) raised by the parents of another (almost always white)—because it can accomodate relations of hierarchy and power as well as cultural change […]. (Dubinsky 2017, p. 60f).
On the social construction of childhood see (Woodhead 2008, pp. x–xi).
Especially the factor of class affiliations has been thoroughly explored within historical research and is also an important component in adoptions as most adoptive parents were decidedly middle-class or higher, whereas the children were often born to working class or lower-class mothers. For further details see: See (Gill and Jackson 1983).
For a definition of adoption see (Homans et al. 2018, p. 1f).
Of course, this kind of familial language was not only used in the context of the British Empire. It was used as early as 1776, in French parliamentary debates on Turgot’s reforms.
Canada’s legacy of residential schools has come under renewed scrutiny since the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced in May 2021 that it had discovered what was believed to be more than 200 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian residential school.
For an overview on “New Imperial History” see especially: (Howe 2020; Wilson 2004). Ann Laura Stoler’s and Frederick Cooper’s study should be mentioned here as particularly pioneering: Cooper and Stoler (1997). A large part of the studies of the “New Imperial History” deal with the British Empire. The following works should be mentioned in particular: (Hall 2000; Thompson 2011); and, also the ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series of the Manchester University Press, which was initiated by John M. MacKenzie and is now edited by Andrew Thompson.
Note, dated 25 March, initial signature: CHN/62 375/1/1, “Commonwealth Immigrants Advisory Council. Memorandum on statutory powers of local authorities in regard to welfare of immigrant children” Home Office 1962–1965, National Archives, BN 29/560, first folder.
Draft Submission, Coloured Children in Care, initial signature: CHN/62 375/1/1, “Commonwealth Immigrants Advisory Council. Memorandum on statutory powers of local authorities in regard to welfare of immigrant children” Home Office 1962–1965, National Archives, BN 29/560, second folder.
See: Note 10 above.
The Eighty-eight Annual Report of the Council of the Family Welfare Association, London Metropolitan Archives, A/FWA/C/B2/85, p. 17.
Draft of report on “Adoption Trends in England and Wales” to be provided by the standing conference of Societies Registered for Adoption, National Archives, MH 102/2024.
National Children’s Homes. 1954. The problem of the coloured child: The experience of the National Children’s Homes. Child Care Quarterly 8.2.
Case Record Opened Aug. 1955, Case Records: Wandsworth and Putney Adoption Files, Southwark Diocesan Council For Welcare, London Metropolitan Archives, Acc 2201 L4 115.
London Metropolitan Archives, Acc 2201 L4 115.
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Jur, L. Where Do They Belong?—Adoption of Mixed-Race Children in Late 1950s and Early 1960s Britain. Genealogy 2022, 6, 71. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy6030071
Jur L. Where Do They Belong?—Adoption of Mixed-Race Children in Late 1950s and Early 1960s Britain. Genealogy. 2022; 6(3):71. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy6030071Chicago/Turabian Style
Jur, Lena. 2022. "Where Do They Belong?—Adoption of Mixed-Race Children in Late 1950s and Early 1960s Britain" Genealogy 6, no. 3: 71. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy6030071