Captain William Andrew White in uniform, around 1916.
William White was the son of formerly enslaved parents. He was born during the reconstruction period after theAmerican Civil War. In the 1890s, White went to Baltimore, Maryland, where he joined the Union Baptist Church. He then moved to Washington, DC, where he attended Wayland Seminary. At Wayland, he met Mary Blackadar, a graduate of Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Blackadar contacted Acadia University and the Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces on White’s behalf. He was accepted to the university in 1899.
William White came to Canada in 1900 to study religion at Acadia University. He graduated from Acadia in 1903 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology (or the study of religious beliefs). He was only the second Black person to graduate from the university. After he became a minister, White worked as a missionary, travelling to Black communities and churches across Nova Scotia. He also established Second Baptist Church in New Glasgow. Then, on 9 May 1905, he became minister of Zion United Baptist Church in Truro.
White quickly settled into the church and the community. In 1906, he married Izie Dora White (no relation) of nearby Mill Village. They had 13 children together. White became a very popular pastor. A highlight of his time at Zion United was the ceremonial burning of the church’s mortgage in December 1910.
During the First World War, Black Canadians were discouraged from joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Finally, after pressure from Black community leaders and supportive white Canadians, the government authorized a segregated Black unit in July 1916. But it was a support unit, not a combat one.
The role of No. 2 Construction Battalion was to build and repair trenches, roads, bridges and railways, among other duties. Though the battalion was segregated, all its officers were white with the exception of Reverend White, who became the unit’s chaplain. That made him one of the very few Black officers in the CEF and the British Empire. As a chaplain, however, White was an honorary captain and not a commissioned officer.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion sailed to Britain in March 1917. Because it was 300 soldiers understrength, the unit was reorganized as a company. In May, the No. 2 was deployed to France, where it served near the town of Lajoux in the Jura Mountains, near the Swiss border. There, it was attached to No. 5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps.
Some of the company’s soldiers helped four forestry companies in logging, milling and shipping lumber. At the time, lumber was an important material for building trenches, duckboards, gun platforms, ammunition boxes and many other items. About 100 other members of the unit also maintained roads in the area. From time to time, small groups of soldiers were detached from the unit to serve in or near the front lines.
White worked hard and was always concerned about his soldiers’ well-being. But even in uniform, Black soldiers were treated as second-class citizens. The company was usually given its supplies last, and occasionally its soldiers did not get regular replacements of socks and underwear. White reported that nearby units refused to accept him as a chaplain, even if they did not have one.
After the war, White sailed to Halifax with the No. 2 in January 1919. The unit was formally disbanded in September 1920.
Back home, William White became pastor of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax (renamed New Horizons Baptist Church in May 2018). In 1926, he became secretary of the Halifax and Dartmouth Ministerial Association. Three years later, he was elected moderator of the African United Baptist Association. He continued in that position until 1931.
In the early 1930s, White pioneered a series of popular monthly radio broadcasts of his church services. These were broadcast across Canada and the northern United States. As well, during the Great Depression, White set up a program to raise $2,500 a year to create trade schools in Black churches.
In 1936, Acadia University awarded White an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. That same year, he was re-elected as moderator of the African United Baptist Association.
William White died on 9 September 1936 due to pneumonia.
Many of William White’s children and their descendants became accomplished adults, including his:
- daughter Portia White, a world famous opera singer;
- son William Andrew White III, OC, a composer, social justice activist and the first Black Canadian to run for federal political office;
- son Jack White, a labour union leader and one of first two Black Canadians to run for provincial office in Ontario;
- grandson Donald Oliver, QC, the first Black Canadian man appointed to the Senate;
- granddaughter Sheila White, a media consultant, activist and political candidate;
- grandson Chris White, a folk musician;
- grandson Lorne White, a teacher, actor and singer;
- great-grandson George Elliott Clarke, OC, ONS, a poet, playwright, university professor and poet laureate; and
- great-nephew Anthony Sherwood, an actor and documentary filmmaker.
According to historians, William White achieved “almost mythic status” as the “universally recognized leader” of Nova Scotia’s Black community in the early 1900s. He is considered “one of Nova Scotia’s finest personalities” of the 20th century and one of the most “significant people in the history of Black Atlantic Canada.” Two documentary films have been produced about him: Captain of Souls: Rev. William White (1999) and Honour Before Glory (2001).