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first world war

Rev. Capt. Dr. William Andrew White was the first black officer in the British Army

Dying of cancer in 1936, the Rev. Capt. Dr. William Andrew White could only be, at first, remote to a young boy born in 1960. It was difficult to feel an immediate connection to him. That my great-grandfather had been the first black officer in the British Army during the First World War, and the only black chaplain, instilled a sense of pride, yes, but not necessarily – not then – a profound recognition of his magnificent achievement.

It was the reverend's daughter Portia, a globetrotting concert contralto, who accumulated the accolades in my childhood home in Halifax. Her fame was such that my two brothers and I realized that mentioning our familial connection in school and in church could elevate us accordingly. After all, she had given a Royal Command Performance. Imagine: We were "coloured," sneakered kids only two degrees of separation from the Queen!

We lauded, rightly, not only our great aunt's success, but also the acclaim won by several other of Rev. White's children: Composer Bill Jr. became an Officer in the Order of Canada; Jack was a respected Ontario labour leader; Lorne was cast alongside Anne Murray in CBC TV's Singalong Jubilee.

Rev. White became a heroic figure for me only as an adult – once I began attending the (usually) biennial White Family Reunion.

Now I see him in his time. Born in 1874, the son of just-freed Virginia slaves, he first aspired to become the richest black of the Gilded Age, to flout negrophobia by becoming a blueblood.

But the Gilded Age was a nadir in race relations: Ku Klux Klan terrorism drove two million blacks to migrate north, ferrying newborn blues and jazz to Chicago and Detroit, Boston and New York.

Rev. White wound up on a different trajectory. Thanks to the suggestion of a white Canadian missionary, he chose religion over robber-baron capitalism and the Dominion over Dixie, and removed to Nova Scotia.

By 1903, he had become just the third Africadian (African-Nova Scotian) to hold a university degree. In 1919, he assumed the leadership of the province's "Coloured Baptists," i.e. the African (United) Baptist Association.

In this role, he advocated – like U.S. black leader Booker T. Washington – the creation of self-help institutions, such as an industrial-training school. In 1922, in Toronto, he preached a sermon on "race consciousness," expressing pan-African ideas that echoed Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement. In the 1930s, his sermons were broadcast via radio throughout the Maritimes and New England.

But Rev. White deserves remembering today, on the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, because, not only did he answer when "King and Country" called, he also championed the cause of blacks – to be able to serve and kill and perish.

Rev. White and his allies believed that, if blacks could win the right to serve patriotically alongside white Canadians – even if under segregation – then, surely, post-war, they would face fewer obstacles to socioeconomic equality.

It proved a herculean effort to assemble the thousand-man platoon, staffed by white officers, due in part to the contempt with which Ottawa mandarins viewed black soldiery.

Yet the battalion was mustered in July 1916, and subsequently it was dispatched to France in 1917 to fell trees to make rail lines. A few blacks, transferred to other units, saw combat in no-man's-land trenches.

While overseas, Rev. White reputedly wrote daily love letters to his wife, Izie (with whom he had 13 children).

Post-war, because his 1,049 men had come from across the country (and a few from the United States), Rev. White became a de facto leader of African Canadians nationally. However, despite his hope that duty, sacrifice and heroism would improve the lot of blacks, Rev. White lived to see his expectations thwarted. As black veterans returned home, they encountered a vigorous push by the KKK to establish Canadian branches, especially in Ontario and the West. Schools, societies and jobs segregated in 1914 remained so in 1918. Only after World War II – a war fought against "master race" dogmas – did anti-black attitudes begin to shift.

Even so, by moving from Virginia to Nova Scotia, then by moving African Canadians to serve with him in France, Rev. White emerged as the prototypical "Black Atlantic," cosmopolitan African Canadian, a travelling intellectual, constantly on the move upward.