The Inspiring Impact of William White
Racism is a despicable form of prejudice. Sadly, attempts to normalize discrimination are a tenacious and ever-present threat. In response, the advocacy of progressive-minded citizens must be proactive to continually remind Canadians that racist actions are unacceptable in any context.
A historical figure who was keenly aware of this need was First World War chaplain, Reverend William White. White was born in Virginia, USA, in 1874, the child of freed slaves. He moved to Nova Scotia in 1900 to study at Acadia University (Prime). As the institution’s only second-ever Black student, he faced relentless racism and prejudice (Prime). But he persisted with his studies, graduating with a Bachelor of Theology degree, and becoming ordained in 1903 (Prime). Two years later, he was called to be the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in the nearby town of Truro (MacMichael).
In July of 1914, the First World War began (“Black”). Many Black Canadians, nobly inspired to fight overseas, flocked to recruitment centres eager to enlist (“No. 2”). However, they were often denied. Officers turned them away for being coloured, telling them it was ‘a white man’s war’ (“No. 2”).
The undeniable truth about race-based discrimination is that it is inherently stupid. When confronted, racism can be exposed as the hate-fueled bigotry that it is. But for that conversation to materialize, a clear, confident voice must first call it out.
When the situation was brought to the attention of Reverend White, he resolved to act. He became a prominent advocate in the fight to ensure Black Canadians’ right to enlist. While the matter was debated in the House of Commons, White penned a letter to then Prime Minister Robert Borden pleading the case of Black Canadians (“How”). Furthermore, he appealed to the Battalion Commander responsible for recruitment in his area, Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. Allen (Ruck). Together, they devised an ingenious solution.
Systemic racism takes time to eliminate. But White had no intention of waiting for the hearts of recruitment officers to soften. War was upon them and his brothers wanted to fight. With the help of Allen, he successfully lobbied for the creation of a segregated unit of soldiers. Formed in July of 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was Canada’s first sizable Black military unit (“Black”). Over 600 men joined, mostly from White’s home province of Nova Scotia (“Black”).
White, ever the Canadian patriot, went beyond the call of duty and became the battalion chaplain (“Black”). He was given the rank of Honourary Captain, becoming the only Black commissioned officer in the Canadian military at the time (Ruck).
When the battalion was deployed to France in 1917, White went with them (MacMichael). His meticulously kept diaries show that he became a father-figure to many of the young men in the battalion (“How”). He stayed with No. 2 for the rest of the War, mentoring, encouraging, and preaching to its members. His sermons were progressive and inspiring, addressing topics such as race consciousness, social mobility, and activism (MacMichael). When they returned home in November of 1918, White’s pupils were changed men (“Black”).
n a country such as Canada, with all the modern freedoms citizens enjoy, it can be easy to take for granted the struggles of those who fought to safeguard Canadians’ liberty. The heroes like White, who unapologetically decried discrimination when they saw it, have ensured the continued liberty of future generations of Black Canadians. White’s story is a reminder to Canadians that citizens must always be alert, remaining ever vigilant against racism. They must fight it wherever and whenever it appears, as White did during the War. His story is proof that even a single person, if they consistently and publicly stand up for their values, can change the world.
“Black Canadians in Uniform - A Proud Tradition: History.” Veterans Affairs Canada, 24 Mar. 2017, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/black-canadians-inuniform/history. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.
“How a 100-year-old diary kept alive the legacy of Canada's black battalion.” Day 6, 28 Sept. 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/episode-409-kavanaugh-and-rape-reporting-getting-gritty-women-in-sports-journalism-saving-haida-and-more-1.4839202/how-a-100-year-old-diary-kept-alive-the-legacy-of-canada-s-black-battalion-1.4839292. Accessed 21. Oct. 2018.
MacMichael, Richard. “The Wartime Service of Reverend Captain William A. White.” Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, 13 Feb. 2018, https://maritimemuseum.novascotia.ca/event/wartime-service-reverend-captain-william-white. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.
“No. 2 Construction Battalion.” Historica Canada, n.d., http://www.blackhistorycanada.ca/events.php?themeid=21&id=8. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.
Prime, Jim. “Voices of Acadia - William White.” Acadia University, 02 Jan. 2016, https://www2.acadiau.ca/alumni-friends/alumni/news/alumni-spotlight/alumni-spotlight-reader/william-white.html. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.
Ruck, Lindsay. “No. 2 Construction Battalion.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 16 Jun. 2016, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/no-2-construction-battalion. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.