Albany Remembers Native Son Henry Johnson At Annual Ceremony

Jun 6, 2019

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan led a ceremony Wednesday honoring city World War I hero Henry Johnson.

June 5th marked the city's third Henry Johnson Day as well as the 102nd anniversary of Sgt. Johnson's enlistment in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters. His heroic actions in May 1918 posthumously earned him the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor an American soldier can receive, bestowed by President Barack Obama in a 2015 White House ceremony. This year marks the 101st anniversary of Sgt. Johnson’s act of valor.

Sheehan told the story of how Johnson was sent overseas, suffered 21 wounds and rescued a fellow soldier while singlehandedly repelling an enemy raid in France in 1918 and receiving 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. Johnson went on to earn money on speaking tours.   "One day while addressing a Liberty Bond rally in St. Louis, Johnson spoke angrily about his situation. And about racism and prejudice he and other black men faced in American armed forces and in the country at large. He spoke truth to power and he paid a horrible price. White America turned its back on its hero. The army prevented him from speaking in public, or even wearing his uniform publicly. Sgt. Johnson couldn't find other work. His marriage fell apart and not much is known about this part of his life. In his mid-30s he died and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery."

As part of the award, Tabetha Wilson received a minted silver commemorative Henry Johnson Medal created by Ferris Coin, which is given out to awardees annually.
Credit Dennis Gaffney

Sheehan presented the third Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service, created to honor those who have “demonstrably given of their time and talent to build a better Albany,” to Albany School Board Member Tabetha Wilson.   "I struggled when faced what to say not only because of the fierce courageousness and selflessness of Sgt. Henry Johnson, but because there are so many urgent matters of great significance all around us today. And we are still grappling with many of the same challenges that Sgt. Henry Johnson faced. In some ways, the hurdles are even higher, because we believe somehow that we have arrived, that we are not racist or sexist, xenophobic, because we do not participate, thus we are absolved. But, these are the many ways that we are in complicit actually, and we have to go much further and actually be anti-racist, anti-poverty, anti-gender-based discrimination, and so on. So our work is not done, it's just merely beginning."

The Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service is given in the spirit of Albany resident Henry Johnson, in honor and recognition of his selfless service and his drive to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Wilson received a cash award, a silver medallion and a plaque, as well as a certificate from Congressman Paul Tonko's office.  An Albany resident, Wilson works for the NYS Office of Temporary Disability Assistance and serves on many local non-profit boards.

Besides achieving recognition and honor for Henry Johnson, Sheehan says Albany has worked hard to combat racism, celebrate gay pride and offer sanctuary. But the mayor concedes...  "...we have a long way to go, we still have disproportionate unemployment. We have disproportionate outcomes in our schools for children of color. And so we need to continue to do this work. Albany is a welcoming place, and I think that that is a start, right? It's important that we see one another as neighbors and that we see one another as residents occupying the same place and that we should all be in this together. And so it's not just for members of the African-American community to be advocating for better outcomes for our kids in the schools, all of us should be advocating for that because it makes our community a stronger place. You know it's not just for people of low-income to be advocating for quality housing. All of our community benefit when we have housing that is quality housing that is affordable to the residents who live in a particular neighborhood. And so I think the work that I have tried to do in talking about equity and in talking about welcoming, is to ensure that we see one another first as neighbors. Because I do believe that when you see one another as neighbors, that there isn't really anything that we can't then do together."

As part of Henry Johnson day, the Albany Housing Coalition, which last year renamed its Veterans House the Sgt. Henry Johnson Veterans House, awarded  senior Irene Nelson of the Albany High School Junior ROTC Henry Johnson Battalion, a $1,000 college scholarship for an essay she'd written on Henry Johnson’s impact today. You can read it below:

Essay on Henry Johnson by Irene Nelson on Scribd