A few months ago, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to a man who died in 1925. Henry Johnson had single-handedly fought off a dozen of German soldiers in the dead of night on the battlefield of World War I, but no president before 2015 had thought it right to give the man a medal. Why? It's hard to know, but might have something to do with the fact that the man was black.
I learned the story of Henry Johnson and a whole regiment of African American soldiers from Harlem, back when I was working at JAK Doc, at Lucasfilm. We were producing almost 100 documentaries as special features to accompany the release of the Young Indy Series on DVD (remember what those were?) and one of them was about “black soldiers of WWI.” I had the privilege of producing and writing that episode, and was continually amazed and dismayed during my research.
Henry Johnson was a 20-year-old porter when he joined up in 1917. Less than a year later, he and a comrade, Needham Roberts, were sent to a remote listening post in no man's land, and it was attacked in the dead of night. It was an impossibly uneven fight, and Needham was severely wounded almost immediately. Somehow, almost unbelievably, Henry Johnson managed to fight off the attackers and scare the rest away. Needham survived. Their courage earned the regiment the nickname, Harlem's Hellfighters.
France awarded the 365th the Croix de Guerre, their highest honor. It took the US a bit longer to recognize their accomplishments... like, to this year. We went to space and the internet was born before we got around to honoring a man who died before the invention of penicillin.
One of the people who we interviewed for the film is Tara Johnson, Henry Johnson's granddaughter. Tara and her father before her fought tirelessly for Henry Johnson's recognition. (In an incredibly contrary turn of events, right when the award was finally given, the military decided that Tara isn't actually a blood relative of Henry Johnson's and she wasn't allowed to receive the award. I have no idea how they made that decision but 1) birth records back then simply weren't maintained, especially for the poor, especially for the people of color. So how could they know unless they actually disinterred him? And 2) I believe completely in the strength of adopted families. So if people can adopt children, why not grandparents? I hope when I get old some young person adopts me. But I digress greatly.)
The reason I am telling this whole story, other than the fact that it needs to be known by everyone, is that I got an incredible surprise in the mail the other day. This:
Tara Johnson had sent our production team commemorative medals. I have to admit, I got choked up. I had felt like a fan, definitely cheering from the sidelines when I heard the news--an amazing story from history that has a second chapter a century later. But now, in a small way, I feel like a part of that story.
For most of the shows and films I have worked on, I have not heard much about after production ends. But some ten years later, this gift has come to me. It's a reminder of the incredible privilege I have to be able to do this work. And maybe it's even evidence that these stories live on beyond our telling, and we cannot know the waves they'll make in the world.