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Black veteran of both world wars 'one of finest men to don King's uniform'

A granddaughter’s love and longing to know more about the grandfather she remembers as being a “big force” in the room has been a journey of discovery that has gone down in local history books.

A granddaughter’s love and longing to know more about the grandfather she remembers as being a “big force” in the room has been a journey of discovery that has gone down in local history books.

Kathy Brooks was just eight years old when “granddad” Henry Thomas Shepherd died in 1960 at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. He was 65.

She distinctly remembers him sitting on a stool in his Georgetown, ON, kitchen and cleaning his rifle. The grandchildren always had to sit up straight in their grandfather’s presence, she recalls, as he was strict about that.

“I do remember him being the parade marshal in the local Remembrance Day parade in Georgetown,” Brooks said. “I remember watching him come up one street and then down the main street, where the Cenotaph was located.”

Shepherd had this big, booming voice, Brooks recalled, and when she would jabber away at him, he’d laugh and say, “double dutch”, likely to remind her that she was talking too fast for him or anyone else to understand what she was saying.

As the community marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War today, Brooks shared the remarkable story she has pieced together through research of her grandfather, Henry Thomas Shepherd, MBE, a veteran of The Great War and Second World War, company sergeant major at Newmarket Training Camp 23, one of only 23 Black soldiers who fought in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, and a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Shepherd wasn’t long into his teenage years when the military called.

Prior to fighting in the First World War, Shepherd earned the high rank of regimental sergeant major with the Lorne Scots Regiment. He led his recruits in route marches and weapons training at Niagara-on-the-Lake, according to historian and author John McDonald.

Radar technician Alvin Duncan shared his memories of Shepherd with McDonald in the book, Halton Sketches Revisited, 1996: “Henry Thomas Shepherd stood tall at times, and gave his commands with a demeanour of official authority. All ranks responded to his authority and in a very short time, what had been a ragtag group of tenderfeet became a well-trained unit that would make any officer proud.”

Then, in 1914, Shepherd joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and served all four years of the First World War with the 58th Battalion. He was, in fact, one of only about 1,000 Black soldiers who served in non-segregated units.

But Shepherd was wounded on the battlefield in Ypres, Belgium, and at the Battle of the Somme, in France. For his service, he was awarded the Star and Victory medals, as well as the General Service Medal. 

“He was shot twice and that’s one of the reasons he couldn’t re-enlist for the Second World War,” Brooks said.

And that’s where Shepherd’s connection with Newmarket began.

At the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, Shepherd, then a non-commissioned officer and widely regarded as “one of the finest men ever to don the King’s uniform”, was recruited by Toronto Scottish Company Capt. M.B. Collier to be the company sergeant major at Newmarket Training Camp 23. 

As an Oct. 18, 1940 Globe and Mail article wrote at the time: “(Company Sergeant Major Henry Thomas Shepherd) is one of the ablest soldiers on the field and the most popular man in the Newmarket sergeants’ mess. ...There’s no “colour line” in the Canadian Army and the rookies take their orders from Sgt. Major Shepherd as willingly as they would from the Colonel himself. They respect him for his enviable war record and for his ability as a training officer, and they like him for his bantering good humour.”

While at Newmarket’s Camp 23 from 1940 until 1944, Shepherd’s specialist abilities in firefighting and prevention came to light. He had already served as Georgetown’s fire chief and headed the firefighting squad at Camp 23. Shepherd was made deputy fire marshal for military camps in Ontario in 1944 and was stationed in Monteith, ON.

Shepherd was bestowed as a Member, Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in June 1944 for his courage in the face of battling a fire that broke out in the early morning hours in the centre of the Battalion Orderly Room of No. 2 District Company, of The Royal Canadian Army Service Corps.

This award recognizes an achievement or service to the community that is outstanding in its field and has delivered a sustained and real impact that stands out as an example to others.

Here are the circumstances for which Shepherd was honoured:

“This Warrant Officer, as Fire Chief, was in instant action and showed great courage, resourcefulness and presence of mind in spite of sub-zero weather, in a wind of gale proportions, with his clothing soaked with water, he ably directed the firefighters and in spite of heavy smoke showed great courage in breaking into and entering the burning building directing the water on the centre of the fire which was quickly under control saving adjoining buildings and valuable records in the building itself. He set a fine example and showed cool courageous leadership.”

Brooks said that each step she takes and uncovers something new about Shepherd or her family lineage from generations ago gives her a feeling of “being on the right track”.

“I knew it was important that his story is told,” Brooks said. “Most Blacks were not allowed to fight in the war.”

Shepherd’s father, John Henry Shepherd, then an infant, made the long and dangerous journey during the 1860s to Canada with his mother on the Underground Railroad to escape slavery in the United States. The mother and son settled on a farm in Stewarttown, in Halton Hills, ON, near Georgetown, where she worked as a housekeeper for a local family until her death in the 1870s. Son John Henry, then 10 years old, was raised by the family with whom he had lived since arriving in Canada.

Henry Thomas Shepherd was born in 1895 in Stewarttown, one of six siblings to parents John Henry and Sarah. According to local historian John McDonald, “each of John and Sarah’s offspring played their role in the community”.

Brooks has travelled widely to visit museums of Black history, local libraries and speak with historians as she continues to unravel the story of her great, great grandmother, Shephard’s own grandmother.

She started putting photocopies of newspaper and book articles, old photographs, historical records and documents, and other mementos into binders, and she now has six.

“Here we are, and now it’s out of control,” she said with a laugh.

What started out with an inquiry into where Shepherd’s grandmother was buried in Georgetown has now blossomed into a legacy of her grandfather’s immense achievements that are being shared far and wide with others.

Elementary school children in York Region and beyond will learn about Henry Thomas Shepherd as part of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s Black Canadian Curriculum. Beginning in 2017, students have the opportunity to learn about the achievements of Black Canadians, including Lincoln Alexander, Oscar Peterson, Lillie Johnson, and others.

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Kim Champion

About the Author: Kim Champion

Kim Champion is a veteran journalist and editor who covers Newmarket and issues that impact York Region.
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