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Albany Remembers World War I Hometown Hero

The city of Albany celebrated local hero Henry Johnson on Saturday.
A wreath laying ceremony was held at Henry Johnson's statue in the Arbor Hill pocket park named after him, to commemorate the 105th anniversary of his enlistment. Johnson served in the all-Black 369th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment during World War I in France. The wreath of flowers matched the colors of the 369th— burgundy, gray, and white.

Wreath placed at Henry Johnson's statue.
Credit Dave Lucas / WAMC
The wreath is placed before Henry Johnon's statue during Henry Johnson Day at the park named after him in Albany.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan noted Johnson grew into a man in Albany, served his country as a soldier, and showed courage in combat that elevated him into a war hero.

"Henry Johnson fought bravely in World War I. He came home was celebrated as a hero. But when he spoke out against racism, he was pushed to the side. And we have a group of people who fought really hard to get him the recognition that he had earned. And I think it's an important story for every resident of the city of Albany to know and for all of us to be proud of the amazing heroism both on the battlefield and off of Henry Johnson.”

Johnson suffered 21 wounds and rescued a fellow soldier while singlehandedly repelling an enemy raid in Northern France on May 14th, 1918. He saved 17-year-old Private Needham Roberts' life. Ronald Wilson, president of the Albany District of the 369th Veterans Association, tells the story.

"Johnson shot his gun and used grenades to fire over a dozen of the enemy, maybe more. When his gun jammed Henry welded it like a club and then resorted to his bolo knife. Needham lost consciousness and enemy soldiers tried to take him away. Johnson refused to let them. Henry Johnson defeated an entire raiding party and saved his fellow soldier Needham from becoming a prisoner of war. The Black press and white press were brought in afterwards, and the Battle of Henry Johnson was written up in America's newspapers. The first American hero of the war, is a Black soldier. Albany's private Henry Johnson was soon promoted to sergeant.”

Johnson received the French military’s highest recognition, the Croix de Guerre. In February 1919, the Harlem Hellfighters returned to New York for a parade up Fifth Avenue, and Johnson returned to Albany, where historians say he died, destitute, in 1929, at age 32.

It wasn't until 1996 that Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. He received the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015.

Congressman Paul Tonko is a Democrat from the 20th district:

LaShaunda Motley singing "Lift every voice and sing."
Credit Dennis Gaffney / City of Albany
City of Albany
LaShaunda Motley singing "Lift every voice and sing."

"It is important for us to take the memory of Henry Johnson and continue to push back on systemic racism that divides and conquers us. We're not free until all are free. And so we thank the spirit, the service, the greatness and the memory of Henry Johnson."

During Saturday’s commemoration, officials launched their call for nominations for the annual Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service, to be presented during Albany's Riverfront Jazz Festival September 11th.

Click here to nominate a city residentwho 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.

  • RELATED: Spirits Of Sacrifice (WAMC Podcast) - A New York Minute In History explores the lives of Henry Johnson and Tommy Hitchcock Jr., World War I heroes with ties to New York. Through interviews with family members, historians and others, we follow Johnson and Hitchcock to the trenches and airfields of Europe and beyond. We explore how both men are shaped by their upbringings and the color of their skin. We examine how each is celebrated and remembered in different ways because of their actions and the social practices of the early 20th century to today.
Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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