How Black Ontarians fought to serve in World War I

Racist policies meant the descendants of escaped slaves had to fight the war on two fronts
By Pam Wright - Published on Nov 10, 2017
Members of Canada’s No. 2 Construction Battalion. Left to right: William Thomas Jackson, Peter Browning, and Elery Elias Jackson. (Courtesy of Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society)

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​CHATHAM-KENT — Even though they were willing to die for their country, the descendants of Black slaves who escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad still had to fight for the right to serve in the war to end all wars.

Eager to enlist when war was declared in 1914, Black Canadians made their way to recruitment stations.

They were turned away.

“It’s ironic,” says Chatham-Kent military historian Jerry Hind. “They were willing to put themselves in harm’s way with the expectation of serving their country. [But] they weren’t allowed to enlist.”

In the 1800s, Black families settled in what would later become the municipality of Chatham-Kent. Because it was located inland, away from the American border, the area became a haven for runaway slaves, earning the nickname “Black Man’s Paris.” By 1850, one-third of its population was Black.

Black communities also flourished nearby. The Dawn settlement, near Dresden, was founded by the Rev. Josiah Henson, a former slave who escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. A Black abolitionist, Henson became the subject of Harriet Beecher Stowes’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Chatham-Kent Black educator Arthur Harding Alexander confronted Sam Hughes, Canada’s minister of militia and defence, about the army’s racist policies.

“He sent a letter to Sam Hughes about it in 1914,” says his grandson, Buxton-area resident Spencer Alexander, whose family came to Kent County from Kentucky via the Underground Railroad. But Alexander says Hughes skirted the question in a return letter, telling his grandfather that enlistment decisions were made by local recruiters. 

The debate raged on for another two years, eventually reaching the House of Commons. Finally, in May 1916, the British War Office agreed to accept a segregated unit. The Canadian forces then formed the all-Black No. 2 Construction Battalion, a unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Based in Pictou, Nova Scotia, the company had close to 1,000 members, but only one Black officer.

Its members created the infrastructure of the war machine, digging trenches and building roads and bridges. The battalion also defused landmines and removed the wounded and the dead from the fields of the Western Front. They served at many battle sites in Belgium and France, including at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

British military law, though, forbade Black soldiers from rising above the rank of sergeant. After shipping out from Canada to England, Black Canadians were confined to camp, prohibited from fraternizing or going out in public. Eventually, Hind says, they were sent to France for training.

The history of No. 2 Construction Battalion is important to Dorothy Wright-Wallace, president of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Her father, Pte. Arthur Wright — a descendent of a Delaware slave — served in the battalion from 1916 to 1920.

Arthur died when Dorothy was eight — the result of complications of his having been gassed. Doctors said the chemical weapon shaved 20 years off his life.

He was one of 48 Black Chatham-Kent residents to serve in World War I. Wright-Wallace heard the stories of local Black men — many who were her neighbours in East Chatham — standing in lineups at the Chatham Armory to sign up, only to be rejected.

Eventually, as the war dragged on and casualties mounted, the Canadian government passed the Military Service Act in 1917, which made every British subject between the ages of 20 and 45 eligible for active service.

Jerry Hind, who created the website Gathering Our Heroes, a database of stories and facts about Canadians from Chatham-Kent who served in the World Wars, says it’s nearly impossible to tell which Black soldiers from the First World War are the direct descendants of those who escaped slavery by way of the Underground Railroad, but he believes it’s likely a very high number. The problem, Hind explains, is that “the issue is under-represented in research.”

Pam Wright is a freelance journalist based in Lambton County.

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