The 600 men and officers of No. 2 Construction Battalion left Halifax almost a century ago to serve behind the lines during the First World War.
To mark the March 25 anniversary of the unit's departure, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 teamed up with the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia to create the temporary exhibit called No. 2 Construction Battalion. It opens Thursday, Feb. 16, during African Heritage Month, and runs till May 1.
Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre, said that the 100th anniversary of the unit's departure will be a point of pride for African-Nova Scotians and African-Canadians.
"But it will also be a point of pride that this exhibit can be a part of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. It says a lot that this story, a story that has been hidden for so many years, is now a story that will be part of Canada's national history as we enter into Canada's 150th year," Grosse said in a news release.
"This is an important unit whose history was overlooked for many years," Dan Conlin, Pier 21 museum curator, said during an interview.
No. 2 was Canada's first, and last, segregated army unit. Many of the unit's soldiers were turned away from fighting battalions solely because of the colour of their skin.
In his 1986 book about the black battalion, the late senator Calvin Ruck wrote, "The fact that approximately 600 Black soldiers served in a segregated, non-combatant labour battalion during World War One has been one of the best kept secrets in Canadian military history."
Over half of the soldiers were African-Nova Scotians; the rest came from across Canada and 165 from the American South.
The museum exhibit also explores the "immigration connections to the battalion's story," said Conlin.
Many of the ancestors of the No. 2 battalion's soldiers had immigrated to Nova Scotia after fighting for the British during the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
"Many managed to escape slavery through British military service," said Conlin. There were also immigrants in the unit from the West Indies, who had come to industrial Cape Breton to work, and 165 soldiers came from the American South to sign up, he said.
"Military service has been a key route to a sense of belonging to many immigrant communities."
But during the First World War, many black soldiers faced a roadblock to serving their country. Enlistment was left to commanders and many did not sign up men of colour. It wasn't until July 1916 that, upon the approval of Canada's militia minister, No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed.
"It was a real victory for the unit although it was a qualified victory because it was a segregated unit in an army that was pretty racist. They were kept from doing the front-line fighting," said Conlin.
No. 2 was sent to the Jura Mountains in France where the soldiers felled trees and milled lumber. They were also involved in the construction of roadways and railways.
The exhibit gives a snapshot of the service by black men during the Great War, said Conlin.
"It's a Community Presents exhibit — a small but high-profile exhibit that we do with a community group. We have text that the Black Cultural Centre helped us prepare about the big picture, about the campaign to create the unit and how it connects to immigration themes. The Black Cultural Centre has kindly loaned us some interesting objects connected to some of the individuals."
One of those artifacts is a uniform that was worn by Sapper Joseph Alexander Parris. There are service medals and cap badges from Pte. William Bundy, the service records for Edmund Nurse, and a small record book kept by the unit's pastor, Rev. William White, who was the unit's only black officer.
"We are quite excited to have his pocket pastor's record, which was started in 1916. Now we don't have any wartime entries in here. I don't know if they were torn out or transcribed in a different document. He records sermons, births, weddings and burials. ... Some of the sermons were at Camp Hill Hospital. Clearly, he visited veterans from the unit. This was typical of a wartime padre, to keep up those connections."
No. 2 Construction Battalion was disbanded in 1920.
The exhibit will be located in the museum's Hall of Tribute.