Major Matthew Lucas
Captain William Andrew White
Black History Month - The Tale of Two Chaplains
By Major Matthew Lucas
Posted on Thursday February 25, 2021
As a chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces, I am acutely aware of those brave men who mounted a formidable argument for Blacks to participate in the First World War. This was no easy undertaking; however, one man was certainly up for the task.
The Honourable Captain William Andrew White became the chaplain of the first and only Black Battalion in Canadian history, the No. 2 Construction Battalion. He was very instrumental in persuading the government and the officials of the day to permit the enlistment of Black volunteers “the right to serve, to shed their blood, and to die if necessary (Ruck, 1986, p 82).” On July 5, 1916, two years into the war, the Battalion headquarters was established in Pictou, Nova Scotia and the Battalion would go on to serve in the war in England and France.
Born in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Hon. Capt White came to Nova Scotia in 1899. He obtained his B.A. and Bachelor of Divinity degrees from Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Prior to joining the No. 2 Construction Battalion, he served in the Canadian Militia and was a pastor of a Black Baptist church in Truro, Nova Scotia. Interestingly, Capt White was the only Black commission officer in all the British Forces during WWI.
Following the war, Reverend White became the pastor of Cornwall Street Baptist Church (recently renamed New Vision) and remained an influential figure advocating for Blacks throughout Nova Scotia. He raised a family known for their singing, including his daughter Portia White who became the first Black Canadian concert singer to achieve international fame including singing for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1964. In 1936 Captain White became the first Black Canadian to receive an Honorary Doctorate from his alma mater, Acadia University. He died a few months later.
As I reflect on my own career and life experiences, there are some similarities I share with Hon. Capt William White. Namely, we both attended Acadia University and I also served in the Militia, 1st Field Artillery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We both served as pastors in Black African churches in Nova Scotia and we both deployed. Another moment in time that links me in a special way to the life of the Hon. Capt White and the segregated non-combatant unit, is the privilege I had in 1993 to give the Prayer of Dedication for the monument celebrating the No. 2 Construction Battalion on the location where their headquarters once stood in Pictou, NS.
Of course when I join the Militia in 1988 and the Regular Force in 2000, I did not need to challenge the system to accept me in order to serve my country. Thankfully, this battle had already been won by men like the Reverend Dr. White and others. Notwithstanding some obstacles along the way, I have greatly enjoyed my years of service and the many opportunities to serve alongside outstanding men and women in all four elements of the CAF. It has been my privilege to serve Canada at home and abroad: Trenton, Goose Bay, Halifax, Comox and now Petawawa as well as deploying to the Middle East and participating in an exchange in Auckland, New Zealand.
In closing, I am especially proud of the courageous stance Black servicemen took, like the Hon. Capt White, to forge a path for many Blacks as well as persons of colour to follow in their footsteps to serve our beloved country.