By: Jennifer Weymark, Archivist
This post originally appeared on the Durham Region Area Archives Group website
The Andrews family has been a research focus of mine since 2011. The history of the family helps to tell an under researched and overlooked aspect of Oshawa’s early history, the history of black settlement in the community. The research has traced the family from the 1790s in Vermont, through Lower Canada in the 1840s and finally Oshawa in the 1850s to the 1980s. Like most research projects, this one is ongoing and from time-to-time, I write about an interesting aspect of the family that has emerged.
As my research moved into the early 1900s, I began to focus on where two of the descendants, Albert and Ward Pankhurst, were during the period of World War I. What I found was a story that fit into the much larger narrative of race and service during the war.
Eldest brother Albert enlisted on April 23, 1915 with the 28th Battalion in Portage La Praire, Manitoba where he had moved to after 1911 to work as a farm labourer. His attestation paper, the form filled out upon enlisting, provides some interesting information about Albert particularly when compared with the information collected on his brother Ward.[i]
On Albert’s attestation paper there is information that may seem inconsequential until you know that his family is interracial. The first interesting tidbit is that it notes that Albert has previously served with the 34th Ontario Regiment for three years. This regiment was an infantry battalion and would not have been desegregated. How then did Albert end up serving with the regiment? It appears that he was able to identify with his father’s ethnicity and sign up to serve.
Black men were not particularly welcome in the armed forces, and this was true during WWI. Black men wanting to enlist were met with backlash and protest, even after the federal government declared that those wanting to enlist could not be denied based on race. Even with the backlash, a few Canadian combat units did have black volunteers in their ranks. One of those units was the 116th Battalion, a battalion associated with the 34th Ontario Regiment. [ii] The vast majority of black men who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during WWI served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion. This segregated battalion faced racism in the form of difficulty finding a commander, hostility from white officers and enlisted, and forced to serve through conscription after being turned away when they volunteered.
After basic training, Albert boarded the S.S. Missauabie and set sail from Montreal on September 4, 1915. The 28th Battalion arrived at the Front and took part in both the Battle of St. Eloi and the Battle of Mount Sorrell. On June 6, 1916 Albert was reported missing and by July 19 he was officially a Prisoner of War being held at Dulmen, Germany.[iii] During his time as a POW, Albert was held in three different camps. The first was Dulmen, followed by Wahn and finally Limburg. It is from Limburg that Albert was able to escape. According to his personnel file, Albert escaped from Limburg POW camp on March 3, 1918 and arrived back in England by March 14.
While Albert was held prisoner in Germany, his brother Ward found himself in Detroit when the United States entered WWI. Ward became part of the first wave of men registered for conscription in WWI. His draft card notes something interesting and would impact where he would serve as he prepared to head overseas.
On the draft card, under race, Ward is listed as being Caucasian. However, that notation was scratched out and Black written above it.[iv] A draft card did not equal time served and I am currently working to determine if Ward actually served. If he did serve, his experience would have been far different than Albert’s due to Ward being listed as Black.
Much like Canada, when the U.S. entered the war, black men enlisted or attempted to enlist, in large numbers. The U.S. already had four all black regiments when they entered WWI. These regiments had a long history, dating back to the end of the Civil War. Within one week of declaring war, black men volunteered in such large numbers that the War Department had filled these regiments and stopped accepting black volunteers.[v]
When the U.S. government determined that they would not be able to raise a large enough army through volunteering alone, the Selective Service Act was passed on 18 May 1917. Ward was officially registered on 5 June 1917 and his name put on the list from which names were drawn to call to military service. While the act had a provision in it that no one was exempt based on class or group, the draft boards did not necessarily follow this. It has been argued by historians that draft boards comprised of wealthy white males, did in fact exempt those of the wealthy class. It has been argued that the draft boards chose men who dis-proportionality represented immigrants, rural farmers and blacks to military service.[vi]
Research is ongoing to determine if Ward was selected for military service. If he had been selected, the change of race on his draft card would have impacted his experience. Black soldiers in the U.S. faced segregation, substandard uniforms and social services. This experience was not unlike the Canadian one, where the majority of black soldiers who enlisted with the C.E.F. were placed with 2nd Construction Battalion.
Both Albert and Ward survived World War I and returned to Canada. Albert received a letter from King George V recognizing his time spent as a POW. Upon returning home, Albert married Martha Wiggins, an Irish immigrant, in June 1920. The couple emigrated to the U.S. in 1923, eventually settling in California where Albert lived until his death in 1977.
Ward remained in Oshawa and lived with their sister Greta until his death in 1978. Prior to his death, Ward took the time to speak to members of the Oshawa Historical Society. He was asked to recount his days growing up in Cedardale and to share memories of life in Oshawa. Unfortunately, few of the memories shared are about his family.
[i] Pankhurst, Albert George Dunbar service file, Library and Archives Canada. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=554580
[ii] Ruck, Linsday. No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Encyclopedia. 16 June, 2016. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/no-2-construction-battalion
[iii] Pankhurst, Albert George Dunbar service file, Library and Archives Canada. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=554580
[iv] Pankhurst, Ward DeLayfette, World War 1 Draft Registration Card. Wayne County, Michigan. Roll: 2032676; Draft Board: 24. search.ancestry.ca/cgi-bin/sse.dll?db=ww1draft&h=33087973&ti
[v] Bryan, Jami L. Fighting For Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI. Army Historical Foundation. 20 January, 2015. https://armyhistory.org/fighting-for-respect-african-american-soldiers-in-wwi/
[vi] Geheran, Michael. Selective Service Act. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. 8 October, 2014. https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/selective_service_act