As we mark Black History Month in Albany this year, it’s worth noting a significant monument to a local African-American hero that is located in Washington Park. Erected in 1991 near the Willett Street/Madison Avenue entrance to the park, the monument honors Albany native, Henry Johnson (c.1892-1929), who performed heroically in the first African American unit of the U.S. Army to engage in combat in World War I.
As a member of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters, Johnson was on watch in the Argonne Forest on May 14, 1918, when he fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier while experiencing 21 wounds. His action was brought to the nation’s attention by coverage in the New York World and The Saturday Evening Post.
Johnson’s heroic actions were recognized by the French with a Croix de guerre, but it took a much longer time and struggle to receive recognition from the U.S. military. He was awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. Finally, Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in a posthumous ceremony at the White House in 2015.
The City of Albany marks Henry Johnson Day each year on June 5, the anniversary of Sgt. Johnson’s enlistment in the Harlem Hellfighters in 1917.