Southwestern Ontario descendants of Canada’s first and only segregated military unit say getting justice and “transformative action” for the way the Black members were treated while serving overseas during the First World War, and after their return home, should go beyond just getting an apology from the federal government.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion was created on July 5, 1916, following protests for the right for Black people to join the war effort. However, volunteers were given tasks like digging trenches, doing roadwork, laying barbed wire and burying the dead under dangerous conditions.
“I would like to see these men celebrated as the heroes they were,” said Barbara Porter, who’s related to three battalion members and is vice-president of the Amherstburg Freedom Museum (AFM).
“In any other culture, they would have been called engineers, because that’s what they did — they built roads, whatever was necessary for them to do.”
Porter’s grandfather, Alfred Augustus Tudor, and her two great-uncles served with the unit. She has made it her mission to find other descendants and piece together the remnants of the history of one of Canada’s most significant battalions.
Porter and other AFM members have been working the past four years on uncovering the list of people from southwestern Ontario who enlisted in the No. 2 Battalion.
“I feel that not only should we apologize for what happened to these men and how they were treated as second-class citizens, the government should look at apologizing to all Black people — as far as slavery goes, we need to start healing this country.”
Porter said the museum has been trying to reach out to others collecting photos and information on members who served in the battalion.
Elise Harding-Davis, African-Canadian heritage consultant and former curator of the AFM, hopes the apology from the government starts a dialogue. But she’s skeptical, given it took 105 years to announce the apology. As well, she added, the men of the No.2 Battalion were subjected to sub-par living conditions compared to their white compatriots, while carrying out their tasks without the means to properly defend themselves.
“This was a war … but we weren’t going to be given a gun. We were going to be given a shovel.”
Even when returning home from war, Harding-Davis added, No.2 Battalion members were often not greeted with accolades and praise.
“Not many got a veterans’ pension … While many of the white men who came back became teachers or got government jobs, that didn’t happen for the Black men. A few were given medals, but a medal doesn’t feed your family.”
Now with Ottawa’s announced plan, Harding-Davis hopes that transformative action will take place, in addition to the apology.
“I hope it’s not a political ploy and I hope it’s really some sort of retributive justice, perhaps more Black people in leading roles in the military.”
‘They had to do what they could’
Phil Alexander, secretary for the AFM, was a child when he lived across the street from James Jacobs, who was from Windsor and enlisted to the join the war effort in London, Ont.
“I would always try to greet him as he was off on his rounds in the morning to deliver the mail … He and his wife were very pleasant people and came to the same church that we attended.”
Alexander said he didn’t hear much from Jacobs about facing racism during his time in the military, but that it may have been a matter of necessity to downplay it.
“I can only assume that he encountered it because he didn’t complain about maltreatment,” said Alexander. “They had to do what they could to try to fit in and not be noticed as being different, because that would lead to harsh negative treatment.”
Dorothy Wright Wallace is president of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Her father and uncle were part of the No. 2 Battalion, and Wallace’s father died when she was a child.
She said her father didn’t share specific experiences of racism, but the history speaks volumes.
“Once they got there, they were handed shovels and picks, and that kind of tells you right then and there, they were just there for the manual labour.”
LISTEN | Hear more from Wallace about what the federal government’s intent to apologize means to her
Afternoon Drive7:07Federal government to issue a formal apology to Canada’s first and only racially segregated military unit
Call for apologies for all Black members
Harding-Davis says the federal government must also work on issuing apologies to all Black volunteers who served in Canadian battalions.
“The people who would have most appreciated this apology are dead. There were four or five other units of Black men who volunteered on their own to fight for King and Country. Are they going to be apologized to as well?”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.