The No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in 1917 as Canada's first all-Black regiment.

The No. 2 Construction Battalion – the regimental band is shown here – was part of the Canadian army that went overseas to fight Germany during the First World War. It was the first all-Black Regiment ever raised in Canadian history, but the Black community had to fight hard for the privilege of serving.

Harold E. Wright, Heritage Resources, Saint John
c. 1916
Photograph
No. 3576
© 2008, Heritage Resources, Saint John. All Rights Reserved.


Seymour Tyler was a Black Canadian who served in France during the First World War. A member of the No.2 Construction Battalion – the first all-Black battalion in Canadian history – he was wounded in 1917 at the battle of Camel Hill. Tyler said: "Don’t let anyone tell you different: no man is any braver than a Black man.”

That was something that young Black Canadians had to prove in 1914. Seymour was one of many who wanted to do their duty when Canada went to war, but Black men were routinely turned away from the recruiting stations. They took the matter to Parliament and finally, after two years of lobbying, were given permission to form a regiment.

Some 600 men enlisted, and the No. 2 Construction Battalion came into being on July 5, 1916. The Battalion arrived in France in May 1917, where it spent a year assigned to lumbering and road and rail work. Though disappointed not to see action, the recruits did their duty. They were rewarded in April 1918 by being transferred to the front as combat troops. There, though few saw action, some were wounded by artillery fire and injured by poison gas, and a few were killed.

In Read More

Seymour Tyler was a Black Canadian who served in France during the First World War. A member of the No.2 Construction Battalion – the first all-Black battalion in Canadian history – he was wounded in 1917 at the battle of Camel Hill. Tyler said: "Don’t let anyone tell you different: no man is any braver than a Black man.”

That was something that young Black Canadians had to prove in 1914. Seymour was one of many who wanted to do their duty when Canada went to war, but Black men were routinely turned away from the recruiting stations. They took the matter to Parliament and finally, after two years of lobbying, were given permission to form a regiment.

Some 600 men enlisted, and the No. 2 Construction Battalion came into being on July 5, 1916. The Battalion arrived in France in May 1917, where it spent a year assigned to lumbering and road and rail work. Though disappointed not to see action, the recruits did their duty. They were rewarded in April 1918 by being transferred to the front as combat troops. There, though few saw action, some were wounded by artillery fire and injured by poison gas, and a few were killed.

In 1939, when another war broke out, Band Leader Tyler went overseas again – this time with the Carleton & York Regiment, whom he led proudly ashore in Scotland. It was an early sign that racism was on the wane in Canada.

NO. 2 CONSTRUCTION BATTALION, CEF. NATIONAL HISTORIC EVENT OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 1992. PLAQUE: PICTOU, NOVA SCOTIA
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

A Canadian railway porter looked after all the needs of passengers, everything from shining shoes to babysitting.

Railway porters wrote an important chapter in the history of labour relations in Canada. From the late 19th century on, their profession – mostly because it was ill-paid and insecure – was dominated by Blacks, who had few other employment opportunities. In 1918, the porters formed a pioneering labour union.

McDermid Studio, Edmonton, Alberta
Glenbow Archives
May 1925
Photograph
NC-6-11624C
© 2008, Glenbow Archives. All Rights Reserved.


Why did Black Canadians want to work as railway porters from the late 19th century on? For their services, they received less than half of what was considered a living wage: the rest came from tips. They worked as long as 240 hours a month. They traveled thousands of miles every month, were ill fed and often had just three or four hours’ sleep a night. Their jobs ranged from shining shoes, stowing luggage and looking after children to cleaning the cars (no easy task in the age of dirty, coal-burning engines). And they had absolutely no job security: a single complaint from the pubic meant loss of livelihood.

Why did they want those jobs? In part, because there were few other jobs available to Blacks. As one porter wrote: “It wasn’t easy for a black man to get work but I got a job with CN as a porter on a train. I worked there from 1918-1962, that’s 43 years. I received my pension.…” The railway gave them at least some stability.

In 1918, these underprivileged workers formed the first Black union in Canada, the Order of Sleeping Car Porters. The hostility of management destroyed their first attempt, but Black porters continu Read More

Why did Black Canadians want to work as railway porters from the late 19th century on? For their services, they received less than half of what was considered a living wage: the rest came from tips. They worked as long as 240 hours a month. They traveled thousands of miles every month, were ill fed and often had just three or four hours’ sleep a night. Their jobs ranged from shining shoes, stowing luggage and looking after children to cleaning the cars (no easy task in the age of dirty, coal-burning engines). And they had absolutely no job security: a single complaint from the pubic meant loss of livelihood.

Why did they want those jobs? In part, because there were few other jobs available to Blacks. As one porter wrote: “It wasn’t easy for a black man to get work but I got a job with CN as a porter on a train. I worked there from 1918-1962, that’s 43 years. I received my pension.…” The railway gave them at least some stability.

In 1918, these underprivileged workers formed the first Black union in Canada, the Order of Sleeping Car Porters. The hostility of management destroyed their first attempt, but Black porters continued to fight for fairness in labour relations and for human rights, and eventually they won. The fact that discrimination is both socially unacceptable and against the law in today’s Canada is partly their victory.

BLACK RAILWAY PORTERS AND THEIR UNION ACTIVITY. NATIONAL HISTORIC EVENT OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 1994. PLAQUE: MONTREAL, QUEBEC
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

Portia May White, a concert singer from Halifax who received international attention in the 1940s and '50s.

Portia White came out of the Black community in Halifax to win international fame as a concert singer in the 1940s.

Yousef Karsh
Library and Archives Canada
15 January 1946
Photograph
1987-054 / C-192783
© 2008, Yousef Karsh/Library and Archives Canada. All Rights Reserved.


A little girl in a church choir in 1930s Halifax discovered the joy of song. In 1944, the critics praised a young woman in New York as “An Unheralded Star…” A worn out woman in 1952 felt the first ominous rasp in her voice and realized she was about to pay the price for a grueling schedule of concerts. Today, she is just a memory – Portia White, the Nova Scotia girl with a voice like velvet, with perfect diction and exquisite poise. She sang the classics beautifully, but it is the haunting Negro spirituals that people still remember.

Portia White was born in Truro in 1911, daughter of a Baptist minister, and grew up in Halifax. She joined the choir at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church when she was just six years old. During the Depression she and her family sang in weekly concerts at a local theatre to raise funds for the cash-strapped church. As a young teacher in the 1930s, she trained part-time at the Halifax Conservatory with the support of the Halifax Ladies Musical Club.

The life of a touring singer was hard – hotel-keepers announcing they had no room for Blacks, restaurants with signs in the window, “No Negroes,&rdquo Read More

A little girl in a church choir in 1930s Halifax discovered the joy of song. In 1944, the critics praised a young woman in New York as “An Unheralded Star…” A worn out woman in 1952 felt the first ominous rasp in her voice and realized she was about to pay the price for a grueling schedule of concerts. Today, she is just a memory – Portia White, the Nova Scotia girl with a voice like velvet, with perfect diction and exquisite poise. She sang the classics beautifully, but it is the haunting Negro spirituals that people still remember.

Portia White was born in Truro in 1911, daughter of a Baptist minister, and grew up in Halifax. She joined the choir at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church when she was just six years old. During the Depression she and her family sang in weekly concerts at a local theatre to raise funds for the cash-strapped church. As a young teacher in the 1930s, she trained part-time at the Halifax Conservatory with the support of the Halifax Ladies Musical Club.

The life of a touring singer was hard – hotel-keepers announcing they had no room for Blacks, restaurants with signs in the window, “No Negroes,” one endless bus ride after another. But Portia White’s achievement was world-class, a credit to the community that supported her and to the culture that gave her her voice. She sang for the last time in 1967, for Canada’s 100th anniversary.

PORTIA MAY WHITE. NATIONAL HISTORIC PERSON OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 1995. PLAQUE: TRURO, NOVA SCOTIA
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

"The Collected Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett," published by Summy-Birchard Inc., 1973

Nathaniel Dett – for whom an historic church is named in Niagara Falls – started his career as church organist and finished as an internationally renowned composer and choir director. Today, his work is kept alive in Canada by the Nathaniel Dett Chorale.

"The Collected Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett"
Summy-Birchard Inc.
1973
Paper (sheet music)
© 2008, Summy-Birchard Inc. All Rights Reserved.


The local piano teacher was drilling two of the Dett boys in the little town of Drummondville (today’s Niagara Falls) when she noticed their five-year-old brother, Nathaniel. He was standing at the piano sounding out the piece they were working on. Realizing that the boy had a real ear for music, she offered him piano lessons free of charge. She was the first to recognize and nurture one of North America’s finest composers of the early 20th century.

Nathaniel’s family – descended from slaves who escaped to Canada in the 19th century – moved to Niagara Falls, New York, when the boy was 11, and he continued to study at a local conservatory. By the time he was 14, he was a church pianist. He came back to the Canadian side at age 19 to work as organist at a little Baptist chapel (built in 1836 to serve Black refugees). From 1898 to 1903, Dett played the organ, led the choir and composed some of his earliest music at that church – which wasn’t yet the “R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church." Who would have dreamed then that the local choir director would one day study in Paris, perform his own mus Read More

The local piano teacher was drilling two of the Dett boys in the little town of Drummondville (today’s Niagara Falls) when she noticed their five-year-old brother, Nathaniel. He was standing at the piano sounding out the piece they were working on. Realizing that the boy had a real ear for music, she offered him piano lessons free of charge. She was the first to recognize and nurture one of North America’s finest composers of the early 20th century.

Nathaniel’s family – descended from slaves who escaped to Canada in the 19th century – moved to Niagara Falls, New York, when the boy was 11, and he continued to study at a local conservatory. By the time he was 14, he was a church pianist. He came back to the Canadian side at age 19 to work as organist at a little Baptist chapel (built in 1836 to serve Black refugees). From 1898 to 1903, Dett played the organ, led the choir and composed some of his earliest music at that church – which wasn’t yet the “R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church." Who would have dreamed then that the local choir director would one day study in Paris, perform his own music at Carnegie Hall, play for two American presidents and tour Europe to acclaim in the 1930s.

Dett drew on his African heritage to bring an exciting pace and richness to even the most classical of his music. He never forgot his musical roots.

R. NATHANIEL DETT BRITISH METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH. NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 2000. PLAQUE: NIAGARA FALLS, ONTARIO
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

A work composed by R. Nathaniel Dett and recorded as part of "Listen to the Lambs: the music of R. Nathaniel Dett"

Hew round the tree.
Hew round the tree.
Hew round the tree.
Hew round the tree.

Look at the tree, so wide so high.
Hew round, hew round the tree.

Where it falls, it shall lie.
Hew round, hew round the tree.

Wicked man is like the tree.
Hew round, hew round the tree.

Quick shall his destruction be.
Hew round, hew round the tree.

Hew round, hew round the tree.
Hew round, hew round the tree.
Hew round, hew round the tree.
Hew.

R. Nathaniel Dett
The Nathaniel Dett Chorale

© 2008, Nathaniel Dett Chorale. All Rights Reserved.


Africville in the 1960s, a neglected community without services on the edge of Halifax

Africville was a small, neglected Black community on the outskirts of Halifax in the 1960s. Though the City of Halifax refused to provide basic services and the community was poor, some 400 people had made a home there for nearly a century and a half.

Bob Brooks
Nova Scotia Archives
c. 1965
Africville, Halifax, Nova Scotia, CANADA
Photograph
1989-468, box 16. Neg. sheet 6, image 31
© 2008, Nova Scotia Archives. All Rights Reserved.


Planners from the City of Halifax surveying the community of Africville

In the 1960s, municipal officials from Halifax arrived with plans for urban renewal in hand. They proposed to relocate the people of Aricville to public housing and to bulldoze the community. There was some suggestion that a new bridge and port facilities would replace Africville.

Bob Brooks
Nova Scotia Archives
c. 1965
Africville, Halifax, Nova Scotia, CANADA
Photograph
1989-468, box 16. Neg. sheet 5, image 25
© 2008, Nova Scotia Archives. All Rights Reserved.


Residents of Africville met in Seaview United Church to protest the eviction.

The Africville community gathered, as it had always done, in their church – Seaview United – to protest. It did no good. The City of Halifax was determined to destroy the community of Africville rather than put in services.

Bob Brooks
Nova Scotia Archives
c. 1965
Africville, Halifax, Nova Scotia, CANADA
Photograph
1989-468, box 16. Neg. sheet 20, image 25
© 2008, Nova Scotia Archives. All Rights Reserved.


A monument in Seaview Park, Halifax, dedicated to the lost community of Africville

After the bulldozers had finished their work in 1968, there was nothing left of Africville but a barren expanse of land. The proposed developments never went forward, and today there is a park there. All that is left of Africville is a monument in the shape of a large sundial. On one side, the names of some of the original Black settlers are inscribed.

Stephen Kimber

Photograph
© 2008, Stephen Kimber. All Rights Reserved.


There used to be a cluster of houses around a little white church in Africville, on the Dartmouth River near Halifax. It wasn’t much of a town, but it was home to some 400 African Canadians in the 1960s, many of whom could trace their roots back to ancestors who came to Nova Scotia after the War of 1812.

Africville had no lights, sewage or water. No parks, no fire department and no police station. And it hadn’t had an easy time over the years. A rail company drove tracks through town in 1853. Sewage pits were installed in 1858, an infectious disease hospital in the 1870s and a city dump and slaughterhouse in the 1950s. Then Halifax served the residents with eviction notices. They’d be better off, the City said, in public housing. Residents who protested were ignored.

When moving day came, the City sent garbage trucks to move the residents of Africville and their belongings into public housing. That night, the bulldozers came in. People lost everything – houses, businesses and even their church. But what they minded most was losing their community, the place they belonged.

In 1968, the City of Halifax proclaimed th Read More

There used to be a cluster of houses around a little white church in Africville, on the Dartmouth River near Halifax. It wasn’t much of a town, but it was home to some 400 African Canadians in the 1960s, many of whom could trace their roots back to ancestors who came to Nova Scotia after the War of 1812.

Africville had no lights, sewage or water. No parks, no fire department and no police station. And it hadn’t had an easy time over the years. A rail company drove tracks through town in 1853. Sewage pits were installed in 1858, an infectious disease hospital in the 1870s and a city dump and slaughterhouse in the 1950s. Then Halifax served the residents with eviction notices. They’d be better off, the City said, in public housing. Residents who protested were ignored.

When moving day came, the City sent garbage trucks to move the residents of Africville and their belongings into public housing. That night, the bulldozers came in. People lost everything – houses, businesses and even their church. But what they minded most was losing their community, the place they belonged.

In 1968, the City of Halifax proclaimed the project a “success.” As of today, however, no proposal to use the area productively has gone forward. The land remains an empty monument to a ruined community. It’s a shame.

AFRICVILLE. NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 1996. PLAQUE: HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

After reading, viewing and listening to the media files in the Learning Object, students will be able to:

• contrast the experiences of white and Black Canadian soldiers in the First World War;

• explain why, despite substandard working conditions, Blacks chose to work as railway porters;

• show why the Black railway porters needed to organize to fight for a more socially just Canada;

• identify two Black Canadian performers and show how each drew on their Black heritage to achieve international acclaim;

• listen to and comment on the “African sound” created by Nathaniel Dett; and

• analyze the issues involved in the city of Halifax’s decision to evict the residents of Africville.


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