Top 10 stories of 2023: Fort Polk name change

Published 11:58 am Tuesday, January 2, 2024

By Emily Burleigh

The local institution formerly known as Fort Polk was redesignated as Fort Johnson on June 13, 2023, in honor of Sgt. William Henry Johnson, a distinguished World War I veteran.

The renaming was mandated by the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, requiring bases with Confederate ties to change their names. Fort Polk was included in the batch of redesignated bases because it previously memorialized Confederate Gen. Leonidas Polk.

Sgt. Johnson, a Harlem Hellfighters member, fought on the front lines in 1918, showcasing immense bravery despite being wounded. The base’s redesignation recognizes his heroism and addresses the historical racial segregation that initially obscured his contributions.

After facing 21 wounds during the war, Johnson received the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest valor award.

He returned home and was celebrated during a parade in New York City. However, the instituted racial segregation and disenfranchisement in America during the first half of the 20th century caused Sgt. Johnson’s bravery to become brushed aside. His injuries affected his quality-of-life and he was unable to maintain a civilian job. He died a decade later in July of 1929.

Posthumously, he was honored with the Purple Heart (1996), the Distinguished Service Cross (2002), and the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015.

The ceremony highlighted Johnson’s family’s continued dedication to recognizing his contributions and emphasized the significance of renaming a training facility after a soldier who exemplified the warrior spirit. The redesignation aligns Fort Johnson with other bases shedding names associated with Confederate ties, symbolizing a shift toward inclusivity and recognizing the diverse contributions of individuals like Sgt. William Henry Johnson.

Fort Johnson officials called the redesignation “hugely significant” at the ceremony in June, and said they believe the decision reflected the base’s commitment to fostering the “warrior spirit” and honoring a man who exemplified courage and purpose.

Sgt. Johnson’s granddaughter, Tara Johnson, expressed satisfaction for the recognition after the redesignation ceremony.

“Now they have transcended to looking at his service, and not the color of his skin,” said Tara. “Who cannot be happy about that?”

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