Thanks to research by UA-Little Rock history professor Dr. Brian MItchell, the World War I heroism of a black man who was a victim of the Elaine massacre will be recognized this month.
Here’s a full account from UA-Little Rock of the story of Leroy Johnston.
“Leroy was wounded twice while serving in World War I,” Mitchell said. “His wounds required a long time of convalescence. His records were intentionally altered from ‘severely’ wounded to ‘slightly’ wounded. This impeded him from receiving any awards for being wounded in action. I thought this was a tragedy.”
Mitchell uncovered this tragic aspect of Johnston’s life while investigating the Elaine Massacre in preparation for its centennial commemoration in 2019.
The Elaine Massacre is remembered as one of the deadliest racial conflicts in the country. In September 1919, 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 interrupted the meeting, two white men were shot. The sheriff organized a posse, comprised largely of white veterans, who like Johnston, had recently returned from the war. A mob of an estimated 500 to 1,000 white people stormed through Phillips County, killing black men, women, and children on sight. Johnston and his three older brothers were killed during the Elaine Massacre.
Mitchell gathered records on Johnston’s Army service and injuries. He worked with Thomas McNabb, director of veterans affairs for U.S. Rep. French Hill, to clear the way for recognition of Johnston. He is to receive a Purple Heart with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for wounds in action Sept. 26,
Johnston was a private in the U.S. Army. At 23, he joined on Nov. 9, 1917, in New York City. He served in Company M, 3rd Battalion, 369th Infantry, which was also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Johnston went overseas in December 1917 and was honorably discharged on July 5, 1919. He was wounded and gassed in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry. He also served as a bugler. The Harlem Hellfighters military band became quite famous for introducing jazz to Europe.
Mitchell’s research showed that Johnston’s service records had been altered.
Mitchell was discharged in July 1919. In September, the massacre occurred.
The Johnstons were a prominent black family in Jefferson County. Their father, 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 four brothers had been out squirrel hunting when tragedy struck.
“What’s sad is that they had nothing to do with the riot. If they had just stayed in the woods for another day, maybe they could have evaded the calamity that pursues,” Mitchell said. “They hop on the train to Helena, and the train is stopped by one of the posses. The posse puts them in the back of a car handcuffed and takes them away. The narrative is that the brothers were all in the car of a well-known politician and business owner. 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.”
The mother of the Johnston brothers encountered yet another miscarriage of justice when she retrieved their bodies.
“According to her story, the mother had to pay a bounty on the bodies 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.”
Mitchell continues a search for the graves.