Toronto

Remembering a black soldier in a 'white man's war'

Henry Thomas Shepherd is one of roughly 1,000 black soldiers who served in the First World War, but not with the segregated No. 2 Construction Battalion.

Georgetown man was a decorated soldier and one of few black people to serve in non-segregated units

Henry Thomas Shepherd is one of roughly 1,000 black soldiers who served in the First World War, but not with the segregated No. 2 Construction Battalion. (Photo submitted)

Kathy Brooks doesn't have too many memories of her grandfather, but the ones she does have stand out. 

Henry Thomas Shepherd was a big, strong military man who took pride in his posture. "No slouching!" Brooks remembers him saying.

Shepherd died when Brooks was just eight years old but she can still picture him sitting up straight on a kitchen stool, cleaning his rifle.

Kathy Brooks's grandfather, Henry Thomas Shepherd, was one of the few black soldiers to serve in the Canadian military in non-segregated units during the First World War. (CBC)

In Canadian military history, Shepherd also stands out, as black man who fought in an all-white battalion.

"You can be anything you want in life. And he's a good example of it," Brooks said in an interview with CBC News.

At the outbreak of the First World War, black volunteers were turned away by the military.

"Many of them were told it was a white man's war and they weren't accepting them," Kathy Grant, a black military historian said in an interview.

Henry Thomas Shepherd served overseas during the First World War. (Photo submitted)

But those same men pressured the federal government and the outcome was the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the first and only all-black battalion in Canadian military history.

Henry Thomas Shepherd served in both world wars. He fought and was wounded by a bullet in the First World War. But the injury kept him out of action during the Second World War, during which he trained soldiers at a base in Newmarket, Ontario.

Henry Thomas Shepherd was a decorated black soldier who served in both World Wars. He was one of roughly 1,000 black soldiers to serve with non-segregated units (Photo submitted)

Grant says Shepherd is one of roughly 1,000 black soldiers who served in the First World War, but not with the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

While the history and significance of the No. 2 Construction Battalion has been documented, the stories of black soldiers who served alongside whites aren't as well-known.

"We're trying to get those stories," Grant said.

Among those stories, Grant says Henry Thomas Shepherd's is a special one. "He was very well-respected."

Henry Thomas Shepherd received several honours for his service in the military (Photo submitted)

Kathy Brooks says her ancestors were slaves who escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad. Shepherd's father and grandmother eventually settled on a family farm in Stewarttown, near Georgetown.

When Sheperd's grandmother died due to illness, Brooks says the family she was working for raised Shepherd's father.

Along with his military service, Shepherd also went on to be the fire chief in Georgetown.

"I asked my grandma if it was difficult for him being black in a very white area. She said, 'No, he was so well-liked,'" Brooks said.

Another memory Brooks has of her grandfather is the parades. She remembers him marching through Georgetown on Remembrance Day and holidays. A man from a family of slaves, proudly leading the way.

"What he was able to accomplish is amazing."

Henry Thomas Shepherd as parade marshal in Georgetown. (Photo submitted)

With files from Ali Chiasson

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