Keneisha Charles, 17, of Kelowna, British Columbia, is a recipient of our 2019 Vimy Pilgrimage Award and will be travelling with us to France and Belgium in April 2019. As part of the application process, each student is asked to choose a soldier or nursing sister from the First World War, research their biography, and compose a tribute to your soldier/nursing sister in the form of a letter/song/poem/etc.
We were very moved by all the applications, and wanted to share Keneisha’s research and tribute to Aubrey Mitchell, Canadian Expeditionary Force, in honour of Black History Month.
A Brief Biography of Private Aubrey Mitchell
Aubrey Mitchell’s life began on August 19, 1896, in the small, southern Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. Little is known about his early years, other than the fact that he never married and was survived by his mother, Eva Binder. (Leroux) His life changed around the turn of the century when he became one of 21,500 individuals that immigrated from the Caribbean to Canada between 1900 and 1960. (Labelle) He made his new home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, joining the growing community of black immigrants; most of them descendants of former Canadian and American slaves. (Walker)
Despite being a newcomer to Canada, he felt the strong energy that was prevalent among young men his age to serve his country. However, this was not an easy task for him and hundreds of other black men that sought to enlist when the Great War broke out. Black volunteers were told it was a “White man’s war” and largely turned away from recruitment stations (Ruck 3). Even when the Canadian government spoke openly against discriminating against volunteers based on ethnicity, racism within regiments was rampant and many white volunteers refused to serve alongside black volunteers. However, Mitchell and other black men remained undeterred and continued to lobby for two years until they finally had their big break when the No. 2 Construction Battalion was authorized on July 5, 1916. This unit allowed approximately 605 black men to serve, hailing from all over Canada, the USA, and like Mitchell, the British West Indies. (Ruck) Mitchell enlisted on August 28, 1916– just a little over a week after his twentieth birthday. (Library)
The struggle that Mitchell would face was just beginning, it would seem. His unit, nicknamed the Black Battalion, continued to face discrimination and was largely segregated from other units in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. This discrimination was also why the unit would be a construction unit, tasked with non-combat roles. Mitchell sailed from Halifax to Liverpool, England in March 1917, arriving after a tense, ten-day journey with the threat of submarine attack looming beneath them. Their service was comprised of physically strenuous, necessary tasks such as building roads, railway tracks and bridges, defusing landmines to allow troops to proceed onward, removing the wounded from the battlefield, and digging and building trenches. (Ruck)
Tragedy continued to plague the battalion as within the span of a month, they lost too many soldiers to continue labelling themselves a battalion, instead being downgraded to a company. (Ruck) On April 17, 1917, Aubrey Mitchell, aged twenty, joined the dead. The circumstances of his death are unknown but it is likely that he died from illness, as did many of his compatriots. He was buried in the Seaford Cemetery in Sussex, United Kingdom. (Commonwealth)
Mitchell and many other members of the Black Battalion became lost in history, their contributions to the war effort and to social inclusion downplayed or forgotten. The contributions of Mitchell and his comrades are now being recognized in recent years, his name and many others finally receiving the recognition they deserve.
Tribute to Aubrey Mitchell
To be young,
was to be born into a special kind of bondage.
Segregation holding onto lives like ball-chains on ankles,
sneers in the streets striking as hard as whips upon backs,
their derision a new master to try to keep you in line,
but your blood runs hot in devotion to something bigger than yourself;
because you’re a Black man
who will be damned if you see freedom
pillaged from free people.
When you signed your name upon that line
did you think of me;
a young, black kid
with Saint Vincent in her blood
one hundred years later
who might be anything she wants to be?
Did you know you would have this legacy?
Dear Aubrey Mitchell—
because of you,
I have a chance to be
young, black, and free,
and I want to say
for allowing me
to be me.
— Keneisha Charles
Read Aubrey Mitchell’s service file here from Library and Archives Canada.