Private Leroy Johnston, an African-American World War I veteran, Pine Bluff native and victim of the 1919 Elaine Massacre will be honored posthumously with the Purple Heart.
Hosted by the Delta Cultural Center at Helena-West Helena, the event will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, at the center’s Beth-El Heritage Hall, 406 Perry St., according to a news release. A reception will follow the ceremony.
The public is invited to attend the event where local, state and federal elected officials are expected to participate.
“Johnston’s family members will accept the Purple Heart on his behalf — a distinction which Johnston was denied a century ago,” according to the release.
Johnston will receive the Purple Heart for severe wounds sustained during WWI. The veteran will also be honored with the WWI Victory Medal with France’s Service Clasp and Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, and Meuse-Argonne Battle Clasps, and the WWI Victory Button, according to the release.
Judge Brian Miller, chief judge of the Eastern District of Arkansas, is aware of certain history surrounding the life of Johnson — and his three brothers. Two of Johnston’s brothers lived in Helena. But, Miller also has familial ties. One of them — a dentist— married into Miller’s family.
“But according to Judge Miller, many blacks have fought, served, and died for this country — and not been acknowledged for their service,” according to the release.
“At least this recognizes his [Leroy Johnston] service and he doesn’t get lost in history,” Miller said in the release.
Originally from Pine Bluff, Johnson enlisted in the military at age 23 Nov. 9, 1917, while living in New York City.
“Pvt. Johnston served in Company M, 3rd Battalion, 369th Infantry — a highly decorated regiment of the war — also known as the ‘Harlem Hellfighters.’ The ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ military band, in which Johnston was a bugler, became quite famous for introducing jazz to Europe,” according to the release.
Brian Mitchell, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said that Johnston was wounded twice in the war.
“His records were altered from ‘severely’ wounded to ‘slightly’ wounded,” Mitchell said. “This alteration prevented him from receiving any awards for being wounded in action.”
Johnston was honorably discharged from military service on July 5, 1919.
“Though he was injured on Sept. 26, 1918, it wasn’t until Professor Mitchell’s recent investigation of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, that he uncovered this tragic aspect of Johnston’s military life,” according to the release. “Determined to right this injustice, Mitchell submitted the information to the U.S. Department of the Army requesting that Johnston be awarded medals for his WWI service. Mitchell then contacted U.S. Rep. French Hill’s office in Little Rock, Ark., for assistance. Rep. Hill and his staff members, especially Thomas McNabb, Hill’s director of military affairs, were instrumental in ensuring that Johnston’s finally received his long overdue medals.”
After his discharge, Johnston moved to Helena.
“But in the fall of that same year, he and his three brothers were killed during the Elaine Massacre of 1919, though they had nothing to do with the conflict. Yet, that September, the body of Pvt. Johnston and his brothers were found mutilated and dumped on the side of the road,” according to the release.
Miller reflected on the awards ceremony and the era in which Johnston died, according to the release.
“What this does is puts the focus on the fact that he [Johnston] served and was willing to be injured, and to even die for his country. But then, he makes it home and gets killed by a lynch mob,” Miller said in the release. “That he’ll now receive the medals that he deserves — recognizing his service to this country — to me, he finally gets his just rewards.”
Details: Kyle Miller, director of the Delta Cultural Center, 870-338-4350, or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the DCC at facebook.com/DeltaCulturalCenter and at www.deltaculturalcenter.com.