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Mayor Sheehan and 369th Vets Commemorate Henry Johnson’s Birthday With Wreath-Laying Ceremony

July 15, 2020

Date: June 15, 2020
Contact: Dennis Gaffney
518-281-7252 (cell)

ALBANY, NY -- The City of Albany honored the anniversary of the birthday of Sgt. Henry Johnson, Albany’s World War I hero, by placing a wreath at his statue at Henry Johnson Park this morning. This year marks the 102nd anniversary of Sgt. Johnson’s act of valor during WW I as a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the all-black U.S. regiment that served in France. The flowers in the honorary wreath were chosen to match the colors of the 369th – burgundy, gray, and white. 

The event also marked the beginning of the nomination period of the Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service, which recognizes an Albany resident who has displayed commendable community leadership in any of the following areas: arts and history, social justice, education, or volunteerism. For more information and to nominate someone, visit the City of Albany’s Henry Johnson Award nomination webpage. The Award will be presented later in the year with the hope that conditions will allow for a public gathering.

This year marks the 103rd anniversary of Sgt. Johnson's enlistment in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment. Sgt. Johnson’s heroic actions (see bio below) in May 1918 and the advocacy of 369th veterans, local officials and residents, posthumously earned him the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor an American soldier can receive. This honor was bestowed by former President Barack Obama on June 2, 2015 in a White House ceremony. 

In attendance at this socially distanced ceremony were members of the Henry Johnson Day Advisory Group, veterans of the 369th, previous winners of the Henry Johnson Award, and local officials. The ceremony featured the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the placement of the wreath, and addresses by Mayor Sheehan; Ronald Wilson, President of the 369th Veterans Association, Albany District; and Deryl McCray, an Albany leader and also a 369th veteran.

“Sgt. Johnson exhibited great bravery in battle, but he demonstrated another kind of courage when he spoke out publicly against racism in a segregated military and country," said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. “He paid dearly for speaking truth to power, and was forbidden to lecture at military gatherings. As our nation’s history of racism has come to the fore again, it is more important than ever to remember Sgt. Henry Johnson, one of the countless Black Americans who have served and improved this country, yet have suffered and often died because of systemic racism. We can't change how Henry Johnson was treated, but we can commit to act in his spirit to ensure such shameful treatment does not continue."

“Sgt. Henry Johnson once walked the streets of this neighborhood, had a family here, and worked in this City,” said Ronald Wilson, President of the Albany District of the 369th Veterans Association. “As a young man he fought for his country and became a national war hero. We remember him for that -- and for the courage he showed in speaking out against racism. Sgt. Johnson remains an inspiration for all who want to serve our country proudly and build a more just and equitable society.” 

About Sgt. Henry Johnson 
On June 5, 1917, Albany resident Henry Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army. Because of racial segregation and the refusal of the U.S. Army to allow black soldiers toparticipate 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 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 award. 

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, he received no honors from his home country. After speaking out against racism in the military in the Midwest, Sgt. Johnson was forbidden to ever again speak publicly at military gatherings. He died, destitute, in 1929, in his mid-30s. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Thanks to the tenacity of the 369th veterans and local elected leaders such as Senator Chuck Schumer, 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 President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony.