The Unknown Soldier stands for us as symbol of this blind and far-reaching fury of modern conflict. --Heywoud Broun
His name was Leroy Johnston and unless you are a scholar of World War I or African-American history, chances are very good that you’ve never heard his remarkable, sad and largely forgotten story. Like most soldiers, he is unknown. Take a walk through a veterans’ cemetery this Memorial Day weekend, pass by row after row of white granite markers that stand erect, as if still on duty, and then read all the names. The countless names. Almost all of them are now forgotten, save to their loved ones, if they are still alive to remember.
Whole wars even fade from collective memory, like World War I, Johnston’s war, “the war to save democracy”, as the recruiting posters then proclaimed. Though this worldwide conflagration that America officially entered on April 6th, 1917 took more than 38 million lives, birthed modern warfare and shaped the world we know today, 100 years later it has become, in a way, our unknown war.
And so here is one unknown soldier’s story from an unknown war.
1917. Like many African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century, Johnston wanted to find a way up and out of the hard life he lived, as the son of poor sharecroppers, in the brutal and violent Jim Crow south. With the outbreak of the war Johnston, like many of his peers, saw signing up to fight as a way to prove to white America that blacks were just as patriotic and willing to serve their country. The hope was that if black soldiers fought valiantly over there, when they returned “over here”, the United States could not help but take notice and finally grant equal rights and racial justice for all. As W.E. DuBois noted in advocating for black participation in the war, “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy." By war’s end, 375,000 African-Americans served.
In November 1917 Johnston traveled from the Mississippi delta to New York City and signed up as a recruit for the Harlem Hellfighters, the 115th National Guard Regiment of New York City, an all black unit. Though President Woodrow Wilson and Supreme Expeditionary General John Pershing were reluctant to empower African-American soldiers, finally in early 1918, the Hellfighters were assigned to France’s Command and went overseas. The 115th were the very first Americans to fight in the war. For the next two years they were among the most decorated of American units, recognized as fierce, tough and tenacious. Of the original 2,000 soldiers who fought, 1,300 were killed or wounded, one of the highest casualty rates of the war. Johnston saw the worst of battle at the Meuse-Argonne, sustaining such serious wounds that he spent nine months in French hospitals.
In October 1919, just a few weeks before the final Armistice and end of the war, Johnston was traveling by train to his home in Philips County, Arkansas. He’d returned in July, ready to resume his life. Unbeknownst to him, the county that day was ablaze with race riots, that were breaking out across the South, as returning black soldiers rightfully expected and demanded to be treated with dignity and respect as veterans. And so as Johnston sat on that train with three of his brothers, a mob of whites rushed aboard and dragged out the Johnstons.
As the Public Broadcasting System WWI documentary “The Great War” reports: “The mob accused [Johnston] of distributing ammunition to the insurrectionists, then shoved the four brothers into the back of a car with an armed guard. By most accounts one grabbed the guard’s gun and managed to kill him. In the next instant the mob shot the Johnston brothers to pieces. Leroy Johnston had survived some of the hardest fighting of the Great War. He hadn’t survived his homecoming.”
So this weekend may we remember the unknown soldiers like Leroy Johnston. Remember: the millions of American men and women who respond to the call of their nation to take up arms and defend freedom. Remember: that on the battlefield, the blood that is shed is always red and the cost of war does not discriminate. Remember: that sometimes wars to save democracy are fought overseas and sometimes struggles for liberty happen right in our own backyard. Still happen to this day.
Remember. God help us remember and to never forget.