The city of Albany honored local World War I hero Sgt. Henry Johnson Wednesday.
On June 5, 1917, Albany resident Henry Johnson enlisted in the 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, the Harlem Hellfighters, fought under French command.
Johnson's birthday was observed July 15, marked by a wreath-laying ceremony at Henry Johnson Park in Arbor Hill.
After years of advocacy, Johnson was honored with a Medal of Honor in 2015 for his act of valor in France. While there in 1918, Johnson suffered 21 wounds, rescuing a fellow soldier while singlehandedly repelling an enemy raid and receiving the French military’s highest recognition, the Croix de Guerre.
Deryl McCray of Albany served in Desert Storm. He says he takes pride in every opportunity to represent Johnson.
"These men fought courageously, making history in areas of battle that have never been duplicated or surpassed. The Harlem Hellfighters fought with hopes and dreams of returning home welcomed and embraced in the arms of equality, but unfortunately their heroic efforts did not warrant so. I have to be honest everyone, due to the times that we've been in recently, you know, I wrestled with the thought of whether I should stand or take a knee when it came to the National Anthem. But I chose to stand. And I stand for those who have lost their lives because they fought for a system that they truly believed in, that would take care of them."
McCray says Americans must to work collectively to hold the system and its beneficiaries accountable for unfavorable treatment and injustices against minorities.
"It is very important that every one, white Americans, support us as we come together, as we make our effort to come together, to be better, to one another and better for our community and country, because we're in a time right now where God is demanding, he's pulling on us. I know it looks very hectic at this particular time, for all of us. But right now the ground is fertile. It's fertile for change and it's fertile for us to be what we are. And that's one. One people, one voice, one community, one love."
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan says it’s a difficult moment in the city and the country.
"Challenging times for those of us who are reckoning with the fact that as great as this country is, we have told ourselves a myth, for decades and decades that this is a country that was founded on equality. It was founded on equality for some, but not equality for all, and that's simply a fact. And as we look at the life of Henry Johnson, it is an example of that every fact."
Sheehan says Johnson is an example of someone who suffered oppression.
"He is an example of what happens when this country does not treat people equally. And I think, you know, we know that we still have a long way to go. What happened to Henry Johnson continued to happen for decades and decades for far too many Black Americans. And so I think this was a very moving tribute to somebody but it also, you know, is a tribute to somebody who did receive their recognition, and yet we still have so much work to do."
Sheehan spoke about this year's Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service:
"It was created for an Albany resident who has given their time and talent to build a better Albany. We are going to be giving that award later this year at a public event when we hope more people will be able to attend the ceremony... The nominations are now open. So we really want to encourage you to make those nominations. As I've said, COVID has changed how we're honoring Henry Johnson this year, but in a way it is a blessing because we are going to be honoring him three times instead of one, so I view that as a blessing and as an opportunity."
Nominations are being accepted online. Here's the link .