In 1918 there was a subtle difference between “first class” Americans and “real” Americans.
Some African-American newspaper editors made that point when printing stories about the New York National Guard unit that, when put in service of French commanders, distinguished itself during World War I.
The story is part of “Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality,” just published by the University Press of Kansas.
“Here is a situation where African-American soldiers are detached to serve in the French army, and we actually see what they are capable of doing,” said co-author John Morrow, University of Georgia history professor.
Two soldiers, Henry Johnson and Neadom Roberts, especially covered themselves in glory. Accounts gained wide circulation in America of how the two fought off as many as 20 members of a German raiding party while suffering numerous wounds.
“One of the slurs hurled at the 369th is that it had a good publicity agent,” said co-author Jeffrey Sammons, New York University history professor.
There were differences, however, in how editors framed the story on the home front.
One particular illustration of Johnson and Roberts often appeared in mainstream publications above the caption, “Two First Class Americans.” But in some black American publications the caption read, “Two Real Americans.”
The message, Sammons said, was that such heroes deserved full citizenship.
Herman Johnson, the late Kansas City businessman and son of Henry Johnson, cooperated with those who have campaigned to see his father posthumously receive the Medal of Honor.
The elder Johnson, who died in 1929, never received even a Purple Heart — until 1996.
Then, in 2003, Herman Johnson accepted the Distinguished Service Cross for his father at ceremonies at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. Herman Johnson died in 2004.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York continues his efforts to see a Medal of Honor awarded to Johnson.
Sammons and Morrow speak at 6:30 p.m. April 7 in the J.C. Nichols Auditorium at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. The museum is presenting the program with the National Archives at Kansas City.
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