ALBANY, NY – This morning, Saturday, June 5, the City of Albany – including Mayor Sheehan, U.S. Congressman Paul Tonko, Assemblymember John McDonald, County Executive Dan McCoy, City of Albany Councilmember Joyce Love, veterans of the 369th Infantry Regiment, including James Dandles and Ronald Wilson, as well as Henry Johnson advocates such as Wallis Howe-Rosenzweig – honored the 104th anniversary of the enlistment of Henry Johnson, Albany’s World War I hero. Sgt. Johnson’s act of valor on the field of combat posthumously earned him the Medal of Honor from former President Barack Obama.
The event also marked the launch of the nomination period of the Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service, which recognizes an Albany resident who has given their time and talent to Albany and has displayed community leadership in any of the following areas: arts and history, social justice, education, or volunteerism. Nominate someone here and fill out the online form by Friday, August 6. The Award will be presented at Albany’s Riverfront Jazz Festival on Saturday, September 11, in order to bring Henry Johnson’s life and example to a wider audience.
The story of Sgt. Johnson’s life in Albany and his courage in combat was recounted at the event as was his decision to speak out against the racism he faced in the military and in Jim Crow America. As part of the ceremony, a wreath was laid at Sgt. Henry Johnson’s statue in Arbor Hill’s Henry Johnson Park, with flowers that matched the colors of the 369th— burgundy, gray, and white. Today’s ceremony also featured the singing, by Albany’s LaShaunda Motley, of the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem.
Sgt. Johnson’s heroic actions (see bio below) in May 1918 and the posthumous advocacy of 369th veterans, elected officials such as U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, and Albany residents earned him the Medal of Honor, bestowed upon Henry Johnson on June 2, 2015 in a White House ceremony.
“As recent history has made all too apparent, systemic racism continues to limit the opportunity of our Black and Brown neighbors and undermines equality and true justice in our country,” said Mayor Kathy Sheehan. “Henry Johnson grew into a man in Albany, he served his country as a soldier, and he showed courage in combat that elevated him into a war hero. We cannot undo the shameful racism he confronted in the military and when he returned to Jim Crow America, but we can continue to raise his profile as an example of the patriotism and character of so many Black and Brown individuals who have served our country. We also honor him by recommitting ourselves to act in his spirit until the racism so many have had to face is part of our past, and not our present or future.”
“Sgt. Henry Johnson once walked the streets of Arbor Hill, had a family here, and worked in this City,” said Ronald Wilson, a lifelong Albany resident and President of the Albany District of the 369th Veterans Association. “As a young man he fought for his country with an uncommon courage. We must remember his name and his deeds -- and the strength he showed by speaking out against racism. Sgt. Johnson remains an inspiration for all who want to serve our country to keep it safe and build a more just and equitable society at home.”
About Sgt. Henry Johnson
As a teenager, Henry Johnson came to Albany with his family from North Carolina. On June 5, 1917, Henry enlisted in the U.S. Army. Because of racial segregation and the refusal of the U.S. Army to allow Black soldiers to participate in combat, members of 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, fought under French command. In May 1918 Johnson heroically and single-handedly fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, saving the life and imprisonment of a fellow soldier, Needham Roberts. For his bravery, Johnson was awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest award for valor, the first American to receive this honor.
Sgt. Johnson returned to the United States in 1919 and was celebrated as a war hero. The Army used Johnson’s image to recruit soldiers and former President Theodore Roosevelt singled out Johnson as one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I. Sgt. Johnson was placed in the lead car of a parade of the Harlem Hellfighters that traveled up New York's 5th Avenue as thousands cheered. But despite his heroic status and having sustained 21 wounds in The Battle of Henry Johnson, he received no honors from his home country. After speaking out against racism in the military in the St. Louis, Sgt. Johnson was forbidden to ever again speak publicly at military gatherings or even wear his uniform publicly. He died, destitute, in 1929, in his mid-30s. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Thanks to the tenacity of the 369th veterans such as John Howe and Jim Dandles and elected leaders such as Senator Chuck Schumer and U.S. Congressman Paul Tonko, Sgt. Henry Johnson was finally recognized by the United States government for his service to his country when he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. In 2015 he was awarded the National Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military honor — by former President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony. Two statues have been built in Albany – one in Washington Park and another in Henry Johnson Park – to honor the City’s hero.