2015 June 2

African-American Soldier Awarded Medal of Honor – 97 Years Late


Pvt. Henry Johnson, an African-American soldier in World War I, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in battle on May 15, 1918. The award came 97 years late. Because the U.S. Army was racially segregated in those years, Johnson served in the famed “Harlem Hellfighters” National Guard unit, which in combat was commanded by French officers. Armed only with a knife, Johnson held off a surprise German attack and prevented the capture of a fellow wounded soldier. One reason why Johnson was denied the award for so many years was the lack of a contemporary account of his actions, a requirement for the Medal of Honor. One was recently discovered, and that led to his being granted the award.

Also on this day, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Sgt. William Shemin, a Jewish-American, who during a three-day battle in August 1918 repeatedly left the safety of his trench to recover fellow soldiers who had been wounded.

U.S. military forces were racially segregated until ordered to desegregate by President Harry Truman on July 26, 1948. During World War II, Winfred Lynn, an African-American landscape gardener from Long Island, challenged the segregated draft, but was not successful (December 4, 1942, February 3, 1944).

Learn more: Peter Nelson, A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters’ Struggle for Freedom in World War I and Equality at Home (2009)

Learn more at a timeline on African Americans in the U.S. Army:  http://www.army.mil/africanamericans/timeline.html

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