In 1986, African-American military historian Leroy Ramsey contacted me when I was a member of Congress and raised the disturbing fact that, of the 549 Medals of Honor (our nation’s highest military honor) awarded during World Wars I and II, none had been awarded to the 1,550,000 black soldiers who had served in racially segregated divisions of our nation’s Armed Forces.
Dr. Ramsey’s meticulous research concluded that World War I Pvt. Henry Johnson of Albany, New York, was a decorated war hero (serving in France with the Black 369th Infantry Regiment called the Harlem Hellfighters), and should have received the Medal of Honor, as originally recommended by his commanding officer. (Sadly, Johnson died in 1929, a decade after his military service, homeless and penniless on the streets of Washington, while looking for a pension.)
In order to make the effort bipartisan, I persuaded Texas Rep. Mickey Leland, a Democrat and the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, to join me in supporting Ramsey’s long campaign for racial justice in the Armed Forces. And while Leland agreed to help, he added Petty Officer 3rd Class Dorie Miller from Texas, who served in World War II, to our quest to open the statute of limitations in order to obtain Medals of Honor for both men. (Leland died tragically in 1989 on a Congressional humanitarian mission to Ethiopia, and I continued what would become a 30-year mission to obtain Medals of Honor for African-American war heroes.)
Leland and I pushed for an independent study that was eventually authorized by the Defense Department, through a grant to Shaw University in North Carolina, to determine why dozens of African- American soldiers who were recommended for Medals of Honor did not receive them. Before the study formally commenced, the Army stumbled upon a “misplaced file” that showed that Cpl. Freddie Stowers of South Carolina had been recommended for the Medal of Honor for his heroism in World War I, but since the file showed that no action had been taken to deny the medal, it was not legally necessary to open the statute of limitations. Accordingly, the Defense Department revived the Stowers case in November 1990.
On April 24, 1991, with Defense Department support, President George H. W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to the two surviving sisters of Cpl. Stowers, with Ramsey and I present at the ceremony in the White House. (Stowers thus became the first black soldier from either World War to be awarded the Medal of Honor.)
Since 1991, eight more African American soldiers from World Wars I and II have been awarded the Medal of Honor, including Pvt. Johnson, who was awarded the Medal posthumously by President Barack Obama on June 2, 2015. While this was again the result of my continuing effort for military and racial justice, this time my friend and New York colleague Sen. Charles E. Schumer did the immense research needed to resubmit Johnson’s case for the medal, and he and I attended the White House ceremony last June.
It is now one year short of a century that both Johnson and Stowers enlisted in the racially segregated U.S. Army. America should not allow another Memorial Day to pass by without honoring their now proven and recognized heroic military service, along with the seven African American heroes from World War II who were awarded Medals of Honor in 1997 by President Bill Clinton as a result of the Shaw University study.
I am still working on the case of Petty Officer Miller, not only to correct a historic injustice, but also to memorialize the work of my late colleague Mickey Leland. I hope that members of Congress and the Defense Department will support this cause. We should not forget the words sometimes attributed to Pericles, a great military leader (circa 450 BCE) who said at a funeral for a fallen military hero, “Shame on the nation that has no military heroes, but much more shame on the nation that has heroes and does not honor them.”