Updated: Feb 17
Born and raised in Stewarttown, Ontario, on August 18, 1895, Henry Thomas Shepherd was the second youngest child of John and Sarah Shepherd (Hartley). Henry’s grandmother known as Mrs. Shepherd, had liberated herself and her son John Henry from enslavement and came to Canada via the Underground Railroad in the mid-1850s. Eventually settling in Georgetown, Mrs. Shepherd worked as a housekeeper on the farm of Colonel John Murray. From their small cabin in Georgetown, Mrs. Shepherd and John Henry walked daily along the railway tracks to the Murray farm in Stewarttown where Mrs. Shepherd worked until she passed away sometime before 1871.
After his mother died, young John Henry lived, worked and was raised by the Murray family on the farm. In late December of 1887, John married Sarah Hartley. She was one of over 100,000 children (British Home Child) sent to Canada to work. Sarah arrived in Canada in June 1886 and lived and worked on the Murray farm as a housekeeper. John and Sarah had six children: Violet, Jessie, Flora, Johnetta, Henry and John.
Henry Thomas Shepherd attended public school in Stewarttown and Georgetown and like his father, he worked at the Coated Paper Mill (later known as Domtar Fine Papers Ltd.). During the 45 years he worked there, he also served with the Lorne Rifles/Lorne Scots, the Volunteer Fire Department and the Canadian Army during First and Second World Wars.
Henry Shepherd’s long military service began in 1911, when he joined the Halton Rifles. Following the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted with the 2nd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915. He was sent to England where he was transferred to the 58th Battalion. During his service in France Henry was wounded twice and returned to duty both times. For his service, Henry was awarded the 1914 Star (Mons Star), the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Henry was one of approximately 150 Black Canadian soldiers who served in front-line units during the First World War
After the war, Henry returned to his job at the paper mill. In 1923, Henry and Maude Cox were married at St. George’s Anglican Church in Georgetown. They raised eight children: Helen, Doris, June, Violet, Mabel, John, Lillian and Jacqueline. Unfortunately, “Johnny” passed away at the age of four. Henry was one of the founding members of the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch #120 Legion in Georgetown which was established in 1928. He remained active with the Halton Rifles and became the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) in 1935. When the Lorne Rifles (Scottish) were re-organized as the Lorne Scots he served as RSM until 1939 (Peel, Dufferin and Halton Regiment). As RSM, he became the first Black man to earn the title in Canada. In 1935, Henry received the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal. When George VI became King in 1937, Henry received the Coronation Medal. In civilian life, Henry was a longstanding volunteer firefighter. In 1938 he was appointed Chief of the Georgetown Fire Department, the first Black man to hold the position. He maintained his connection with the Lorne Scots and proudly marched as the Parade Marshal at many parades including the annual Remembrance Day parade in Georgetown.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Henry re-enlisted in the army as a Private. Due to his injuries from the First World War, he was not eligible for overseas service. Henry trained at the University Armouries in Toronto and with his extensive military experience was transferred to Newmarket’s #23 Training Centre and promoted to Company Sergeant Major (CSM). After the #23 Basic Training Camp closed in 1943, Henry was appointed Deputy Fire Marshal for all military camps in Ontario and stationed in Monteith, a Prisoner of War Camp near Iroquois Falls, Ontario.
In June 1944 Warrant Officer Class II (Company Sergeant-Major) Henry Thomas Shepherd,
The Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. was included on the King’s Birthday Honours List for
valourous services and was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) which is the third highest ranking Order of the British Empire award.
For his service during Second World War, Henry was awarded the Canadian Volunteer Medal, the War Medal, the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Long Service Medal, and the Canadian Efficiency Medal. Henry was highly respected within the military by his officers and fellow soldiers and remained an active member of his community until his passing on July 24, 1960, at Sunnybrook Veterans Hospital in Toronto. Henry is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Georgetown.
Henry Thomas Shepherd was a trailblazer who challenged the odds and charged through life with passion, dignity and respect. He did not consider himself extraordinary and he is remembered as humble and steadfast in his beliefs – values he instilled in his children. Despite the obstacles he faced as a Black man in racially tumultuous times, Henry was revered by his peers as a man of incredible integrity. His legacy remains strong and will continue to inspire others with his love of family and service/dedication to his community and Canada.