Black History Month: Benjamin Washington
Sunday, February 28th, 2021
Benjamin Washington, with the No.2 Construction Battalion, photo provided by the High Prairie and District Museum.
History instructor, Dr. Daryl White took a look back in time to celebrate Black History Month by searching early settlers in the Peace Region. His second submission is Mr. Benjamin Washington.
Benjamin Washington’s early life is obscured to us. He identified his birthplace as London, England and his birthday as May 4, 1876. His parents, whose names don’t appear in records, were both born in the United States. When he enlisted in 1916, he noted a sister Rose who was still in London and a brother George (though he didn’t know where he was).
He came to Canada in the late 1880s (the year varied when census enumerators asked in later years). He was living in Alberta before it was. By 1901, Washington was a domestic servant in Edmonton to prominent local resident John Norris. Norris was a former HBC employee who became an Edmonton rancher and was a partner in Norris and Carey, one of the first stores in the community. Washington earned $180 a year (for comparison, a men’s bicycle cost $35 from the Eaton’s catalogue) but his room and board would have been included. Washington relocated north with Norris to Athabasca Landing a few years later.
In 1908 and two months past his 31st birthday, Washington decided to become a homesteader. He filed for the NW quarter of Section 36, in Township 74, Range 17, West of the 5th Meridian (now just north of High Prairie off Highway 749). Within a few years, he had broken and planted 40 acres and had two cows and two horses. He had built a log house (17’x21’) and a log stable (18’x24’). That work was sufficient to get him a patent to his land in 1913.
During the First World War, despite being nearly 40, Washington decided to enlist. Steve Marti’s research discovered a letter that shows Washington travelled to Edmonton to enlist (the railway had reached High Prairie in 1914). Washington was declared fit by the medical officer, but, being a person of colour, he was turned away by every recruiter and told to go to Montreal where he could join a segregated unit. This treatment of Black Canadians answering the call to serve was all too common, despite federal orders that enlistees should not be refused based on race.
Finally, Private Washington joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the first and only all-Black battalion in Canada’s military history. He arrived in France in May 1917 by which point the Battalion was moving away from the front and assigned to logging operations. Soldiers overseas could assign part of their pay for wives or families at home. Washington assigned $135 of his pay (privates received $1.10 a day) to Mrs. Rosanna Harstone, the widow of a fellow Edmonton recruit for the No. 2 Battalion who died of pneumonia in Winnipeg before he made it overseas. Washington’s service was mostly uneventful except for a bout of mumps which left him hospitalized in May 1918. He returned to Canada early in 1919 and was discharged in February.
After his war service, Washington’s life seems to have been quiet. He returned to High Prairie and lived there for decades. He never married. He passed away February 28, 1966.
Learn more about Dr. Daryl White and our other GPRC research experts at GPRC.me/FindAnExpert.