Halifax museum seeks to identify members of all-Black Second World War volunteer fire brigade

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HALIFAX – A military museum in Halifax recently put out an online call for help after acquiring a Second World War era photo depicting an all-Black volunteer fire brigade in the city.

The photo shows 16 men and three women, posing in front of a building dressed in suits and dresses, all wearing their metal military-style fire warden helmets and armbands identifying them as part of a volunteer neighbourhood unit.

“The mystery is slowly coming to light as to who all those (people’s) names are,” Chara Kingston, collections manager at the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, said in an interview Thursday.

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Kingston put out a tweet Monday asking for help identifying the people in the photo and said that as of Thursday her inquiry was starting to yield results.

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She said one young woman has identified her aunt in the photo, and further help was coming from Cy Clayton, a museum board member.

Clayton, who served in the military for 38 years, said he has tracked down a copy of the photo that identifies the people by their first initial and last names, which he will give to museum officials on Friday.

Chara Kingston, collections manager at The Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, displays a photo of an all-Black fire brigade on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The civilian fire wardens were part of the Air-Raid Precautions Group, which was formed by the federal government in 1939 and disbanded in 1945. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Clayton said he understands there are other copies, but he’s not aware whether they identify members of the unit, which was part of the city’s civil defence system.

He said he grew up in the north-end area where the photo was taken in 1943, on what is now Buddy Daye Street.

“The house where that was taken is no longer there. There was a new house put there probably 30 years ago,” Clayton said.

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He said it’s important that people see the contributions of the Black community given the racism that was prevalent at the time the photo was taken and that still exists today in largely systemic forms.

“We were insignificant,” Clayton said of those times. “There is so much history that people don’t know about us whatsoever.”

Kingston said an enlargement of the photo is part of a two-room exhibit at the museum about the Second World War and is part of a section of artifacts entitled Halifax at War.

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She said the photo was in a box of items related to the Halifax Civil Emergency Corps Committee that was recently given to the museum. It included pamphlets, armbands, posters and a series of photographs, likely taken by a military photographer.

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Kingston said most of the photos were action and training shots, so the photograph of the Black unit immediately caught her eye.

“First of all it’s just a stunning photograph, it’s gorgeous,” she said. “And then it’s young and old together, but particularly these young people, probably in their 20s or younger, agreeing to participate.”

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Kingston said the group’s willingness to serve was part of a larger civic awareness on display during the war years. Halifax, a major port for the Allied war effort, saw food rationing, air raid sirens and nightly blackouts.

“It was about understanding the severity of the situation, understanding that Halifax as a harbour city was more vulnerable and people had to step up,” she said.

Kingston said adding names to the photo should help bring history alive to those viewing it, especially if they have a family connection.

“It is important to be able to see yourself within your family bloodline as being part of an important part of history,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021.

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