Albert Sidney Johnson (1880 – 1947) was born in Lexington Virginia, the eldest of five children. Both of his parents had been born into slavery. His father, James, worked as a cook at the Virginia Military Institute; while his mother, Emma, worked as a housekeeper at Washington College. Al attended primary school for only four years before leaving school to help with family chores. After he left, his mother taught him to read. Every evening, young Al would read the Bible out loud to her and if he made a mistake, she would say, “Albert, that just doesn’t sound right, read it again.”
Al went to work in a coal mine at fourteen. Then at seventeen he signed on as a merchant seaman. Before long, Al joined the US Navy, where he served as a ship’s stoker, keeping the giant coal-fired steam engine humming. While in the Navy, he saw service in the waning days of the Spanish-American War, as well as in the Philippine War for Independence. He was honorably discharged after four years. Al, a self-educated man determined to learn whatever he could wherever he found himself, often said that the world was his classroom. During his time at sea, he visited nearly every country in the world except Australia, which wouldn’t allow the black sailors to leave their ship when it docked.
In 1908, after traveling and working his way back and forth across America, Al settled down in Harlem, where he landed a job as a waiter on the People’s Nightline Steamer, which plied the Hudson River between New York City and Albany, carrying passengers and freight. The pay wasn’t much and he was laid-off every year from January through mid-March, when the river froze over and the ferry stopped running, but the tips and free meals made it worth his while. One fateful morning, Al first glimpsed the beautiful young woman who was to become the love of his life. She was traveling with her sister Jennie on the Nightline from Albany to New York and came into the ship’s elegant dining room to have breakfast. She ordered tea and toast and left Al a generous ten cents tip. Her name was Evelyn Pierce Ashton, but everyone called her Evie. She worked upstate and was traveling to her family home in Brooklyn. Evie, a recent high school graduate, was refined and cultured, as well as an excellent seamstress.
After a short courtship, Al and Evie got married. She was eighteen, and he was eleven years her senior. They moved to Albany where Al got a stoker’s job at the New York State Capital. A year later, their first child (and my father) Albert Sidney Johnson, Jr. was born. They were in love and happy. Al worked very hard to provide for his wife and child; and Evie worked hard to remain beautiful and mysterious in his eyes, always primping and dressing up nicely before he came home from work. There was only one fly in the ointment. Al expected a hearty meal when he came home, but the only edible dishes that Evie could make were stewed tomatoes, boiled potatoes, bread pudding and cake. Finally after much back and forth, a solution was reached. Al, who had learned to cook from his father James, got up early Sunday mornings and cooked a big pot of stewed beef, chicken or pork with lots of vegetables and potatoes. They would eat from this pot until it ran out, usually on Thursdays, and then go back to eating Evie’s stewed tomatoes, boiled potatoes, and bread pudding. After this compromised was reached, life went smoothly.
Two years after WWI started, Al, who was now thirty-seven years old, decided to enlist in a new unit being formed expressly for colored men, Harlem’s 369th Regiment. Captain Fillmore, who had lobbied for the formation of this all-Black unit, had visited Albany and other locations to recruit eligible men. Notables such as James Reese Europe, the eagerly sought-after society band leader (whose unit band would go on to great fame introducing jazz to Europe), had already enlisted. Al told Evie that he was getting too old to continue in his stoker’s job much longer, shoveling tons of coal and ash every day, and that if he survived the war the government would have to give him a better job. If he did not, his benefits would take care of her and their three kids. Evie protested tearfully but Al was determined.
In May 1917, Al led a group of Albany recruits down to Peekskill, where they enlisted. They were sent to a base near Spartanburg, South Carolina for training but some of the men nearly got lynched when they went into town, so the training was cut short. A few months later, on Dec. 12, 1917, they boarded ship and set sail for Europe. When they reached France, Gen. Pershing refused to allow colored soldiers to fight on the American side. But the French, whose army had almost been decimated, welcomed them. So the 369th Regiment was assigned to fight under French Army command. Al had been promoted to sergeant and he tried his best to keep his men alive. The 369th Regiment was the shock troops that ‘softened up’ the Germans before the French army attacked. They fought bravely, enduring 191 unbroken days of combat, and earned the nickname “Harlem Hell-fighters” from the French. The German army acknowledged their ferocity on the battlefield by sending propaganda messages inviting the colored soldiers to come over to the German side because America was a racist country. Though casualties were high, none of the 369th troops was ever captured. After the armistice was signed, the regiment was awarded the highest military honor of the French government, the Croix de Guerre.
The regiment returned to the United States in February 1919 and was honored with a victory parade in New York City. As huge crowds, both black and white, lined Fifth Avenue, Al proudly marched with his regiment from downtown Manhattan into Harlem to the music of the famous regimental jazz bandleader, Lieutenant James Europe. A few days later, after being discharged from the army, he returned to Albany. Evie had held down the fort admirably; she and the children were doing well and overjoyed to see their hero. The very next week, Al walked up the steps of the State Capital to see Governor Al Smith. He was shown into the governor’s office and given a warm welcome, as well as a new appointment, as Governor’s Messenger. The salary and conditions were much better, he had more time off and he wore a suit to work; a far cry from the stifling heat of the stoker room. Al worked for the governor’s office for twenty years, serving four different governors, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. On August 28, 1931, when Al was sick in the hospital, Gov. Roosevelt wrote him a letter, saying in part:
My dear Sergeant Al:
Just a note of good wishes and to assure you that we are giving you at least an occasional thought, even in the midst of the Extraordinary Session. … We have a keener appreciation of your value about the office since we have learned what it is to get along without you.
All join in sending warmest personal regards.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Six years after his return from the war, Al, Evie and their five children moved into their own two-family home in Albany, where Al planted a lovely rose garden in the backyard which became his special place. The family prospered and Evie was the first woman on the block to have an electric washing machine. In the ensuing years, Al became more active in the community, devoting his time to raising funds for the Boy Scouts and working with organizations such as the Knights of Pythias, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Albany Interracial Council. He also continued his practice of cooking Sunday mornings and Evie continued her custom of looking beautiful in his eyes.
About the author: Rudean Leinaeng, a retired CUNY professor, is currently writing a book on her family history. This excerpt is from her work-in-progress.