Sgt. Henry Johnson, a courageous soldier known for his bravery in World War I, achieved another victory in the fight against institutionalized racism as the U.S. Army renamed a military base in his honor in Louisiana. T
he Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Johnson replaces the former Fort Polk, named after Confederate General Leonidas Polk, who fought against the United States during the Civil War.
The renaming ceremony took place on Tuesday morning, accompanied by the release of a video titled “A Tale of Courage & Bravery: Celebrating the Legacy of SGT Henry Johnson” on the fort’s YouTube site. Johnson, who hailed from Albany, enlisted with the 15th New York National Guard Regiment in 1917 and was assigned to the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He demonstrated exceptional valor in May 1918 when he fought off a German raiding party, leading to his award of the Croix de Guerre.
However, it would take over a century of efforts by historians, Black veterans, and politicians for Johnson’s heroism to be recognized by his own country. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015 and has since received other honors such as the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. The renaming of the military base in his honor marks another significant milestone in acknowledging his contributions.
U.S. Senator Majority Leader Charles Schumer, who has been instrumental in advocating for Johnson’s recognition, expressed pride in the renaming, highlighting the shift from honoring a Confederate general to celebrating an American hero. Schumer and his team have been working to obtain various forms of recognition for Johnson, including a potential postage stamp featuring his likeness from the U.S. Postal Service.
Johnson faced racism upon his return home, and memories of his heroic deeds faded over time, with local residents unaware of his burial site for many decades. In February 1919, when he arrived in New York City from France, Johnson recounted his experiences, describing how he fought off German soldiers with a French rifle and a “French bolo knife” when his ammunition ran out. He sustained multiple wounds during the battle, having been shot five times and bayoneted twice.
Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner, commanding general of the fort, expressed deep honor in bearing Sgt. William Henry Johnson’s name at the “Home of Heroes.” The federal Naming Commission selected Fort Polk, along with eight other Army bases previously named after Confederate commanders, to be given new names.
As the legacy of Sgt. Henry Johnson continues to receive recognition and honor, his story serves as a reminder of the importance of acknowledging the contributions and heroism of individuals from diverse backgrounds, challenging systemic racism, and promoting equality and justice.