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John L. Johnson holds one of the more than 3,500 plaques he originally planned to make to commemorate all recipients of the Medal of Honor for display at his South Dakota Museum of the Medal of Honor in Rapid City. Jim Holland / Rapid City Journal

After receiving threats, South Dakota man decides not to open Medal Of Honor museum

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Amid a storm of protest, including threats to his personal well-being, John L. Johnson of Rapid City is scrapping plans to open a museum honoring recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, which had been slated for Aug. 1 at the Rushmore Mall.

Instead, Johnson said Tuesday he plans to open an art gallery for Native American artists on that date in the same space planned for the museum.

Controversy quickly turned into a social media firestorm over Johnson’s comments in a previous story about the proposed museum, specifically referring to efforts to rescind medals given to U.S. cavalry soldiers for the Dec. 28, 1890, massacre at Wounded Knee where an estimated 300 Lakota, mostly women, children and elders, were killed.

The storm erupted after Johnson said in an interview that in spite of the political side of the massacre, many of the soldiers who went on to receive the medal acted heroically.

But Johnson, who also said in the interview that he welcomed discussion of the medal revocation issue, said he has since received hate mail and even death threats and heard of plans for meetings and protests focusing on the museum.

He said both he and mall officials were upset by the backlash and after advice from many people on all sides of the issue, he decided to pull the plug on the museum.

“That’s what I’ve decided to do,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to move forward on the museum project.”

O.J. Semans of Mission, part of the fight to get all 20 Wounded Knee medals rescinded, said he was glad to hear of Johnson’s decision.

“I guess I would say 'thank you,'” Semans said. “Those medals were awarded for the mass massacre of women and children.”

Johnson said he conceived the museum with the best of intentions, based on a book he has written spotlighting the stories of minority recipients of the medal, first handed out during the American Civil War in the 1860s.

The book, titled "Every Night and Every Morn: Portraits of Asian, Hispanic, Jewish, African-American, and Native-American Recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor," was published in 2007 and updated with a second edition in 2010.

Johnson, who is African-American and had worked for Oglala Lakota College as director of assessment for two years, had planned special displays for minority medal recipients in the museum.

Semans said putting a museum honoring Medal of Honor recipients in Rapid City was a slap in the face to the Native American community amid the effort to strip the medals from the soldiers involved in the massacre.

“As long as those medals exist, the same thought process is going to be held by individuals that don’t know,” Semans said. “That’s why I had an issue with them having those medals in that museum.”

Johnson said he understands the strong feelings.

“They did make a point and just to avoid any more divisions in our society, to avoid any more controversy and to pay respect to those people, I have dropped the museum project,” he said.