WWI Fighter, Elaine Massacre Victim Receives Purple Heart

November 16, 2018 1 PM to November 16, 2018 2PM

Temple Beth-El Heritage Hall - 406 Perry Street, Helena AR

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Leroy Johnston, a black World War I veteran and victim of the 1919 Elaine Massacre will be honored posthumously with the Purple Heart and other World War I honors which he was denied a century ago. The ceremony will be hosted by the Delta Cultural Center (DCC) at Temple Beth-El Heritage Hall, in Helena, Friday November 16, at 1 p.m. A reception will immediately follow the ceremony. The public is invited. For more information contact Kyle Miller, director of the DCC at 870.338.4350, or [email protected]

At the planned ceremony, Private Johnston will now receive the Purple Heart with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for wounds received in action on Sept. 26, 1918, while fighting in France. He will also receive the World War I Victory Medal with France's Service Clasp and Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, and Meuse-Argonne Battle Clasps, and the World War I Victory Button. Relatives of the war hero will accept the awards on his behalf.

Johnston was a private in the U.S. Army. He joined on November 9, 1917, in New York City, at the age of 23. He 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.



As was the case for other black soldiers during that time, Johnston's military service records were intentionally altered (evident in photograph below) prior to his discharge to reflect his combat injuries as being less serious than they actually were.  This change prevented Johnston from receiving the war medals then that he deserved.  “Leroy was wounded twice while serving in World War I,” said Brian Mitchell, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “His records were altered from ‘severely’ wounded to ‘slightly’ wounded. This impeded him from receiving any awards for being wounded in action." Mitchell uncovered this tragic aspect of Johnston’s life while investigating the Elaine Massacre of 1919, in preparation for its centennial commemoration next year in Helena, AR.

Johnston was honorably discharged on July 5, 1919. In the fall of that same year, after returning to the States, he and his four brothers were killed during the 1919 Elaine Massacre. The brothers had nothing to do with the conflict in Elaine. In fact, they had purposely planned a hunting trip in that area and had been in the woods squirrel hunting when the violence started. Later, the brothers’ bodies were found mutilated and dumped on the side of the road.

Now, Pvt. Leroy Johnston, wounded in action, is receiving this long overdue commendation for valiantly serving his country on foreign shores during WWI. But unfortunately, as fate would have it, it was in the country he served-- his homeland-- during a hunting trip where he would loose his life so tragically.


The Elaine Massacre occurred in September 1919, when representatives of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America met with approximately 100 African-American farmers at a church to discuss unionizing. When a group of white men disrupted the meeting, two of them were shot.

The sheriff organized a posse, comprised largely of white veterans, who like Johnston, had recently returned from the war. An estimated 500 to 1,000 white people stormed through Phillips County, killing black men, women, and children on sight. 

While researching that injustice, Mitchell gathered records that substantiated Johnston’s military service and injuries. He submitted the information to the U.S. Department of the Army to request that Johnston be awarded medals for his service during World War I. Mitchell then contacted U.S. Rep. French Hill's office in Little Rock, Ark., for additional assistance.  Rep. Hill and his staff members, especially Thomas McNabb, Hill’s director of military affairs, were instrumental in ensuring that Johnston finally received his long overdue medals.

The Johnstons were a prominent black family in Jefferson County. The father of the slain men, Rev. Lewis Johnston Jr., was the first ordained black minister of the Covenanter Church, and their mother, Mercy, was a former school teacher. Of Leroy’s three older brothers, Dr. D.A.E. Johnston was a successful dentist and inventor in Helena; Dr. Louis Johnston was a physician in Oklahoma; and Gibson Johnston owned a car dealership in Helena, where Leroy worked after his return from war. 

The mother of the Johnston brothers encountered yet another miscarriage of justice when she went to retrieve her sons' bodies.  According to her story, Mrs. Johnston had to pay a bounty on the men before the coroner would ship them out,” Mitchell said. “She had them sent to Pine Bluff, where their father had taught and been buried. She wanted her sons buried near their father. All of the boys were buried in the same grave because their mother wanted them to be as close in death as they were in life.”

An old newspaper photograph of the Johnston brothers:     

Historians say the fact that Johnston is only now receiving his due suggests 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. Five white people were killed during the massacre. The number of black people killed remains unknown, but estimates range into the hundreds.

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 my job as a public historian — to right wrongs." In addition to that, Mitchell 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 WWI and WWII,” he said. “It’s important for black children to see how their ancestors contributed to American history and the war effort.”







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