RAPID CITY, S.D. — For John L. Johnson, an almost single-handed effort to establish a public museum in Rapid City to honor U.S. Medal of Honor recipients is a labor of love — and more.
It’s a duty to remember and honor an important part of the nation’s military history he believes is being lost.
“I felt it was something that needed to be done,” Johnson said. “We simply don’t know our history.”
Johnson’s South Dakota Museum to the Medal of Honor is scheduled to open Aug. 1 at the Rushmore Mall.
Johnson, a coordinator of research, evaluation and accountability for Rapid City Area Schools, is just beginning to assemble individual plaques for the more than 3,500 men and one woman recognized for valor in combat with the nation’s highest military honor.
The Congressional Medal of Honor was first bestowed upon Union soldiers in the 1860s during the American Civil War.
The exhibits will include 4-by-6-inch photos of each recipient with their name, hometown and date of receipt, arranged in chronological order starting with the Civil War and continuing through conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is also planning special exhibits for minority recipients, as well as for the eight South Dakotans who have received the medal.
Inspiration for the museum comes from Johnson’s books, "Every Night and Every Morn: Portraits of Asian, Hispanic, Jewish, African-American and Native-American Recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor," which he first published in 2007 and updated with a second edition in 2010.
He wrote the books after conversations with African-Americans and Native Americans, some of whom believed that none of their ethnic groups had ever received the Medal of Honor.
“I knew that wasn’t true,” Johnson said.
Still, the medal's history is laced with controversy, particularly in South Dakota.
There have been calls to revoke medals received by Seventh Cavalry soldiers participating in the Dec. 29, 1890, Wounded Knee Massacre, where an estimated 300 Lakota, mostly women and children, died. Six of the 51 Lakota wounded also died.
Twenty-five soldiers were also killed. Seven of 39 wounded soldiers later died.
“Irrespective of the political side, those men, despite what they did, acted heroically,” Johnson said. “I think that needs to be considered.”
But Johnson said he welcomes debate on the revocation issue.
“There is precedent for revocation of the Medal of Honor. It has been done several times in the past, so there still may be a possibility of that. I doubt it, but it could happen,” he said. “I think we should have those kinds of questions, for sure.”
His museum will include seating areas for reflection and contemplation. He hopes to invite school groups and veterans organizations to visit and support the museum, which is Johnson’s second venture in the mall.
Late in April, he opened Trader’s Market, a weekend bazaar for local artisans and entrepreneurs, located in the Sears store anchoring the east end of the mall.
The museum will be in space formerly occupied by national women’s clothing retailer Charlotte Russe, which closed all of its more than 500 stores earlier this year.
Admission will be free, he said. He plans to use outside fundraising, proceeds from Trader’s Market and individual donations to sustain the museum, which he will build by himself inside the 6,725-square-foot space.
“I plan to use my own hands, my own time and most of my own money,” he said. “It’s a personal project.”
Rushmore Mall Manager Deb Peter said the museum will be a welcome addition to the mall.
“We knew that the South Dakota Museum of the Medal of Honor is a rare opportunity, and we fully embrace this project,” Peter said.
Johnson said the mall is an ideal location for his museum.
“I think it’s a beautiful place. It draws people and it will reach the people that I want to reach, regular people who want to know more about the history,” he said. “I just know this is going to be a big hit with the people of South Dakota.”
For more information on the museum, visit sdmmoh.org.