More than 30 per cent of the soldiers who built the Alaska Highway and about 45 per cent of the men who constructed the Canol Road were African American.
“Not very many people know that,” says Paul Gowdie, a member of Yukon’s Hidden History Group and an organizer of Black History Month exhibits around Whitehorse.
In fact nearly 4,000 black men, who had enlisted in the United States Army, made up three of the seven units, of 11,000 men, sent to build the Alaska Highway.
“At that time there was still a lot of racial tension down south and they did not believe that the African Americans would be able to fight in the war.”
So the military decided to have them contribute to the war effort in other ways.
“Many of the soldiers enlisted thinking that they would be fighting for their country, but they ended up being sent to the North,” he said.
A large number of the soldiers sent to the North to build the war infrastructure were from the southern United States.
And many of them were not prepared for the cold and harsh conditions which met them here.
“Few blacks had ever experienced northern wilderness living conditions such as those of the winter of 1942-3 when record low temperatures reached -60 and -70 degrees Fahrenheit,” according to the Virtual Museum of Canada’s Alaska Highway project.
“Morale among black troops tended to be low due to insufficient equipment and clothing, long tours of duty and lack of recognition by white officers and generals.
“Construction equipment was difficult to get during World War II and the black regiments seemed to get the worst of the lot.”
Building the highway was rough work, and it was remarkable that they finished in eight months.
“They were just plopped there to dredge away and they faced a lot of adversity. Many men died; they were frostbitten or frozen, or they had to deal with a lot of muskeg,” said Gowdie.
“Building the highway was a ‘MacGyver-ish’ task at that time. Surveying equipment didn’t matter as much as climbing to the top of a tall tree and scouting a clear path for the road,” he added with a laugh.
February is Black History Month in Canada and, to mark the occasion in the Yukon, Gowdie and a group of people known as the Hidden History Group will set up displays at locations around Whitehorse including the MacBride Museum.
The Hidden History Group’s membership includes representatives from various cultural groups and people who are simply interested in history
“We’re sort of history hunters,” says Gowdie. “We’re all interested in history; we pull together our resources to find out more about additional cultural influences in the Yukon,” says Gowdie.
“We want to find the stories out there that have gone untold; they’ve been hidden.”
Recently, the group has put in an application to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada for a monument to honour the African-American’s contributions to both the Alaska Highway and the Canol Road.
At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 2, members of the Hidden History Group will launch the Black History Month exhibit at MacBride Museum.
There will be a talk focusing on the contributions that African-Americans and African-Canadians made toward constructing the Alaska Highway and the Canol Road; and a reading by local author Al Pope.
Admission is free and refreshments will be served. Everybody is welcome.
This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Caption: Church service, (a group of black soldiers, outdoors), from the US Archives
Photo Credit: Photo used with permission from Yukon Archives, 87-28-8