Monday, September 2, 2013

Black Death of America

I know I've been somewhat M.I.A. as of late but have no fear, my dirty birdies, your Mistress of History hasn't abandoned you. I'm back to talk about the American version of the Black Death. I'm not talking about a plague that ravaged the country killing thousands (that would be smallpox given to the Native Americans by the Calvary... but that's another blog) I'm talking about Henry 'Black Death' Johnson.

Henry Johnson was born in Alexandria, Virgina in 1897. He moved to Albany, New York in his late teens and began working as a RedCap Porter at Union Station. He was a small man, topping in at 5 feet 4 inches and weighing 130 pounds. He had an engaging smile and was known for his winning sense of humor. Henry enlisted in the army on June 5, 1917 joining what was to become the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment out of Harlem.

Henry proved uncommonly skilled in combat which earned him the nickname 'Black Death' by his fellow soldiers. Henry served his country valiantly and suffered multiple bayonet wounds and injuries over the course of his deployment.

When he returned state side he was asked to lecture about the war and army life in various towns across the Midwest. The war department also used his likeness to recruit others and to sell war bonds (Henry Johnson has licked a dozen Germans. How many have you licked? was one slogan pulling on Henry's fame.) However, when he was in St. Louis, Henry decided to talk about the treatment of Black forces in the military, such as white soldiers not willing to share trenches with black soldiers and such. This caused a warrant to be issued for his arrest for 'wearing his uniform beyond the prescribed date of his commission' and the lectures dried up - and Henry's income. Basically the Army didn't like Henry telling the truth about what was going on over in Europe.

Henry was the first American solider to receive the Croix de Guerre (cross of War) and the Gold Palm from the French Government.

Henry died penniless and all but forgotten at the age of 32. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery - but no one knew exactly where in Arlington. While he lacked the education to fight the war department to correct glaring mistakes in his military record, historians did not forget what Henry 'Black Death' Johnson did in World War I in that forest of Argonne.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Henry the Purple Heart and when they finally located his grave-site in 2001, Henry was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross - the military's second highest award.

It takes all kinds of men ad women to make America great, and people like Henry Johnson are just the tip of the iceberg. History never truly forgot Black Death Johnson, it just took us awhile to remember. So, here's to Henry Johnson and all he did for the war effort.