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Leroy Alfred Johnston

Pine Bluff native and World War I veteran, Leroy Alfred Johnston, was a member of the Harlem Hell Fighters military band that introduced jazz to Europe during the war. He also posthumously received the Purple Heart because his military record was deliberately altered.

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Johnston brothers in a newspaper article.

Leroy Alfred Johnston was born on April 2, 1893 or 1894, to Reverend Lewis Johnston Jr. and school teacher Mercy Ann Taborn Johnston in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. There is some uncertainty about the year he was born because the 1900 census lists his date of birth as April 1893, while his military records list his date of birth as April 2, 1894. The Johnston’s were a prominent African American family in Jefferson County. Johnston’s father served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War and was the first African American minister ordained in the Covenanter Church. In 1886, his parents founded the Richard Allen Institute, one of the first Presbyterian schools for African American students in Arkansas. Johnston had five siblings.

On November 9, 1917, Johnston enlisted in the National Guard in New York City. In late 1917, he was shipped to France after completing basic military training at Camp Whitman in New York and combat training at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina. During World War I, he served with New York’s Fifteenth National Guard, later renamed 369th Infantry Regiment. 

On April 8, 1918, the 369th Infantry was assigned to the French Army. Though they wore green United States uniforms, their weapons and supplies were issued by the French. They were one of the first African American regiments to engage in combat. They suffered some of the highest casualties in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and spent 191 days under fire. The German soldiers soon renamed them the Harlem Hell Fighters because of their fierceness and resilience in battle. Johnston also played the bugle in Company M, Third Battalion, of the 369th Infantry. The Harlem Hell Fighters military band became famous for introducing jazz to Europe.

In July 1918, Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Chateau-Thierry. On September 26, 1918, he was so severely wounded during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that he had to crawl back to an aid station on his hands and knees. His wounds also meant that he was unable to come back to the United States with his regiment. Johnston was one of the 171 members of the 369th Infantry Regiment who were awarded the Croix de Guerre (Legion of Honor) medal by France. 

On June 27, 1919, Johnston returned to New York from Marseille, France. In July 1919, he was honorably discharged from the National Guard. On August 8, 1919, he returned to Phillips County, Arkansas.

In September 1919, African Americans began organizing against peonage and abuse in tenant farming. Approximately 100 African American farmers met with representatives of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to discuss unionizing. A group of white men interrupted the meeting, one white man was wounded, while another was killed. The sheriff organized a posse of white men to arrest those suspected of being involved in the shootings. A mob of about 500 to 1,000 armed white people stormed through Phillips County, killing African American men, women, and children indiscriminately on sight. 

On October 2, 1919, Johnston was returning from a squirrel hunting trip with his brothers, Dr. D.A.E. Johnston, Allen Johnston, and Dr. L.H. Johnston when they were arrested in Elaine, Arkansas. Accounts about what happened next vary. Johnston and his brothers were shot by posse members and dumped on the side of the road. Johnston and his three older brothers were killed during what later became known as the Elaine Massacre.

Black newspapers including Crisis and Tulsa World, reported that the bodies of the Johnston brothers were held for ransom until their mother paid the coroner the bounty on her son’s bodies. According to the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, the Arkansas Democrat, and the Arkansas Gazette, their bodies were brought back to their childhood home in Pine Bluff for their funeral and burial. According to Brian Mitchell, a University of Arkansas Little Rock professor who researched the Elaine massacre, Johnston’s mother wanted her sons to be buried near their father. She buried them in one grave so that they could be as close in death as they were in life. 

On November 16, 2018, Johnston’s family received his Purple Heart, his World War I Victory Medal with France’s Service Clasp, Champagne-Marne Clasp, Aisne-Marne Clasp, and Meuse-Argonne Battle Clasp, and his World War I Victory Button. Mitchell’s research of the Elaine Massacre, in preparation for its 2019 centennial commemoration, unearthed the injustice committed against Johnston by the U.S. National Guard. Johnston was initially denied any of the United States-issued military commendations for being wounded in action because his service records were altered. His “severely” wounded classification was typed over and changed to “slightly” wounded.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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