Black military veteran remembered as a community champion in Cape Breton

Lemuel Marcus Skeete of Whitney Pier passed away on Sunday at his seniors' home. The 100-year-old was believed to have been the last surviving African Nova Scotian World War II veteran, according to his family.  (Submitted by Darcy Skeete - image credit)
Lemuel Marcus Skeete of Whitney Pier passed away on Sunday at his seniors' home. The 100-year-old was believed to have been the last surviving African Nova Scotian World War II veteran, according to his family. (Submitted by Darcy Skeete - image credit)

A Cape Breton veteran is being remembered as someone who uplifted his community, but wanted little praise for his hard work.

The family of Lemuel Marcus Skeete believes he was the last surviving African Nova Scotian veteran of the Second World War. During his active service, he was a military mechanic who worked on heavy machinery.

He passed away on Sunday in his seniors' home, just a few months past his 100th birthday in August.

Darcy Skeete says his father spoke very little of his wartime experience or what he saw.

"Anything we've learned, we've learned through other means and I'm not sure if it's just something that he just didn't want to talk about — whenever we brought up the topic, he kind of shied away from it to be honest. I did know that he served in Holland and he spoke very highly of the people of that area and his time there."

Lem Skeete was born in Donkin and later moved to his wife's hometown of Whitney Pier where he devoted much of his life to improving the Sydney neighborhood.

Whitney Pier was once considered to be one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the Maritimes after welcoming thousands of immigrants who were employed in the area's now defunct steel and coal operations.

Submitted by Darcy Skeete
Submitted by Darcy Skeete

After returning home from war, Skeete worked at the Sydney steel plant and later joined several local garages before opening his own mechanic shop late in life.

"He was a very honest person," Skeete said of his father. "He went out of his way to help people, to try to save them money. He didn't like when anyone was taken advantage of or anything like that."

Skeete was well known for his community involvement after founding a daycare in Whitney Pier to help working mothers. He was instrumental in setting up after-school programs for youth and a community softball league.

He was also a member of several Black cultural associations and volunteer groups. He helped create the Whitney Pier non-profit housing society, which built affordable homes in the area. Over the years, he was awarded the Tom Miller Human Rights Award from the Cape Breton Regional Municipality and was given an honorary diploma from Nova Scotia Community College.

A neighbour in Skeete's Whitney Pier community, Iris Crawford, said his impact will continue to be felt for many years to come.

"A great activist for our Black community — he did more for people than people really knew," Crawford said. "As far as I'm concerned, our community has lost a great leader. He was an icon and you know he will be missed. Our community was a far better place because of him."

Skeete leaves behind his wife of 72 years and three sons.

Veterans Affairs in Ottawa says there are only 25,500 veterans still alive in Canada who served in World War II or the Korean War.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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