Louisiana Army Base Formerly Named for Confederate General Now Honors Black WWI Hero

On May 15, 1918, Henry Johnson, a 26-year-old African American soldier named Johnson Henry, found himself facing a group of advancing German troops near the Forest of Argonne in France. He earned the nickname “Black Death” and national recognition for his brave fight, wielding only a bolo knife. This encounter marked the beginning of the end of World War I.

In June 1864, General Leonidas Polk, who originally named the base in Louisiana as Fort Polk, died during the Campaign Atlanta. In honor of him, the United States Army recognized the base by renaming it after him this week.

The rechristening of Johnson’s Fort is part of a broader effort to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces, including plaques, institution names, and statues.

Portrait of Henry Johnson
Johnson received a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2015. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The names of our ships and the names on the base signs should reflect the values of the American people and our country. Many states have started to rethink the memories of the Civil War and our vision after the murder of George Floyd. Admiral Howard, the chair of the renaming commission, tells Nick Schifrin of “Newshour PBS” that military bases are important symbols of the power and principles of the United States.

In December 1917, he was sent to France and became a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit composed entirely of Black soldiers, which was famously referred to as the Harlem Hellfighters. Johnson signed up for military service on June 5, 1917, just two months after the United States joined World War I.

Incapacitated him and struck a grenade, but Roberts turned back and assisted Johnson, prompting the enemy to retaliate. At least 12 German soldiers began throwing grenades at the advancing group led by Johnson. Their fellow soldiers then warned Roberts to inform Johnson. According to an article by Gilbert King for Smithsonian magazine in 2011, the incident took place on a fence where Roberts and Johnson were guarding a bridge on the French front lines.

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As per the National Museum of the United States Army, Johnson hurled his final explosive device while Roberts was bleeding on the nearby ground. Despite this, his adversaries continued to move forward. He endured multiple bullet injuries amidst intense gunfire, yet he persevered in retaliating, firing from his firearm until it got stuck, and then utilizing it as a blunt weapon in hand-to-hand combat.

Johnson and Private Needham Roberts in 1918 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Johnson, standing at a height of 4 feet 5 inches, charged towards the retreating enemy on the French front line without making any advancements. When Johnson spotted two German soldiers attempting to take the wounded prisoner Roberts, he pulled out his last weapon, a bolo knife.

Needham and Johnson became the first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre for their military bravery. Johnson, however, expressed his thoughts on his post-war deeds. A. Rabbit would have accomplished that, as there was nothing particularly remarkable about it. I fought for my own life, that’s all.

According to a statement from the National Guard, “he was pushed aside” after he voiced his concerns about discrimination against Black Americans in the military. The Army utilized his picture to promote victory stamps and Johnson began a speaking tour, gaining national recognition for his bravery after various newspapers reported on his story. Johnson guided the Hellfighters’ triumphal procession through New York City, where he arrived back in the U.S. In February 1919, elevated to the position of sergeant.

During World War I, Black soldiers, who were denied access to democracy, treated as second-class citizens, and subjected to constant aggression and violence at home, were anticipated to travel overseas to engage in combat, as mentioned by Anna Diamond in her article for Smithsonian in 2020. Discrimination in the military was widespread, with Black Americans being prohibited from joining the Marines, most Navy positions, and Army aviation units. Rather than experiencing an improvement in civil rights, Black veterans faced a revived Ku Klux Klan and escalating racial tensions following the war, despite their hopes that their service would bring about positive change.

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A photo of the June 13, 2023, renaming ceremony
A photo of the June 13, 2023, renaming ceremony U.S. Army via Facebook

Johnson’s postwar years were marked by struggle. Unable to return to his job as a luggage handler due to combat injuries, he reportedly left destitute because of the military’s denial of disability benefits and his lack of education. He died of myocarditis at the age of 32 in 1929.

Johnson’s service was recognized years later, with him being posthumously granted the Purple Heart in 1996, the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002, and the Medal of Honor in 2015.

“Brigadier General David Gardner, commander of the recently named Fort Johnson, declares that the warrior essence that blazed inside [Sergeant] William Henry Johnson continues to ignite the determination of soldiers across different eras,” as stated on Facebook.

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