Black History Month – Henry Johnson

Mural on a building of WWI hero Henry Johnson and other WWI service members, on Henry Johnson Blvd. in Albany, NY.

Henry Johnson was born in Virginia, but lived in Albany, the capital of New York, since his teens. He worked as a redcap (porter) at the Albany Union Station. He was also a sergeant in an all African American unit (the 369th Infantry Regiment, formerly the 15th Infantry Regiment of the National Guard during World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre with star and the Gold Palm from the French govenment for his heroism in fighting off a 20 person raiding party of Germans.

He was the first American to receive these awards, and yet there was no recognition from his own country.

Finally in 1996, he was awarded the long overdue Purple Heart and in 2003, the Distinguished Service Cross. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Honor, accepted by Command Sergeant Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard.

He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

In Albany’s Washington Park stands a monument to Henry Johnson, just over half a mile from the street that bears his name.

Henry Johnson Monument, Washington Park, Albany, NY, erected in 1991.
Detailed photo of the bust of Henry Johnson.

WMHT presents Henry Johnson: A Tale of Courage

Author Max Brooks on Henry Johnson, the Unlikely War Hero

Honoring Them


This began as my memoir workshop homework. It was my third attempt, but it seems as though the third time’s the charm. Our prompt was Uniform. I really had such a hard time, but then I realized that this past week had been unusually full of men in uniform, beginning seven days ago with Beau Biden.

Beau Biden is the son of the Vice President, and I’ve followed his family since my infant days as a political junkie. Joe Biden, then Senator wasn’t from my state, but I knew his name. He spoke his mind. Often. He was almost just as often ridiculed for it and mocked at his many slips – being honest has that effect – sometimes you put your foot in your mouth, and Joe Biden was kind of an expert at that, at least where the media was concerned. I still liked him. He said what he thought and he stood by that.

I found out later that between being elected (youngest in fact) and Christmas, his family was in a devastating car accident. They were hit by a tractor trailer, and his wife and daughter died. His two boys, Beau and Hunter were seriously injured. In fact, Joe took his oath of office in their hospital room.

He was a single father traveling between Washington and Wilmington daily so he could put his kids to bed and be there when they woke up. This was the example the Beau (and his brother) saw growing up.

When Beau Biden was Attorney General of Delaware he took a leave when his National Guard unit was called up to active duty for a tour in Iraq. Tour. They make it sound so pleasant, don’t they?

There’s a picture of when he returned of he and his father facing each other, standing eye to eye, and I get emotional every time I see it from that first moment. Beau is standing tall, military straight-backed as he looks at his father the Vice President with respect and his father looking at him with that same respect but the added pride of a father knowing that his son has done good. It’s hard to imagine that much emotion coming from a still picture.

He introduced me, through his work to the Darkness to Light Foundation which empowers people to prevent child sexual abuse.

He was 46, and the word was that he intended to run for governor of Delaware in 2016. He probably would have won; he was a fine man, a good and decent man. He would have made an excellent President one day.

Sadly, he died one week ago after his brain cancer recurred. Today was his funeral, a full military funeral. He had been ill for several weeks, but like his whole family, this was kept quiet from the media.His family was there with him, and he leaves behind a young family – a wife, and two children, ages 11 and 9, the ages of my two youngest kids.

As President Obama eulogized him, he called him a “consummate public servant.” That is a summation that I’m sure Beau would appreciate.

His family has asked in lieu of flowers that donations be made to The Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children.

I could end this here, and it would be enough, but Beau Biden wasn’t the only Army serviceman in the news this week.

Later in the week, we had a 180 degree turn from our sadness for and with the Biden family. On Tuesday, men in uniform were uplifted to places of honor after being ignored for nearly one hundred years. Sgt. William Shemin, a Jewish serviceman from Syracuse, NY and Pvt. Henry Johnson, African-American from Albany, NY were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor from President Obama. Both enlisted during World War I; both fought in France. Henry Johnson’s unit was assigned to the French government because white soldiers wouldn’t work alongside Black troops, even though they were all Americans.

Both continued fighting after they were wounded. Sgt. Shemin took command after all of the commanders and non-commissioned officers became casualties. Pvt. Johnson took on 20 Germans. The French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre, the first American to receive that with star and Gold Palm. He died in 1929 with no recognition from his own government. Finally, ,in 1996 and 2003, respectively, he was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. His son, Herman was a Tuskegee Airman, and received the Distinguished Cross for his father.

His Medal of Honor was presented on Tuesday to a member of the New York National Guard while Sgt. Shemin’s was presented to his daughters, age 83 and 86.

Today we continue to talk about our troops, cheer at parades, offer a military discount here or there, but many of our troops come back broken, some in ways that can’t be seen, and they are fighting tooth and nail to get their needs taken care of, almost as much as they fought the enemy in the combat theatre.

They are not a group that tends to complain. They wait, but they are misdiagnosed and discharged from service with no resources or support for housing, food, or health care. Men (and women) with PTSD remain on waiting lists for therapy and service animals. They are directed to private organizations that cost money and have even longer waiting lists. They will forever be burdened with what they endured in combat. Flashbacks and nightmares are only the tip of a very large iceberg. Many of their families live in poverty, houses foreclosed on. Many are homeless. Many commit suicide. They need, and should be given as much support as they gave their country when it called them. Giving so much, they should not be on anybody’s waiting list.

Henry Johnson, Medal of Honor Recipient, 2015


Watch it live here at 11:15am:


These are photos that I took about three years ago on a visit to Washington Park in Albany, NY of the Henry Johnson Monument, commemorating the bravery and valor displayed by Sgt. Johnson during his service in World War I.

Later today at the White House, President Obama will award two posthumous Medal of Honors, one to Sgt. William Shemin (who was Jewish) and one to Sgt. Henry Johnson, both of whom fought in France during WWI.

Henry Johnson was born in 1897 in Virginia and moved to Albany, New York in his teens. He enlisted in the all Black National Guard unit, which was called up in the 19-teens. Because of racial tensions and white soldiers’ refusal to work alongside Black soldiers (even though all were Americans), General Pershing authorized their loan to the French government where Henry Johnson fought valiantly and unendingly. He fought off a 20 person raiding party of Germans. That is such a watered down one-sentence does-not-give-it-justice summary of the real story.

The French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre for his service and selfless bravery. He was the first American soldier to receive the Croix de Guerre with star and Gold Palm in World War I.

He was finally awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 by President Bill Clinton and the Distinguished Cross in 2003 was awarded to his son on his behalf. Sgt. Johnson’s son, Herman Johnson was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

It was thought that Henry was buried in a pauper’s grave in Albany after his death in 1929, but is buried in Arlington Cemetery, and that, as they say, is also another story.

Finally, President Obama is rectifying a wrong almost one hundred years old.



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