Henry Johnson's Paradox: A Soldier's Story

By J, Victor | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

Henry Johnson's Paradox: A Soldier's Story


J, Victor, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Henry Johnson's Paradox: A Soldier's Story

CASUALTY

He was a soldier in the army.

But he doesn't walk like one.

He walks like his soldiering

Days are done.

Son!...Son!

Langston Hughes

Scholars have acknowledged Henry Johnson of Albany, New York, as one of World War I's most widely acclaimed military heroes. Homage is paid to Johnson, the warrior, in many military histories or in books about the African American experience. The scholarship on Johnson usually focuses on three extraordinary minutes in his life, three dramatic minutes during an international conflict, ignoring the everyday events in the life of Johnson, the ordinary worker and the disabled veteran. I started to examine Johnson's life before and after those violent three minutes, in order to understand the social and cultural phenomena that molded his character, for individuals such as he are often the heart and soul of a community's past. The purpose of this essay is to investigate Johnson's heroic yet tragic story and to illuminate his paradox in a nation that proclaims egalitarian ideals.

Johnson was born in 1897, black and poor, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one year after the United States Supreme Court upheld state-ordered segregation and the doctrine of separate but equal in the landmark case of Plessy vs. Ferguson.(2) Reconstruction had formerly ended twenty years before, halting the nation's trend toward racial equality. After the reconstruction period, African Americans faced a resurgent white supremacy that threatened their spiritual and physical survival. The racism of government policy was sanctioned by scientists and scholars, who argued that blacks represented the lowest order of humanity. Lynchings claimed nearly 200 lives a year in the 1890s. Popular culture reinforced stereotypes and incited racial hatred. D.W. Griffith's infamous movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) played in packed theaters throughout the country.

In this context, Johnson, while still a child, migrated north during the first decade of the twentieth century, as the move from countryside to city started to become the central feature of the African American experience.(3) For the first time, thousands of blacks labored in industries in the Northeast, and the black industrial worker emerged as a new figure on the American landscape. In Albany, where the black population remained small at three percent, Johnson found work as a baggage handler on the New York Central Railroad at Union Station, joining a small group of African Americans who toiled as red caps and porters.

Albany's Progressive era black population has not yet found its historian. Not much is known about Johnson, but what little information there is reveals something about voluntary associations in Albany's African American community. Johnson lived on Monroe Street, a neighborhood of blacks and Italian immigrants, in which the African American presence can be traced back to the early decades of the nineteenth century. According to his brother, Johnson belonged to a church and was a member of the Colored Benevolent Society.(4)

To many black males, military service represented a means to escape their status as the dregs of society. Young men unable to bear the daily degradation of racial oppression often enlisted in the army. The army was segregated, but it welcomed black recruits. Black soldiers fought in the campaigns against the Indian people; they made a distinguished military record in the Spanish-American war and then were used to suppress the ensuing Filipino war of independence -- a role that gave rise to the wry saying that blacks had shouldered "the white man's burden."

Johnson chose to follow this military tradition, so full of irony and contradictions, volunteering for the army on June 5, 1917, only two months after war was declared on April 6. Three months later, on September 17, 1917, Johnson married Edna Jackson of Albany, his former neighbor on Monroe Street. …

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