Louisiana Army Base Formerly Named for Confederate General Now Honors Black WWI Hero

Sergeant Henry Johnson received a posthumous Medal of Honor recognizing his bravery in battle in France

Henry Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters at a victory parade in New York City
Sergeant Henry Johnson (standing, holding bouquet of flowers) and the Harlem Hellfighters at a 1918 victory parade in New York City Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Toward the end of World War I, on a spring night near the French Forest of Argonne, a 26-year-old African American soldier named Henry Johnson found himself face to face with a group of advancing German troops. Wielding only a bolo knife, he lunged, beginning the May 15, 1918, fight that would later earn him military accolades, national recognition and the nickname “Black Death.”

This week, the United States Army recognized Johnson by renaming a Louisiana military base in his honor. Formerly known as Fort Polk, the base was originally named after Confederate General Leonidas Polk, who died during the Atlanta Campaign in June 1864.

Fort Johnson’s rechristening is part of a broader push to remove Confederate symbols, including statues, institution names and plaques, from public spaces. The base is one of nine military installations slated to be renamed at the recommendation of a congressionally mandated commission. Many of the proposed monikers honor women and people of color, among them Richard E. Cavazos, a Hispanic American veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and Civil War surgeon Mary Edwards Walker.

Portrait of Henry Johnson
Johnson received a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2015. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“After the George Floyd murders, many states started to rethink our vision and the memories of the Civil War,” Michelle Howard, a retired Navy admiral and the chair of the renaming commission, tells Nick Schifrin of “PBS Newshour.” “Our military bases are important symbols of might and right of the United States. And the names that are on the base signs, the names that are on our ships, should reflect the values of our country and the values of the American people.”

Johnson enlisted in the Army on June 5, 1917, two months after the U.S. entered World War I. He joined the 369th Infantry Regiment, an all-Black National Guard unit better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, and was deployed to France in December 1917.

By spring 1918, the 369th was positioned near the Argonne alongside Allied French soldiers. On the evening of May 15, Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were guarding a bridge on the French front lines when they heard the “snippin’ and clippin’” of wirecutters on a­ fence, reported Gilbert King for Smithsonian magazine in 2011. Johnson told Roberts to warn their comrades, then began throwing grenades at the advancing party of at least 12 German soldiers. The enemy fired back, prompting Roberts to turn back and assist Johnson, but a grenade hit and incapacitated him.

With Roberts bleeding on the ground nearby, Johnson threw his last grenade. Still his enemies advanced. Under intense fire, he sustained several gunshot wounds but continued to fight back, shooting from his rifle until it jammed, then using his gun like a club in close combat, according to the National Museum of the United States Army.

Johnson and Private Needham Roberts in 1918
Johnson and Private Needham Roberts in 1918 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When Johnson saw two German soldiers attempting to take the wounded Roberts prisoner, he pulled out his last weapon: a bolo knife. All of 5 feet, 4 inches tall, Johnson charged, attacking until the enemy retreated, having made no advances on the French front line.

Johnson and Needham became the first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre award for military valor. Reflecting on his actions after the war, however, Johnson said, “There wasn’t anything so fine about it. … Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”

In February 1919, Johnson—by then promoted to the rank of sergeant—returned to the U.S., where he led the Hellfighters’ victory parade through New York City. Nationally recognized for his courage after a range of newspapers covered his story, Johnson embarked on a speaking tour, and the Army used his image to sell victory stamps. But after he spoke out about discrimination against Black Americans in the military, “he was shunted aside,” according to a statement from the National Guard.

During World War I, Black soldiers “were expected to go abroad to fight, even though they were denied access to democracy, treated as second-class citizens, and subjected to constant aggression and violence at home,” wrote Anna Diamond for Smithsonian in 2020. Discrimination extended to the military, with Black Americans barred from the Marines, most Navy positions and Army aviation units. After the war, Black veterans hoping their service would lead to expanded civil rights instead encountered a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and mounting racial tensions.

A photo of the June 13, 2023, renaming ceremony
A photo of the June 13, 2023, renaming ceremony U.S. Army via Facebook

Johnson’s postwar years were marked by struggle. Combat injuries left him unable to return to his job as a luggage handler; due to his lack of education and denial of disability by the military, he was reportedly destitute when he died of myocarditis at age 32 in 1929.

Recognition for Johnson’s service only arrived decades later: He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996, the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002 and the Medal of Honor in 2015.

As Brigadier General David Gardner, commander of the newly christened Fort Johnson, says in a statement posted on Facebook, “The warrior spirit that burned within [Sergeant] William Henry Johnson now inspires generations of soldiers.”

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