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Albany Celebrates First Annual Henry Johnson Day

The City of Albany has unveiled a replica Medal of Honor on the Henry Johnson statue in Washington park and presented the first Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service.

The Medal of Honor, the highest military honor an American soldier can receive, was bestowed upon Sgt. Johnson by President Barack Obama on June 2, 2015 in a White House ceremony.  "As a young man Henry Johnson joined millions of other African Americans on the great migration from the rural South to the industrial North and people in search of a better life. He landed in Albany, where he mixed sodas at a pharmacy, worked at a coal yard and as a porter at a train station. And when the United States entered World War I, Henry enlisted."

WWI hero Henry Johnson is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Credit Public Domain
WWI hero Henry Johnson is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

June 5th marked the 100-year anniversary of Sgt. Johnson's enlistment in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters. Sent overseas, Johnson suffered 21 wounds and rescued a fellow soldier while singlehandedly repelling an enemy raid in France in 1918.  He and that soldier, 17-year-old Needham Roberts, received the French military’s highest recognition, the Croix de Guerre.  In February of 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. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
June 1, 2015 US Senator Chuck Schumer displays an image of one of the documents found on the internet in 2011 that threw the quest to gain recognition for Henry Johnson into high gear.

Steve Mann, Deputy State Director for U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, who led the movement in Washington to recognize Henry Johnson, addressed the Albany gathering on Schumer's behalf.  "Securing the Medal of Honor for Henry Johnson is truly one of the highlights of my career. I really wish I could be here this morning to see the Medal of Honor and the inscriptions to the monument."

Mayor Kathy Sheehan presented James Dandles, the district president of the 369th Veterans Association, the first Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service.  "We have proclamations from the New York State Senate that acknowledges the work that you have done and your commitment to our state. We also have a proclamation from the city declaring today, this is the Sgt. Henry Johnson day declaration that we are providing to you, as the first recipient of this award. And we also have a monetary award thanking you for your service as well as the first certificate and a proclamation from the New York State Assembly."

Dandles was beaming.  "This is a great day for the city of Albany and it's a great day for the 369th Veterans Association."   Dandles later told reporters  "I never knew this was comin' but it's a pleasure to be the first. I'm excited."  He spent nearly 50 years striving to raise Johnson’s profile and give him a place of honor in the city and the country.

Albany politician Corey Ellis, who is running for Common Council president, says the legacy means everything.   "When I went to the White House two years ago when the President presented this Medal of Honor it touched me because of the story of Mr. Johnson and what he had endured, and his bravery and his sacrifices to his country.  And I could only think about how me, as an African American, you have trying times but you have to continue to keep going."

Dave Lucas  "What's your hope for the city of Albany for the future?"

Corey Ellis:  "My hope is that we continue to show our rich history, and those who contribute to our rich history in Albany and throughout this country. And I think that's what this Medal of Honor shows about Mr. Johnson. A hundred years later he's getting his just due because people who lived in this city would not let his legacy die."

A replica of Johnson's medal has been permanently affixed to the Henry Johnson Statue on Washington Park Road in Washington Park, near the corner of Madison Avenue and Willett Street.

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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