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Title: “No. 2 Construction Battalion (aka The Black Battalion): A Short History.”

Presenter: John Boileau

After considerable lobbying by Black and white supporters, Canada fielded one Black battalion during the First World War—but they had to fight with shovels, not rifles. No. 2 Construction Battalion was authorized on July 5, 1916, in Pictou, NS, and was composed of Black men from across Canada and even the United States and the British West Indies. Its officers were white, with the exception of the unit’s chaplain, Honorary Captain The Reverend William A White. The battalion went overseas in March 1917 and served in France’s Jura Mountains, near the Swiss border. It spent the war attached to No. 5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps, producing the critical wartime commodity of lumber. Facing prejudice and rejection, the men of No. 2 persevered to play their part in “the war to end all war.” The story of the unit is an important, but largely unknown, part of Canada’s military history. 

Title: “W. Andrew White, Jr., The No. 2. Construction Battalion, and Black Citizenship”

Presenter: Dudley Brown

In an attempt to expand Black citizenship, William Andrew White, among other Black leaders, believed World War I would be an opportunity for the Black community to make plain its patriotism. However, the world trauma that was the Great War gave White a glimpse behind the curtain that hid Canadian racism. Once pulled back, he came face to face with the stark truth of the great obstacles that would have to be overcome in order to secure full citizenship for African Canadians. This presentation will look at the intersection of two themes: 1. the leadership of William Andrew White, and 2. the systemic racism prevalent in wartime Canadian society. That intersection occurred as Rev. White attempted to care for his men as Chaplain of the No. 2 Construction Battalion—the only all-Black battalion in WWI. White’s leadership just prior to, during, and just after the war years are the tale of a theology in flux.

The presentation will focus specifically on how his experiences—and those of his men—throughout the war informed his theology; this theology would later guide his oratory and actions, ultimately securing his place as the leader of the Black community. 

Title: “Pressing the Issues”

Presenter: Sean Flynn Foyn

From the onset of the First World War, people of African descent were compelled to continue the battle against entrenched anti-Black racism in Canada and across the combatant societies. Throughout the war, Black-centered publications articulated a curious mix of patriotism and militancy that spoke directly to the experiences of anti-Black racism in Canada and across the African diaspora. This presentation explores how the Atlantic Advocate, the Canadian Observer, and the Crisis Magazine challenged anti-Black racism, debated the meaning and form of Black peoples’ involvement in the war, and imagined post-war societies less plagued by the destructive forces that gave rise to the global conflict.

Title: “Band of Brothers: Featuring George William Stewart and Albert Carty”

Presenter: Kathy Grant

Kathy's presentation will focus on two of the men who served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion, and who were also in the Battalion's Band: Band Leader George William Stewart and Tuba player Albert Carty. (An important point to note is that both men were from New Brunswick. A number of New Brunswick men enlisted at the start of the war in 1914 and served at the Front in other CEF units.) Expanding on the research of educator Thamis Gale whose father served in the No.2  Construction, and using images of, and archival documents on, Stewart and Carty as well as information from family lore, Kathy will detail for the audience how these two men came to serve with the No. 2, the specific war service they provided as members of the No. 2 Band (including helping with the recruitment drive for the Battalion), their war work and activities in France (particularly in 1918), and what happened to them in the years immediately following the war.  

Title: “Get on the Boat, the Poet Wrote, and Go and Win the War: The Story of George Bolivar Shreve”

Presenter: Kimberly Head

The “Poet Laureate” of North Buxton, Ontario, George Bolivar Shreve was 55 years old when WWI broke out. Then, at age 57 and under the guise of a man much younger, he enlisted. Learn about this Buxton veteran through snippets of his poetry, including that which reminisces on his time “In the Eastern Hemisphere.” A man of many hats and professions, his love of the written word was carried with him throughout his life and is highlighted in this presentation, which starts with his parents and follows until his passing. Alongside George, we honour the other eleven Buxton men who made the decision to fight for Canada – and those who gave their life for their country – in a reading of their names and a slide show of their photographs, where available.

Title: “An Opportunity Not to Be Missed: The Black Baptist and Methodist War Effort on the Canadian Home Front, 1914-1918”

Presenter: Gord Heath

In this presentation, I examine the Great War perspectives of Black Baptists in Ontario and Nova Scotia, as well as the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Ontario. What is evident in the minutes of their annual meetings is a fusion of patriotism, social reform, and race consciousness distinctly forged by religious convictions. It is virtually impossible to pull those three aspects apart, and from religion, for they are intertwined and mutually supportive. Black Baptist and Methodist wartime responses were born out of an obligation to the nation as loyal citizens, but also out of a need to demonstrate that loyalty in the crucible of war (something experienced by other ethnic minorities in Canada, such as Germans and Eastern Europeans).

The agency of the two Black denominations needs to be noted by taking seriously their lived experience and recognizing Black Baptist and Methodist motives for decision-making in the midst of the cacophony, uncertainty, distress, but also opportunity, of war. In his study of nineteenth-century Black Methodists in Nova Scotia, Allen P. Stouffer claims that the “African British North Americans, like other settlers, in large measure were self-directed autonomous people who collectively identified their needs, established their goals, and devised means to achieve them.” In like manner, these two wartime Black religious communities imagined their identity and charted their course on their own terms. The Baptists and the Methodists were acting within the general framework of a cross-border, multi-denominational evangelicalism, one with a history of an abiding loyalty to nation, missions, social reform, and social justice. In that sense, Black Baptists and Methodists were mirroring the actions and discourse of their White coreligionists, however, with the added, and crucially important caveat that their marginalized status placed unique pressures on – and opened up possibilities for – these Black denominations. And those opportunities, it was frequently stated, were to be exploited to the fullest. The war was considered to be a unique – perhaps once in a lifetime – providential opportunity not to be missed.

Title: “Making it Count: Black Canadian Women Obtain the Right to Vote During the Great War”

Presenter: Natasha Henry

This presentation will discuss the history of Black Canadian women securing the franchise during the Great War era through an exploration of their intersecting racialized, gendered, and classed experiences. The Wartime Elections Act of 1917 granted the federal franchise to the female relatives of men serving in the military (army or navy, active or retired). This law extended the right to vote to Black women related to men serving in the No. 2 Construction Battalion and the female relatives of Black men who enlisted in regular regiments. The stories of two Black Canadian women who obtained the right to vote through this mechanism will be examined. Their experiences as Black women during the Great War years illuminate the ways access to the ballot was tied to political engagement that aimed to challenge second-class citizenship and improve the social conditions of Black Canadians during the early years of the twentieth century.

Title: “Black Servicemen Across the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1918”

Presenter: Mathias Joost

The extent of knowledge about Black servicemen in the First World War often does not extend beyond basic information about the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Yet, there were more than 220 Black volunteers in addition to those in the No. 2, and greater than 300 conscripts who also served. For the most part, their stories are untold, especially that of the conscripts. By the start of 1918, the No. 2 Construction Battalion had two detachments in northern France. The servicemen it left behind in England in May 1917 would, for the most part, find employment on the continent, but not all in the expected places. Many Black volunteers who had arrived in the preceding two years were still languishing in the UK when the first conscripts began to arrive in February 1918, with only a few making it to the front. Two new units were formed, one with a large percentage of Black soldiers, the other almost completely manned by Black soldiers. This presentation will explore these developments and provide an overview of what Black servicemens in the CEF were doing in 1918.

Title: “Henry Thomas Shepherd”

Presenter: Melissa King

RSM Henry Thomas Shepherd, MBE, lived an extraordinary life and is revered by his family, and community, and was respected by his peers as a man of incredible integrity. Shepherd’s story includes the arrival of his father in Canada West, by way of the Underground Railroad. Despite facing many obstacles as a Black man living in racially tumultuous times, Shepherd challenged the odds and lived his life with passion, dignity, and respect. Shepherd ably served his community and his country. He served in both World Wars and was one of the few Black servicemen who served in a non-segregated battalion during World War I. Through archival records, documented anecdotes, and family narratives, I trace the history and legacy of this extraordinary man.

Title: “The Road to Prosperity: A Black Woman’s Activism during the Great War in Atlantic Canada”

Presenter: Danielle Hargreaves-Pittman

In 1915, Miriam A. DeCosta, a 25-year-old woman from Trinidad living in Halifax, Nova Scotia formed The Atlantic Advocate with her husband Wilfred A. DeCosta and three other men. The Atlantic Advocate was Atlantic Canada’s first Black Canadian newspaper and was – as its slogan proclaimed – “Devoted to the Interests of the Colored People.” While The Atlantic Advocate was published monthly between 1915 and 1917, sadly only four issues have survived the test of time. The remaining issues reveal that the journal provided a valuable space for Miriam and other Black Canadians to encourage and educate, to support “the forward movement” of their people, to share community news, and to inspire harmony between races. The first issue was published only 13 months after the birth of Miriam’s second child, yet she served as Secretary and contributed two articles. If Mrs. DeCosta authored any further pieces or made other contributions for the periodical in the surviving issues, her name was not attached to them. But she continued to provide support as secretary. This presentation explores the life of Miriam DeCosta,  a visionary who sought to improve her people’s circumstances by encouraging them to embrace the values of hard work and education. She and the team behind The Atlantic Advocate used their publication to support the Great War effort while simultaneously expressing patriotism and dismay towards the color line and encouraging their audience to fight hard against their socio-political circumstances.

Title: “Actor/Director/Producer”

Presenter: Anthony Sherwood

Anthony Sherwood will present his award-winning film, Honour Before Glory, the story of Canada’s one and only all-Black battalion formed during WWI. The film won a Gemini Award and a Hollywood Black Film Festival Award and has been presented all across North America and Europe. In 2018, Mr. Sherwood was invited by the Government of France to present his film at a special event honoring Black Canadian servicemen who died in France during WWI. There is an important Canadian history story in the film, which has been distributed to many schools, universities, and government agencies across Canada. Mr. Sherwood has performed extensive research on the contributions of African-Canadians in WWI and will share some of his knowledge with the audience.

Title: “Institutionalizing Care: The Third Jamaica Contingent, the Canadian Military Hospitals Commission, and Veteran Rehabilitation”

Presenter: Hyacinth Simpson

It was during the First World War, through the agency of the Canadian Military Hospitals Commission, that Canada first instituted a formal program for rehabilitating and re-training returned and wounded veterans. War amputees were a main focus of the Commission’s program; and, from 1916, prosthetic making, fitting, and maintenance became a Commission priority.

At the centre of the development and execution of the Commission’s mandate was a group of Jamaican servicemen who had volunteered with the British West Indies Regiment, the Regiment in which most of the Black West Indian volunteers in the First World War served. Through a series of unfortunate events, men of the Third Contingent of the British West Indies Regiment ended up in Halifax in 1916 where they required and received medical treatment (including the amputation of limbs), and benefitted from an extended stay in one of the city’s military convalescent hospitals. In this presentation, I will engage with the Halifax experience of the Third Jamaica Contingent men and explain how they came to be pivotal to the rolling out of the Commission’s program for veterans.

Title: “Reverend William Andrew White - The Acadia Years”

Presenter: Karolyn Smardz Frost

In 1903, William Andrew White became the second person of African descent to graduate from Acadia University. Born in King & Queen County, Virginia, Reverend White encountered Mary Helena Blackadar, a missionary who had trained at Acadia, while studying at the Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC. She encouraged White to apply to her alma mater, and he moved to Wolfville in 1899. This paper explores evidence for his years at Acadia and his ordination at Wolfville Baptist Church. Reverend White went on to a stellar career in the African Baptist Church. In 1916 he was commissioned a captain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, serving overseas as Chaplain to the segregated No. 2 Construction Battalion.   

Title: “ ‘Belonging to the Coloured Race’: Exploring the First World War Service of New Brunswick’s Black Servicemen” 

Presenter: Katelyn Stieva

As one of Canada’s smaller provinces, New Brunswick’s military contribution to the First World War is easily overlooked. But in the provinces’ many small towns and communities, families watched as their fathers and sons volunteered, and were later conscripted, to support Canada’s war effort. Among the thousands of New Brunswickers who served in the war were dozens of Black Canadians who also called New Brunswick home. These men served in a variety of units, and performed a range of tasks, some in the No. 2 Construction Battalion and many others in integrated units that served throughout France and England. This presentation explores the stories of a few of the Black New Brunswickers who served in these integrated spaces and draws attention not only to what is known about Black military service, but also to the unanswered questions that remain about what it meant to be a Black Canadian in uniform during the First World War.