This post has been updated to reflect reports of vandalism.
Vandals damaged a historic marker at Camp Logan, Tex., which was recently rededicated to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Houston Riot of 1917. The rampage was one of the only riots in U.S. history in which more white people were killed than black people.
Workers found the vandalized sign last week during the recovery and cleanup efforts after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. Someone had smeared dark red paint on the segment of the inscription that explained the history of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry — a unit of the famed Buffalo Soldiers — which had been assigned in 1917 to guard the camp during its construction shortly after the United States entered World War I.
Red paint marred the words: “The Black Soldiers’ August 23, 1917, armed revolt in response to Houston’s Jim Crow Laws and police harassment resulted in the camps most publicized incident, the ‘Houston Mutiny and Riot of 1917.’ ”
Debra Blacklock-Sloan, a member of the Texas State Historical Association, said she was disturbed by the vandalism.
“Obviously the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the welfare of my fellow residents affected from it takes priority over the vandalism of the Camp Logan marker,” said Blacklock-Sloan, who is a member of the Harris County Historical Commission. “However, I was shocked and angry when I heard about the vandalism especially after driving to inspect it.”
The Camp Logan marker, which is part of the Texas Historical Commission’s marker program, differs from monuments in that it is an educational tool. Blacklock-Sloan, who is a historian, preservationist genealogist, native Houstonian and sixth-generation Texan, said markers “are not erected to offend anyone.”
Before Hurricane Harvey hit, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum had scheduled a week of activities commemorating the anniversary of the mutiny. Many of events were canceled because of the storm.
The events leading to the infamous Houston Riot began Aug. 23, 1917, when white Houston police officers burst into the home of a black woman, assaulting her and pulling her — dressed only in her nightgown — into the street, as her five children watched.
When a black soldier — Alonso Edwards of the 24th Infantry Regiment — came to the woman’s rescue, a white police officer pistol-whipped him and then arrested him, according to Col. Frederic Borch III, the regimental historian for the JAG Corps.
Cpl. Charles Baltimore of the 24th Infantry Regiment went to the police station to check on the arrest of Edwards. While there, Baltimore — one of the most respected soldiers in the regiment — was beaten by police, shot and finally arrested for bucking “police authority.” He was later released.
But by then, false reports had reached the camp that Baltimore had been killed. That’s when 156 black soldiers of the 3rd Battalion took up rifles, defying orders to stay in the base, and marched to Houston to challenge police about brutality and racism.
Their commander, Maj. Kneeland S. Snow, ordered them to stand down and remain at the camp. But more than 100 men defied orders.
When they reached Houston, the black soldiers fought police and local residents in gun battles before returning to camp. The next day, martial law was declared in Houston. The black soldiers were sent to New Mexico.
The “Houston Riot of 1917” would result in the largest murder trial in U.S. history. Sixty-three black soldiers were all represented by Maj. Harry S. Grier, who taught law at the U.S. Military Academy but was not a lawyer and had no trial experience. The black soldiers were charged with disobeying orders, mutiny, murder and aggravated assault. The soldiers all pleaded not guilty. One hundred sixty-nine witnesses testified for the prosecution in the court-martial. None of the testimony was irrefutable.
On Nov. 28, 1917, 13 soldiers were convicted and sentenced to be hung. Forty-one men were given life sentences. Five were acquitted.
On Dec. 11, 1917, the 13 men were summarily hung — one by one.
“The doomed men were taken off the trucks, not one making the slightest attempt to resist. They were shivering a little, but I think this was due more to the cold rather than fear,” a white soldier from Company C, 19th Infantry, later wrote. “The unlucky thirteen were lined up. The conductors took their places and the men for the last time heard the command, ‘March.’ Thirteen ropes dangled from the crossbeam of the scaffold, a chair in front of ever rope, six on one side, seven on the other. As the ropes were being fastened about the mens’ necks, big [Pvt. Frank] Johnson’s voice suddenly broke into a hymn, ‘Lord, I’m comin’ home.’ And the others joined him. The eyes of even the hardest of us were wet.’ ”
One hundred years later, the descendants of three of the hanged men — William Nesbit, Thomas Coleman Hawkins and Jesse Ball Moore — have petitioned the U.S. government for posthumous pardons, arguing they “suffered grave injustices at the hands of the United States when they were executed by hanging after a defective trial by court-martial.”
The petitions were filed with the Justice Department in October 2016, near the end of President Barack Obama’s second term. In March, officials responded that the Justice Department does not handle posthumous pardons. The petitions were sent to the Trump White House earlier this year. The families are still awaiting a response.
“It’s important for them to be pardoned because they did not get due process in the beginning,” said Angela Holder, the great niece of Jesse Ball Moore and a history professor at Houston Community College. “They should have been allowed to petition for clemency.”
Borch, the regimental historian for the JAG Corps, suggested Holder and other descendants seek the pardon.
“No black soldier was going to get a break in the Jim Crow Army of 1917,” said Borch, who was the first prosecutor of terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and is now a retired colonel. “Were they guilty? Some were. Were some also innocent? Highly likely. But you can’t discern the truth and get a fair trial when you have one defense counsel representing 63 defendants.”
“While everything about the court-martial was legal,” Borch said, “it was not fair. Not a fair trial then. Certainly, not a fair trial now.”
A rampage sparked by violence
The 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry Regiment — a unit of the famed Buffalo Soldiers — had been deployed from New Mexico to Texas to guard construction at Camp Logan, a base being built shortly after the United States entered World War I.
In Houston, the sight of black men wearing uniforms and carrying guns incensed white residents. The soldiers were angered by the “Whites Only” signs in Houston and streetcar conductors demanding they sit in the rear. They hated being called the n-word by white Houstonians.
“The soldiers’ intent was to kill the policeman who had beaten their fellow soldiers — and as many other policemen as they could locate,” wrote JAG historian Borch in an “Army Lawyer” article.
When the soldiers reached the city, the black soldiers fought Houston police and local citizens in gun battles. Five white police officers were among those killed. The next day, martial law was declared in Houston.
The rampage in Texas came on the heels of the horrific 1917 East St. Louis riots, in which as many as 200 black people were killed in Illinois. Afterward, more than 10,000 black people marched silently down Fifth Avenue in New York City to protest the lynchings and racial oppression that were rampant in the country.
The hangings of the black soldiers — without a chance for appeal — provoked outrage around the country. The New York chapter of the NAACP petitioned President Woodrow Wilson for clemency.
Then-acting judge advocate Gen. Brig. Gen Samuel T. Ansell was livid, writing: “The men were executed immediately upon the termination of the trial and before their records would be forwarded to Washington or examined by anybody, and without, so far as I can see, anyone of them having time or opportunity to seek clemency from the source of clemency, if he had been so advised.”
In the aftermath, the War Department issued a ruling that “all death sentences be suspended until the President of the United States could review all records.” Wilson would eventually commute the sentences of 10 black soldiers. And the military reformed the court-martial process, establishing an appeals court.
“The silver lining in this tragedy is that some Army lawyers realized that courts-martial had to be more like courts — there had to be some sort of appellate process where an accused could have his conviction reviewed for legal sufficiency,” Borch said. “As a result of the Houston riots courts-martial, the Army recognized that the lack of an appellate structure was not fair. So it created boards of review that began doing legal reviews of serious cases. This was the beginning of the ‘judicialization’ of courts-martial that continued for the next 75 years.”
A package arrived at Moore’s mother’s house after he was hanged “with a coat, a dollar and a letter,” Holder said. “My great uncle told his mother, ‘By the time you get this letter, I will be in glory.’ ”
Holder recalled hearing the story for the first time when she was a child, playing at her great aunt’s house in Baton Rouge In the house was a photo of Moore.
“I was a little girl of 6 years old, playing at my aunt’s house. One day this picture caught my attention. I said, ‘Who is that?’ She said, ‘It’s my brother.’ She told me he was killed by the Army, but they did not know where he was buried.”
On Wednesday, Holder and other descendants of the black soldiers who were hanged in 1917 returned to Houston for a tombstone dedication ceremony.
It was a recognition long overdue, Holder said. They spent 100 years “without a tombstone,” she said.
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