The White House announced today that Barack Obama will posthumously award Albany native Henry Johnson the Medal of Honor on June 2 for "for conspicuous gallantry" during WWI. Yes, he is the Henry Johnson, of the boulevard and other landmarks.
It is the nation's highest military honor. And it's long overdue.
Henry Johnson served in France with the famed Harlem Hellfighters, who had been placed under the command of French forces because of racism within the US Army. From the White House announcement:
While on night sentry duty on May 15, 1918, Private Johnson and a fellow Soldier received a surprise attack by a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces. Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated.
For his heroism, France recognized Henry Johnson with the Croix de Guerre, its highest military honor. The Harlem Hellfighters returned to the US after the war and got a parade in New York City, with Henry Johnson as one of its stars. From a 1919 New York Times article about the parade:
Henry [Johnson] stood up in his machine, almost through the parade, waving a big handful of red lilies, which had been presented to him by admirers on the arrival of the regiments from Long Island City on the Thirty-fourth Street ferry. His picture is nearly as well known in Upper Harlem as is that of General Pershing elsewhere in the country.
Shouts of "Oh, you Henry Johnson," and "Oh, you Black Death," resounded every few feet for seven long miles, followed by condolences for the Kaiser's men. Johnson made a big hit at Sixtieth Street where officials and member of the Mayor's Committee, including William Randolph Hearst, were in the reviewing stand, but up in Harlem, where the reviewers looked over the parade from a stand at 130th Street and Lenox Ave, he threw the population into hysterics.
Johnson's image was used to sell war stamps, and he was lauded by Teddy Roosevelt. He was a hero. [TU]
But things turned for Henry Johnson after an event in St. Louis in which he called attention to the racism African-Americans had faced in the military during the war.
In late March of 1919, Johnson arrived in St. Louis, Mo., to give a speech about his exploits. It was a big event: an audience of 5,000, an introduction by the mayor. But the crowd got more than they expected: Johnson went off-script to rail against the prejudice he had encountered from his white comrades-in-arms.
Marines "refused to go in the trenches" with black soldiers, Johnson said. But when there was real fighting to do, he said, "they sent the negroes" -- and he quoted a white officer whom he'd heard say, sure, send black men to the front so "there won't be so many around New York." A newspaper attributed this quote to Johnson: "They may put the negroes in the rear seats of cars here, but they did not make any discrimination in No Man's Land. They sent the negroes up ahead."
Officials distanced themselves from Johnson. And, as Norder notes, he was flagged by the Military Intelligence Division.
The fanfare now gone, the return to civilian life was rough. From a profile of Henry Johnson by Gilbert King over at Smithsonian:
Like hundreds of thousands of young American men, Henry Johnson returned from World War I and tried to make a life for himself in spite of what he had experienced in a strange and distant land. With dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds, he knew he was lucky to have survived. His discharge records erroneously made no mention of his injuries, and so Johnson was denied not only a Purple Heart, but a disability allowance as well. Uneducated and in his early twenties, Henry Johnson had no expectations that he could correct the errors in his military record. He simply tried to carry on as well as a black man could in the country he had been willing to give his life for.
He made it back home to Albany, New York, and resumed his job as a Red Cap porter at the train station, but he never could overcome his injuries--his left foot had been shattered, and a metal plate held it together. Johnson's inability to hold down a job led him to the bottle. It didn't take long for his wife and three children to leave. He died, destitute, in 1929 at age 32. As far as anyone knew, he was buried in a pauper's field in Albany. A man who had earned the nickname "Black Death" in combat was quickly forgotten.
It surfaced many years later that Henry Johnson had been buried Arlington National Cemetery after all. In 1996 he was finally awarded a Purple Heart, and in 2003 the Distinguished Service Cross.
The effort to get Johnson recognized with the Medal of Honor has been going on for decades, pushed along by Albany residents and officials -- especially the late John Howe. It wasn't until 2011 that staffer in Chuck Schumer's office turned up a 1918 memo from US General John Pershing crediting Johnson and Needham Roberts for their bravery during that surprise attack. The memo was a key missing piece of evidence necessary for Johnson's Medal of Honor case. [TU] [Chuck Schumer's office]
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.