Coin Design Contest: African American WWI Hero Sgt. Henry Johnson 100th - $2,000 Prizes (Black In America)

Originally appeared on Black in America

Ferris Coin Co. Offering $2,000 in Prizes, Commemorating 100th Anniversary of WWI Act of Valor

One of the nation's oldest rare coin shops is seeking artists from across the nation to design a silver coin-shaped medallion honoring African American World War I hero Sgt. Henry Johnson. 

Ferris Coin Co. of Albany, N.Y. is offering two prizes of $1,000 each to the winning designs for the obverse and reverse sides of a 1.5 in (39 mm) coin-shaped silver medallion. The deadline for submissions is April 17, 2018. 

"It is our hope that through this competition and the medallion it produces, more Americans learn the story of Sgt. Henry Johnson and his sacrifices to this nation," said Geoffrey Demis, co-owner of Ferris Coin. "With humility, we contribute to the efforts of generations who have worked tirelessly to keep Sgt. Johnson's legacy alive and to see his valor given the recognition due." 

On June 5, 1917, Albany resident Henry Johnson enlisted in the first African American unit in the U.S. Army to engage in combat in World War I. In May 1918 Johnson heroically fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, saving the life of a fellow soldier. For his bravery, Johnson received France's highest award for valor, becoming the first American to receive this distinction. Sgt. Johnson returned to Albany in 1919. Despite having been wounded 21 times, he received no honors from his home country and no pension. He died, destitute, in 1929, in his mid-30s. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. 

Sgt. Henry Johnson was finally recognized by the United States government for his service to his country when he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. In 2015 he was awarded the National Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest military honor -- by President Barack Obama. 

"The story of Sgt. Henry Johnson is both inspiring and devastating," said Jim Naughter, co-owner of Ferris Coin Co. "He was a highly decorated hero abroad, but he died destitute in his own country without receiving the full honors and support he was due in his lifetime. I imagine that contradiction might provoke a bold statement from some of the artist contestants." 


Though this contest is not affiliated with the U.S. Mint in any way, it is modeled after the mint's long-standing tradition of coin design competitions to recognize important figures and events in the nation's history. 

"What we are commissioning is not a 'coin' in the official sense, because it will not display a currency denomination," said Demis. "It will not be legal tender, but it will resemble a coin and it will be made from pure silver, which is why we're calling it a silver 'coin-shaped medallion.'" 

The obverse, or front, of the coin-shaped medallion should feature an accurate likeness of Sgt. Henry Johnson based on historical photographs in the public domain and should feature the following inscriptions: "Sgt. Henry Johnson," "Enlisted 05 JUN 1917" and "Albany, NY." The design for the reverse side of the medallion is more open to artistic expression; according to the guidelines, artists should clearly and creatively interpret concepts such as duty, honor, sacrifice or civic responsibility. Artists are further encouraged to symbolize a connection between Johnson's commitment to duty and the civic duty each of us shares today in order to inspire forward thinking about our own community involvement. 

The submission deadline is April 17. Contestants must be 18 or older to qualify. For official rules, design requirements, and answers to frequently asked questions, visit: Send questions to 

Entries will be evaluated by an expert jury composed of esteemed professional artists and a representative of the 369th Veteran's Association. No identifying information will be included in the submission materials presented to the jury. 

Five hundred silver coin-shaped medallions will be available for purchase this summer. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the 369th Veteran's Association Inc., Albany District, a 501(c)3. 


On June 5, 2018, the City of Albany will celebrate its second annual Henry Johnson Day, marked by a ceremony that includes the bestowing of the Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service. 

The new Henry Johnson coin-shaped medallion will be granted as part of the award. Through the Distinguished Community Service Award contest, members of the community nominate their peers who have made outstanding contributions to the community in the areas of arts and history, social justice, education, or community organizing. The purpose of the award is to recognize an individual who has gone above and beyond the call of duty but has not received formal recognition or public thanks for their actions. 

Ferris Coin Co. will donate 10 silver medallions to be presented to the winners of the Henry Johnson Award for the next decade. 


Ferris Coin Co. plans to premiere the silver coin-shaped Sgt. Henry Johnson medallions at its 199 Wolf Road location this June, the exact date to be determined. 

With more than 80 years of history, Ferris Coin Co. was recently purchased by Demis, a long-term employee, and partners who moved the business from Central Ave. to its fourth location on Wolf Road. 

"Until recently, our business was headquartered just a block up from Henry Johnson Blvd. in Albany," Demis said. "Commissioning this medallion and contributing it to the annual Henry Johnson Award is our way of staying in touch with our roots and giving back to the community." 


To download photos of Sgt. Henry Johnson in military uniform and of the two Henry Johnson busts in Albany, visit the following Dropbox link:


US Military website: Sgt. Henry Johnson Medal of Honor - World War I 

Henry Johnson: A Tale of Courage (Videos by WMHT) 

“Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called ‘Black Death’” (Smithsonian magazine, 2011) 

In Other Words: The Battle of Henry Johnson (Times Union, November 21, 2014) 

Henry Johnson Display, NYS Capitol Building, War Room 

Henry Johnson statue bust, Washington Park, Albany, NY
Sgt. Henry Johnson statue bust, Henry Johnson Park, Albany, NY


Trusted since 1930, Ferris Coin buys and sells gold and silver bullion, rare coins, flatware and paper currency, as well as gold and platinum jewelry for resale, repair or recycle. Four in-house experts offer appraisals for personal and estate collections, including diamonds, and can assist with getting each piece proper insured. 

In 1930, husband and wife Charlie & Arlene Ferris opened Ferris Stamp in downtown Albany, N.Y. at 402 Broadway. Later they incorporated coins into their business model as Ferris Stamp and Coin. In the 1960s, after her husband died of a heart attack, Mrs. Ferris sold the business to Wendell C. Williams who relocated the shop to Lark Street before relocating again to 114 Central Ave. in 1976. 

The business re-opened in its third location at 199 Wolf Road this August. Ferris Coin is now co-owned by Geoffrey Demis, a long-time employee, Mike Dozois and gemologist James Naughter. The newest Ferris Coin staff member is Brian Bucher, who founded Brittany Jewelers in 1987 and served as president from 1987 until selling the company this June. 


The store phone number is (518) 434-3860. Email:

For information and updates, visit or

Facebook event page for contest: 


Duncan Crary, (518) 274-2723

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