Historical Military Records Help Shed New Light on Contributions of Black Canadians during the First World War
In honour of Black History Month, Ancestry.ca digs into its records to help paint a more accurate picture of the role black Canadians played in the war effort
Ancestry.ca, Canada’s leading online family history websitei, celebrates Black History Month with an unprecedented array of online historical records that trace the lives of black Canadians dating back to pre-Confederation, including military records revealing new insights into the prominent role that many played in the Great War.
These records are a potential treasure trove of information about the ancestors of almost 800,000 black Canadians living today; they expose a gap that exists between what is in the historical records and what is generally being taught in schools.
Due to Canada’s unofficial segregation rules at the time, it is generally believed that black men were primarily only permitted to join labor battalions and so entered the war efforts post-1916, with few seeing significant military actions.
These battalions performed crucial wartime duties such as road and railway building/repair, moving ammunition and stores, and burial duties. The most famous of these is of course the Second Construction Battalion, also known as the ‘Black Battalion’, which was Canada’s first all-black military contingent.
However, using Circumstances of Death and War Graves documents along with the Attestation papers available on Ancestry.ca, it is clear that more than 2,000 Black and West Indian men fought and died for Canada in the Great War. Furthermore, many fought at nation defining battles, including Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, and many died in battle, as some of the records highlight in stark detail:
- Lieutenant Lancelot Joseph Bertrand was born in Grenada in the West Indies and enlisted at Valcartier, Quebec in September of 1914. Bertrand was killed in the assault on Hill 70 just prior to the Battle of Lens, Passchendaele, in the Third Battle of Ypres. He is buried at the Vimy Memorial and was a recipient of the Military Cross.
- Trooper Robert Randolph Simms from Annapolis County, Nova Scotia was a 5’4½” barber according to his attestation paper. A member of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, Simms is listed as having “died of wounds near Serain (northern France) when his regiment was attacked by aeroplanes with bombs and machine gun fire.”
- Private Harris Nelson from London, Ontario was a member of the 52nd Battalion. He was “killed by enemy shell during operations east of Bourlon Wood, Southwest on Inchy-en-Artois.”
- Private Harry Andrews Burke, a farmer from Canfield, Ontario, joined the 116th Battalion. He is listed as “Killed in Action. He was hit in the head by an enemy bullet and instantly killed.” Burke is recorded as having been buried at Canada Cemetery, Tilloy, a village captured by the Canadian Corps at the beginning of October 1918 in the face of strong opposition. The cemetery was made by their burial officer on October 13.
In addition to military records, there exists a wide variety of personal narratives, legal documents and letters all detailing the contributions of the black community in defending our country, in government, and in helping lead thousands to freedom through their involvement in the Underground Railroad.
Lesley Anderson, Genealogist for Ancestry.ca, comments: “These historical records, which are surviving evidence of the accomplishments of black Canadians, throw the spotlight onto long forgotten contributions made by individuals to the growth of our country and to the preservation of our freedom.
“In making this information widely accessible, Ancestry.ca has made it easier for people to uncover and share the personal stories that comprise their family history and heritage.” Other prominent figures that can be found through various collections on Ancestry.ca include:
- Rufus Nathaniel Rockhead (1888-1981) was born in Jamaica and enlisted in the CEF after arriving in Montreal. He went on to operate the famous Rockhead’s Paradise, a central attraction of Montreal’s thriving jazz scene in the 1930s. Visited by the top acts of the day, including Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong, the impact the club made on the city was such that a street was named after him – Rue Rufus-Rockhead (record found in Soldiers of the First World War 1914-1918).
- Abraham Doras Shadd (1801-1882) was an active member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, President of the National Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Color, and a conductor for the Underground Railroad. In 1851 he settled in North Buxton, Ontario and became the first black man to be elected into political office as the Counselor of Raleigh Township (record found in the Canadian Passenger Lists).
- William Edward Hall (1827-1904) was the first Canadian Naval Officer and the first person of African ancestry to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration in the British Empire (record found in the 1901 Census).
- Ray Lewis (1910-2003) from Hamilton, Ontario was a track and field athlete and the first black Canadian-born Olympic medalist. He won a bronze medal as part of the 4 x 400 relay race in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics (record found in 1911 Census).
- Delos Davis (1846-1915) was born in Maryland and came to Canada via the Underground Railroad to Colchester, Ontario, a destination for slaves escaping the US. On November 10, 1910 he became the first black person appointed as a King’s Counsel (Records found in 1891 Census and 1901 Census).
- Anderson R. Abbott (1837-1913) was the first black Canadian doctor to be granted a medical license under the Medical Board of Upper Canada. He participated in the American Civil War and attended the death bed of Abraham Lincoln (multiple records found including marriage and death certificates).
- Lincoln Macauley Alexander Sr. was the father of Canadian RCAF veteran Lincoln Alexander, Canada's first black Member of Parliament and the 24th Lt. Governor of Ontario. Alexander Sr. can be found in the Canadian Passenger Lists, arriving in St. John from St. Vincent to start his new life in Canada on April 13, 1920.
Ancestry.ca is offering visitors a free 14-day trial at www.ancestry.ca/blackhistory.
Access to the 128 million historical Canadian records available at Ancestry.ca, is part of the reason the company was recently short-listed by Canada’s History Society for the 2010 Pierre Berton Award, Canada’s top history prize, recognizing excellence in bringing Canada’s history to a wider popular audience.
i comScore, 2010, based on genealogy related websites selected from the Family and Parenting sub-category under the Community category
For further information, please contact Ancestry.ca's Canadian PR agency, Media Profile, at 416-504-8464 or Jeri Brown at Jeri.email@example.com