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Sgt. Henry Johnson's Medal Of Honor Comes To State Capitol In Albany

(L to R) Major General Patrick Murphy; Sgt. Maj. Anthony McLean; Col. David Martinez with Sgt. Henry Johnson's Medal of Honor
Hunter Harrison / WAMC
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(L to R) Major General Patrick Murphy; Sgt. Maj. Anthony McLean; Col. David Martinez with Sgt. Henry Johnson's Medal of Honor

Ninety-six years ago, Henry Johnson returned to the city of Albany an unsung hero following his service in World War I. Yesterday, the medal he earned for his bravery followed suit. 

Henry Johnson’s gleaming Medal of Honor now stands on display in the War Room at the state capitol.

Sergeant Major Anthony McLean of the 369th Sustainment Brigade – known back in Johnson’s fighting days as the Harlem Hellfighters—was on hand Monday at a ceremony that both unveiled the Medal of Honor in Albany and that posthumously awarded Johnson New York state’s highest military honor, the Medal of Valor. McLean accepted it on Johnson’s behalf.

“Soldiers are being recognized, McLean said. "It’s long overdue, but it’s being accomplished.”

McLean, who is black, said after the ceremony that he felt Johnson’s Medal of Honor was a momentous occasion for his regiment.

“I think it’s definitely built more cohesiveness in the 369, especially for pending deployment," McLean added. "I think this is a momentous occasion.”

Henry Johnson’s story is like something out of a movie. He enlisted and joined the Harlem Hellfighters in June of 1917, and fought under French command. While on sentry duty he managed to single-handedly fend off a German raiding party and hold the French line. For his efforts, the French awarded him their highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre. But he received no honor from his own country. He died penniless and alone in Albany in 1929. His bravery had gone officially unrecognized until 1996, when he was awarded a Purple Heart. In 2002, he received the Distinguished Service Cross. And in June of this year, capping a long effort by state and local officials, President Barack Obama awarded him the country’s highest military honor.

For Albany resident Morena Walker-Howe, Monday’s ceremony marked a major milestone. She and her husband, the late Vietnam War veteran John Howe, were leaders in the quest to get Johnson his long overdue recognition.

“I am very very proud of the city, proud that we got it done, and very happy it’s in Albany where it belongs, because this was his hometown ,” Walker-Howe said after the ceremony.

Walker-Howe says this isn’t the end for advocacy on Johnson’s behalf, though. The next step is getting the Medal of Honor etched on Johnson’s likeness at his memorial in Washington Park.

“We need to put that medal on the chest, because my husband was adamant about saying when those busts were designed, leave room on the chest for the Medal of Honor.”

While there’s no official word from the mayor’s office on whether the bust will be altered, Mayor Kathy Sheehan said during the ceremony that she hoped Johnson’s legacy would continue to serve as an important message.

“For those of us in Albany, it’s the second chapter of the story that we want to continue to tell,” said Sheehan, who attended the Medal of Honor ceremony in Washington in June. “That we think is so important, particularly for young people, and that is the courage that it took for Henry Johnson to speak out against a racist system, against a system that discriminated against him, against a system that did not provide him with what it should have provided to every soldier when they returned to our soil.”

Congressman Paul Tonko also attended the ceremony, using it as an occasion to reiterate the purpose of Veterans Day.

“In the spirit of Henry Johnson, we need to commit our energies and our abilities and resources to making certain that our veterans are made whole again,” Tonko said.

The Medal of Honor is on display at the War Room of the state capitol. Find more information about the exhibit here.