Wow! A bit less than a year ago, I posted a story called “The Battle of Henry Johnson”, about a man who spent part of his childhood growing up in the town of Winston who went on to an extraordinary moment of achievement in World War I. He became the first American soldier in that war to be awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor. But due to racism at home, he did not even receive a Purple Heart from the US government. It ended up being a tragic tale.
You can read that here: The Battle of Henry Johnson
That post has become the most popular entry on our blog, drawing an international audience. In that post, I mentioned that New York Senator Charles Schumer had taken up the campaign to get Henry Johnson our nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his actions.
Little did I know how that would develop. This summer, Senator Schumer presented a 1300 page document to the Department of Defense on behalf of Henry Johnson. In October, the Senator posted a petition on his website asking people to sign on to persuade the DOD to give Henry what he obviously had coming.
You can view and sign that petition here.
A post office and a charter school in Albany have been named for Henry Johnson. An article in Stars and Stripes, dated May 24, 1918, sketches the story and includes a quote from the French General commanding the sector saying “The American report is too modest. As a result of oral information furnished me, it appears that the blacks were extremely brave.” The same article quotes the white commander of Henry Johnson’s 369th Regiment as referring to his soldiers as “chilluns”.
But even more was to come. Earlier this year, the PBS hit program “History Detectives” did a show on the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins in Winston-Salem. Tukufu Zuberi, one of the stars of the show and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, filmed a segment in the North Carolina Room.
I was not involved in that, so had no idea that at the same time Zuberi was working on a show involving Henry Johnson. Zuberi did not know then that Henry Johnson had a Winston-Salem connection.
You can watch that show online here.
Among other things, Zuberi is a collector of posters depicting moments of heroism in black American history. He had become curious about this poster:
He did not know it at the time, but the poster was issued in 1918 by the graphic firm E.G. Rensch in Chicago. Rensch was a German-American who cashed in on black American pride in this instance. The highly romanticized print sold for 25¢.
The shield at the left says “Colored man is eager to show his mettle and do his bit”. It names Henry Johnson, at right, and Needham Roberts, background left, and quotes a fuzzy communique from General “Black Jack” Pershing, which turned out not to be enough to award any medals.
The actual site of the “Battle of Henry Johnson” had no trees or grass because it was a battlefield devastated by years of trench warfare. In addition, Roberts had been disabled by a grenade at the outset of the battle, so could not have been standing as depicted here. And the truth is that the battle occurred in pitch darkness and was a very nasty and desperate struggle, involving a lot of blood, much of it Henry Johnson’s. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
During World War II, despite the fact that the US military was still not integrated, the government realized that they needed the help of their black citizens. Many had already come forward, but an attempt was made to recruit more. So the government created this poster, which was also used as a newspaper ad:
Henry Johnson had been dead for over a decade when this item was produced. And he had never been awarded even a Purple Heart for his heroism. But he was certainly seen as a prime candidate for recruiting black Americans to the cause.
Because there have been a few fraudulent Medals of Honor awarded, especially during the Civil War and in Iraq, the requirements for posthumous awards have been severely tightened, requiring very specific documentation. As you might imagine in the case of a black American soldier in World war I, a soldier who received the French Croix de Guerre but was refused even a Purple Heart, despite having received 21 wounds in a single night, by the US military, acquiring that documentation has been extremely difficult.
If you want to help, besides signing the online petition, you might want to contact your Congress folk and urge them to get involved in helping one of our own:
Virginia Foxx (Foxx makes it difficult to contact her via e-mail. You will need your normal Zip Code, plus your 4 digit extension in order to e-mail her)
Here is a neat coda. There is already a black American soldier named Henry Johnson (no relation) who owns a Medal of Honor. Weird? Yes. His MOH was awarded during the Indian Wars of the late 19th century. Read about it here.
Meanwhile, I will try to keep you updated on this bizarre and frustrating story.