Army Base To Be Renamed For Black WWI Hero Whose Bravery Wasn’t Acknowledged

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Fort Polk in Louisiana is being renamed Tuesday for a black U.S. soldier during World War I who received a Purple Heart and Medal of Honor posthumously and spoke openly about the racism he experienced throughout his military career, according to CNN.

The redesignation of Fort Polk to Fort Johnson marks the seventh of nine Army bases that underwent a renaming process amid congressionally-driven push to scrub titles honoring the Confederacy from the Department of Defense (DOD). Sgt. Henry Johnson, the installation’s new namesake, earned recognition for fighting off nearly two dozen German soldiers, killing at least four, while serving in a segregated unit, according to CNN.

“Sgt. Henry Johnson embodied the warrior spirit, and we are deeply honored to bear his name at the Home of Heroes,” Brig. Gen. David Gardner, the commanding general of the base, told CNN in a copy of prepared remarks for the renaming ceremony. (RELATED: Army Base Named For Confederate Leader To Be Renamed After Hispanic General)

“Sgt. Johnson’s acts of self-less service during World War I will inspire those at our installation, where we have trained and deployed America’s men and women to fight and win our nation’s wars for over 80 years,” he added.

Johnson enlisted into a segregated unit out of Harlem, New York, two months after the U.S. joined World War I, according to an Army press release. He was assigned to a French infantry unit and joined the ranks of national heroes when he fended off a German raiding party with a “rifle butt, grenades, his fists and a bolo knife” and rescued a soldier from capture on May 15, 1918.

He received severe injuries during the war and could not resume his job as a luggage handler, according to the Army.

Although Johnson received the French Croix De Guerre, becoming the first U.S. soldier recognized by the French military, the U.S. did not honor Johnson’s acts until after his death of myocarditis from tuberculosis in 1929, according to the Army. Representatives for Johnson received the Purple Heart in 2002 and the Medal of Honor in 2015.

After Johnson spoke out against anti-black discrimination in the Army, the Army cancelled a planned speaking tour for Johnson in retaliation, the service said.

“As a black American whose bravery wasn’t acknowledged at the time, Sgt. Johnson personified the Army values and was the epitome of strength,” said Brig. Gen. Isabel Rivera Smith, the director of joint staff for New York National Guard, in a statement, according to CNN.

The base was previously named for Confederate Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk who hailed from New Orleans and was killed in combat in 1864, according to the Army.

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