Elaine Massacre victim to posthumously receive Purple Heart Nov. 16  for WWI service

Research by University of Arkansas at Little Rock Professor Dr. Brian Mitchell was instrumental to the awarding of a posthumous Purple Heart to a black veteran from Pine Bluff.

The family of the late Pvt. Leroy Johnston, one of four brothers who was tragically killed during the 1919 Elaine Massacre, will accept the Purple Heart during a ceremony on Friday, Nov. 16. Johnston is being honored for severe wounds he sustained while serving in World War I. 

Hosted by the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena, the honors will take place at Beth El Heritage Hall, 406 Perry St., at 1 p.m. A reception will immediately follow the ceremony. Local, state, and federal elected officials are expected to attend. The public is also invited to come and pay tribute to this Delta-born war hero.

Family members will accept the Purple Heart on behalf of Pvt. Leroy Johnston, a native of Pine Bluff who enlisted in the military at 23 while living in New York City. In addition to the Purple Heart, Johnston will also receive the WWI Victory Medal with France’s Service Clasp and Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, and Meuse-Argonne Battle Clasps, and the WWI Victory Button.

Johnston served in Company M, 3rd Battalion, 369th Infantry, a highly decorated regiment 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.

Dr. Brian Mitchell
Dr. Brian Mitchell

As was often the case for black soldiers during that time, Johnston’s service records were intentionally altered after he sustained combat injuries. This deception was uncovered by Dr. Mitchell, a professor of history at UA Little Rock.

“Leroy was wounded twice while serving in World War I,” Mitchell explained. “His records were altered from ‘severely’ wounded to ‘slightly’ wounded. This alteration prevented him from receiving any awards for being wounded in action.”

Nevertheless, Johnston was honorably discharged from military service on July 5, 1919.

Johnston returned to the U.S. making Helena his new home. It was in the fall of that same year, he and his three brothers were killed during the Elaine Massacre, though they had nothing to do with the conflict. That September, the bodies of Johnston and his brothers were found mutilated and dumped on the side of the road.

Though Johnston was injured in the war on Sept. 26, 1918, it wasn’t until Mitchell’s in-depth investigation into the Elaine Massacre that he uncovered this tragic aspect of Johnston’s military life. Determined to right this injustice, Mitchell submitted the information to the U.S. Department of the Army requesting that Johnston be awarded the appropriate medals for his WWI service. Mitchell then contacted U.S. Rep. French Hill’s office in Little Rock for assistance. Rep. Hill and his staff members, especially Thomas McNabb, Hill’s director of military affairs, were instrumental in ensuring that Johnston finally receive his long overdue medals.

For more information about the ceremony, contact Dr. Kyle Miller, director of the Delta Cultural Center, at 870-338-4350 or kyle.miller@arkansas.gov.

The Delta Cultural Center shares the vision of all eight agencies within the Department of Arkansas Heritage—to preserve and promote Arkansas Heritage as a source of pride and satisfaction. The other divisions of the department are the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Old State House Museum, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the Arkansas Arts Council, the Natural Heritage Commission and the Arkansas State Archives.

In the upper right photos, Leroy Johnston (right) is shown with two of his brothers, Drs. D.A.E. (left) and L.H. (center) Johnston. Submitted photo.

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