Contact: Dennis Gaffney/518-434-5164
ALBANY, NY – The City of Albany is soliciting nominations for 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. To nominate someone, click here and fill out and send the online form by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, August 23. The Award will be presented at Albany’s Riverfront Jazz Festival on Saturday, September 10, in order to bring Henry Johnson’s life and example to as broad an audience as possible.
This award is given to commemorate the act of valor by Sgt. Johnson during combat in WWI, which made him the first military hero of that war. His courageous actions earned Sgt. Johnson the Medal of Honor, the country's highest military honor, which was bestowed upon him posthumously by then-President Barack Obama on June 2, 2015 in a White House ceremony.
The award also recognizes the courage Sgt. Johnson exhibited when he returned home to the United States and spoke out against racism in the military and in Jim Crow America.
Henry Johnson's Bio
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 what became known as The Battle of Henry Johnson, he received no honors from his home country. After speaking out against racism in the military in St. Louis, Sgt. Johnson was forbidden to ever again speak at military gatherings or even wear his uniform in public. 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. Two statues have been built in Albany – one in Washington Park and another in Henry Johnson Park in Arbor Hill – to honor the City’s hero.