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  • Writer's pictureEdward Riederich

What America Could not Know

In the archives of World War 1

Is penned a story

Of an African American soldier 

"Sergeant Henry Johnson"

Nicknamed "Black Death"

Theodore Roosevelt said Henry is "one of the bravest American soldiers in the war"

Only 5 foot 4 inches

Only 127 pounds

Small yet with the heart of a lion

Size was no limit

One fateful night 

Attacked by up to 36 German soldiers 

He prevented them from capturing his fellow soldier who was badly injured

He resisted them

With only a knife 

The butt of his rifle

And hand to hand combat

He received from them

3 gunshots 

21 wounds 

Injuries from a grenade 

Left for dead 

He went beyond the call of duty

His bravery

His dedication

His courage

Earned him the name "Black Death"

Honored in a parade in New York City 

He waved to spectators out of an open car

Glory for a moment 

But then forgotten

Like a page blown away with the wind

A page of history 

Cast aside as insignificant

Johnson spoke out 

About the racism he endured in the Army

He spoke out about white soldiers refusing to share the trenches with the blacks

He spoke out 

About deliberately being put in the front lines of the war

Disposable soldier

Disposable heroes

His discharge papers 

Void of mentioning his wounds

Or the valor he displayed

Used and discarded

He was given no disability pay

The nation wanted his service but not his skin

Sure French orders stated 

Henry Johnson "gave a magnificent example of courage and energy"

But America did not know

America could not know

Even issued a warrant for his arrest 

For he wore his uniform after the prescribed date of his commission

Forgotten soldier

Forgotten warrior

Forgotten hero

A stain on our nation

After the war

He could not make ends meet

His wife left him and took their children

He fell into alcohol addiction

And he died an early death from a heart attack

He died 




Hero of obscurity 

He died alone

Abandoned by the country he fought for

Forsaken hero

Yes buried in Arlington

Given a full military funeral

Awarded the purple heart 

67 years later

Awarded the medal of honor

86 years later 

Yet too little too late 

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