Sergeant Henry Johnson, an African-American hero of the First World War from Albany, NY, will officially have Fort Polk in Louisiana renamed in his honor this June. The move comes after Congress authorized the Naming Commission to provide new names for U.S. military bases and other Department of Defense installations originally named after Confederate leaders and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) advocated for the change.
Johnson, was part of the “Harlem Hellfighters” that served under French Command on the Western Front in World War I due to segregation. On May 14, 1918 at the edge of the Argonne Forest, Johnson came under attack by a German raiding party of about 20 men. Despite sustaining 21 wounds, including numerous gunshot wounds, Johnson fought off the German advance, rescued his fellow soldier from certain capture, and acquired a large cache of enemy weapons. He killed four Germans and wounded several others in the process.
Johnson, who was permanently disabled after the fight, was issued a communique from General John Pershing commending his service, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm, one of the highest military honors of France, for his bravery in battle.
Johnson’s story was reported in a 1918 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. When he returned home he participated with his unit in a parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City and took part in a lecture tour which was ended after he spoke about how Black soldiers were treated during the war and an arrest warrant was issued for wearing his uniform after his separation from the military. He died in 1929 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Recognition of Johnson continued to be denied to him due to racism and segregation and he was all but forgotten until the early 1990s when Northern Boulevard in Albany was renamed Henry Johnson Boulevard and in June 1996, when Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart by President Bill Clinton.
In 2003 Johnson received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest award and President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Medal of Honor in 2015. The award required an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in 2014 to waive the time restrictions on receiving the medal.
In addition to the street named for him in Albany, there is a statue in Washington Park, a Henry Johnson and a memorial in
“Sgt. Henry Johnson, Albany resident and Harlem Hellfighter, is a true American hero, who displayed the most profound battlefield bravery in World War I, yet for almost a century the nation for which he was willing to give his life shamefully failed to recognize his heroics, just because he was a black man. Now, this summer Sgt. Johnson’s name is slated to rightfully take the place of a Confederate general and have the southern military base renamed in his honor,” Schumer said in an announcement of change. “It took years of research from impassioned advocates and local historians, and, of course my staff, to allow Sgt. Johnson to receive our nation’s highest military award in the Medal of Honor, but now this culmination of work has paid off in a profound way and I am proud that this June, we can officially have Fort Johnson standing proud to inspire generations to come.”
The Commission on the Naming of Items of the Department of Defense that Commemorate the Confederate States of America or Any Person Who Served Voluntarily with the Confederate States of America, more commonly known as the Naming Commission, was created by Congress in 2021 and charged with making a list of military assets with names associated with the United States’ Civil War enemy, the Confederate States of America, and providing recommendations for their removal. The Congressional move came after the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, and the subsequent resulting removal of several Confederate monuments in the South.
Fort Polk, in Vernon Parish, Louisiana, was built in 1941 and named for Confederate general Leonidas Polk. Polk was an Episcopal bishop and enslaver from Tennessee – a second cousin of President James K. Polk – who attended West Point Academy before becoming a traitor by joining the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He was killed by cannon fire by United States troops in a battle near Marietta, Georgia in 1864 during the campaign to take the Confederacy’s capital of Atlanta.
Illustrations, from above: “Our Colored Heroes,” 1918 lithograph by E.G. Renesch of Chicago (courtesy Tennessee State Archives); and Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, the man whom he saved from capture on the battlefield, in 1918.