Medals due for black war hero from Arkansas killed in 1919 massacre

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Washington, October 8, 2018 | comments
Medals due for black war hero from Arkansas killed in 1919 massacre

By Hunter Field

Almost a century ago, a war hero from Arkansas returned from combat and was treated worse than a criminal -- beaten, shot, stabbed and left dead on the side of the road.

His military records were altered so he wouldn't receive the medals and decorations he earned.

His crime? Being a black man in America and in Elaine in September 1919.

Leroy Johnston -- one of four brothers killed during the 1919 Elaine Massacre -- will at last receive commendation for the wounds he suffered while serving in the U.S. Army during World War I.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock history professor, with an assist from U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., recently obtained a posthumous Purple Heart and other decorations for Johnston.

The professor, Brian Mitchell, and Hill's office went to great lengths gathering corroborating evidence. For them, it's about rectifying an injustice.

For Johnston's surviving family, it's much more.

"We're beyond ecstatic," said Kyle Miller, the great-nephew of one of the Johnston brothers. "It's a sense of closure and a sense of honor being given in a situation that was to me an incredible sign of dishonor. Now, honor is being shown."

Ceremony details are still being worked out, but in the coming weeks, the medals will be presented to the family.

Historians say the fact that Johnston is only now receiving his due is evidence that the nation, state and community are still coming to grips with the Elaine Massacre -- the deadliest racial conflict in Arkansas history and one of the deadliest in U.S. history.

Until a few years ago, the event was commonly referred to as a "race riot," implying that both sides were comparably harmed.

Five white people were killed during the massacre. The number of black people killed remains unknown, but estimates range into the hundreds. To date, the bodies of the black victims haven't been found, but they're believed to be buried in a mass grave somewhere.

The mob violence began after a conflict between several white men and black sharecroppers at a black union meeting. The conflict resulted in the death of a white railroad security officer and the wounding of a Phillips County sheriff's deputy, enraging whites in the region.

Between 500 and 1,000 armed whites flocked to Elaine and, as one Arkansas Gazette reporter put it, "committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn."

Then-Arkansas Gov. Charles Hillman Brough sent 500 soldiers from Camp Pike with the permission of the Department of War. The mobs began to disperse once the troops arrived, but the soldiers placed hundreds of blacks in stockades until they could be vouched for by their white employers, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

The Johnstons, according to Mitchell, were a prominent black family from Jefferson County. The brothers had nothing to do with the conflict in Elaine; they had actually been in the woods squirrel-hunting when the violence started.

On their way back to Elaine, the Johnstons were warned not to return, so they hopped on a train to Helena. The train, though, was soon stopped by one of the white posses, which handcuffed the brothers and put them in the back of a car.

Mitchell tells the next part of the story with great skepticism.

"The narrative is that the brothers were all in the car of a well-known politician and business owner," Mitchell said. "They maintain that one of the brothers grabbed a gun and shot and killed the driver, and then the posse killed the brothers in retaliation. The brothers' bodies were dumped on the side of the road, and they were supposedly horribly mutilated as well."

As for Leroy Johnston, he had only recently returned to Arkansas from the war. He enlisted in the Army in 1917 in New York City -- a member of a highly decorated infantry regiment known as the "Harlem Hellfighters."

He was wounded in Europe twice, including a severe injury during the Battle of Chateau-Thierry from mustard gas. However, as with many black soldiers after World War I, Johnston's discharge papers were altered. Indeed, a copy of his records clearly show the word "severely" marked over with the word "slightly" on the line to describe any combat-related wounds.

A stroke of luck led Mitchell to documentation that corroborated Johnston's wounds. Most World War I personnel records were destroyed in a fire, but Mitchell found officers' logs that were compiled on a regular basis and included descriptions of soldiers sent to hospitals, including Johnston.

Mitchell submitted all the evidence to the federal government, and Hill's office helped expedite the process -- which can take years -- to completion in about six months.

"My team and I were proud to right a grave injustice on behalf of the late Private Johnston," Hill said. "I'm pleased that Tom [McNabb] on my staff, a veteran himself, instrumentally helped ensure Private Johnston's legacy is rightly remembered and that his surviving family members will be honored with his well-deserved medals."

Asked why it was worth the effort to travel across the state and country to secure the medals for a man who has been dead for a century, Mitchell said that's part of his job as a public historian -- to right wrongs. He also recalled the many classrooms he's been in where children of color have questions about their ancestors' roles in historic events.

"Blacks played an active part in World War I and II," Mitchell said. "It's important for black children growing up to see how their ancestors contributed to the war effort."
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