Framed pictures of WWI all-Black battalion to be distributed to legions across Canada

Barbara Porter

A museum in southwestern Ontario is giving framed photos of Canada’s first and only segregated military unit to legions in an effort to bring awareness to the Black soldiers who served in Canada.

The No. 2 Construction Battalion was created on July 5, 1916, following protests for the right for Black people to join the war effort. The Nova Scotia-based battalion served in the First World War, building roads, clearing trees and maintaining railway tracks among other sometimes dangerous duties.

“Basically, they were a labour company, so they were shearing up ditches, cutting up lumber making stands for the artillery, roads, railroad tracks, things like that,” said Barbara Porter, who’s related to three battalion members and is vice-president of the Amherstburg Freedom Museum board.

“Right off the bat [the Canadian military] didn’t want to accept any Black soldiers at all, they said it was a white man’s war … Eventually with all the casualties going on they did accept black soldiers.”

It’s estimated about 100 Black soldiers joined the battalion from the Windsor-Essex area.

“They would be called engineers now if they were in the army, right?” said Porter.

WWI Canada’s all-Black battalion

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.

Now, she and colleagues at the museum are presenting local legions with a framed photo of the locals who joined the group, hoping that it will help bring the battalion’s history to more people.

Porter said she got the idea after the federal government announced a formal apology would be coming because of the discrimination the group faced while serving their country.

“So at that point, I decided that, I mean nobody really knows about them in this area,” she said. “I wanted to educate people before this apology comes in July.”

One framed photo was presented to Branch 594, which has put the picture up in its hall.

“It’s a start,” said Porter. “I don’t see very many people representing me on the walls at all, so it’s a start for the military to get involved and start talking about this history that was lost and make it part of their education.”

Lorene Bridgen-Lennie, assistant curator of the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, said a few other legions have expressed interest in hanging the photo and it’s currently displayed in the Kingsville Military Museum.

“This is a part of Canadian military history and the legion is an institution that represents that military history,” she said.

“So much was sacrificed by these men, and also their ancestors and their descendants — because there is a long history of military service within the Black community so I think it’s really important that when someone enters that hall, they see representation.”