Henry Lincoln Johnson

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For other people named Henry Johnson, see Henry Johnson (disambiguation).
Henry Johnson
Henry Johnson.PNG
Johnson in 1918, wearing his Croix de Guerre.
Birth name Henry Lincoln Johnson
Nickname(s) "Black Death"
Born 1897
Alexandria, Virginia, U.S.
Died July 5, 1929 (aged 31–32)
New Lenox, Illinois, U.S.
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Seal of the United States Department of War.png United States Army
Years of service 1917–1918
Rank WW1-Sergeant.svg Sergeant

New York National Guard

Battles/wars World War I
Awards Distinguished Service Cross ribbon.svg Distinguished Service Cross
Purple Heart BAR.svg Purple Heart
Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 ribbon.svg Croix de guerre (Palm and Star)
Relations Herman A. Johnson (son)

Henry Lincoln Johnson (1897 – July 5, 1929) was a United States Army soldier who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, and the French Croix de Guerre. He was the first American soldier in World War I to receive the Croix de Guerre with star and Gold Palm from the French government.[citation needed]

Early life and education[edit]

Johnson was born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1897 and moved to Albany, New York when he was in his early teens. He worked as a redcap porter at the Albany Union Station on Broadway.


Henry Johnson biographical cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943

Johnson enlisted in the United States Army on June 5, 1917, joining the all-black New York National Guard unit, the 15th New York Infantry, which, when mustered into federal service was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment, based in Harlem. Assigned to the French command in World War I, Johnson arrived in France on New Year’s Day, 1918. While on guard duty on May 14, 1918, Private Johnson came under attack by a German raider party. Johnson displayed uncommon heroism when, using his rifle and a bolo knife, he repelled the Germans, thereby rescuing a comrade from capture and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. This act of valor earned him the nickname of "Black Death", as a sign of respect for his prowess in combat.

The story of Johnson's exploits first came to national attention in an article by Irvin S. Cobb entitled "Young Black Joe" published in the August 24, 1918 Saturday Evening Post.[1]

Returning home, Sgt. Johnson was paid to take part in a series of lecture tours. He appeared one evening in St. Louis and instead of delivering the expected tale of racial harmony in the trenches, he instead revealed the abuse black soldiers had suffered, such as white soldiers refusing to share trenches with blacks. Soon after this a warrant was issued for Johnson's arrest for wearing his uniform beyond the prescribed date of his commission and paid lecturing engagements dried up.[2]


Johnson died in New Lenox, Illinois at the Veterans Hospital, on July 5, 1929, penniless, estranged from his wife and family and without official recognition from the U.S. government. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Interest in obtaining fitting recognition for Johnson grew during the 1970s and 1980s. In November 1991 a monument was erected in Albany, New York's Washington Park in his honor, and a section of Northern Boulevard was renamed Henry Johnson Boulevard.

In June 1996, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart by President Bill Clinton. In February 2003, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest award, was presented to Herman A. Johnson, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, on behalf of his father.[3] John Howe, a Vietnam War veteran who had campaigned tirelessly for recognition for Johnson, and U.S. Army Major General Nathaniel James, President of the 369th Veterans' Association, were present at the ceremony in Albany.[4][5]

In December 2004 the Postal facility at 747 Broadway was renamed the "United States Postal Service Henry Johnson Annex".

On September 4, 2007 the City of Albany dedicated the Henry Johnson Charter School. Johnson's granddaughter was in attendance.

A 1918 commercial poster honoring Johnson's wartime heroics was the subject of an 2012 episode of the PBS television series History Detectives.[6]

As of 2012, efforts continued to have Johnson awarded the Medal of Honor.


  1. ^ Cobb, Irvin. "The Glory of the Coming". http://www.gutenberg.org. Retrieved 10 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Negro with a Hat, The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and his Dream of Mother Africa, Colin Grant. p.113 ISBN 978-0-224-07868-9
  3. ^ See General Order No. 9, 18 November 2005, at http://www.apd.army.mil/pdffiles/go0509.pdf.
  4. ^ Henry Johnson, Sergeant, United States Army at www.arlingtoncemetery.net
  5. ^ defenselink.mil
  6. ^ Tukufu, Zuberi. "Our Colored Heroes - History Detectives - PBS". http://www.pbs.org. Retrieved 10 August 2014. 

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