Buffalo Soldiers hanged after 1917 race riot should be pardoned, advocates say
By MITCH MITCHELL | Fort Worth Star-Telegram | Published: November 19, 2018
FORT WORTH, Texas (Tribune News Service) — In 1917, 118 black soldiers were charged with murder, mutiny, aggravated assault and disobeying orders after a race riot in Houston. Nineteen of the soldiers were eventually hanged.
More than 100 years later, Priscilla Graham, a Houston author and historian, is among those seeking to have all the soldiers pardoned on the basis that their arrests and trials were unjust.
Graham has written to President Trump and before him President Obama asking for the pardons but has yet to receive a reply from the White House.
Actor James McEachin, the author of a fictionalized account of the trial of the soldiers titled, “Farewell to the Mockingbirds,” said he has tried to bring attention to the injustices that followed the riot and is also pushing the government to pardon those who were executed.
McEachin and Kyev Tatum, pastor of New Mount Rose Baptist Church in Fort Worth, were in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 10 and Nov. 11, lobbying for the pardons during the Centennial Commemoration of Veteran’s Day.
McEachin served in the 24th Infantry Regiment, the same Army unit in which the executed men served. They are known as Buffalo Soldiers. McEachin said he cannot let go of what he believes is a calling to right a wrong.
“I’ve tried my darnedest to get this story out,” McEachin said. “Getting this pardon will not be an easy fight. I’m kind of ashamed of myself. I should have started this movement a long time ago.”
The Aug. 23, 1917, race riot resulted in the deaths of at least 15 whites and four black soldiers and the subsequent jailing of more than 100 others. It was triggered by the rough arrest of a black woman.
The riot, also referred to as the Camp Logan Mutiny, is believed to be the only racial insurrection in the United States in which the white death toll exceeded the number of blacks who died. The largest court-martial in U.S. history followed the unrest, historians say.
Graham says the investigation that preceded the trial and the trial itself were shams, tainted with the same Jim Crow attitudes that triggered the unrest. For example, soldiers who didn’t sign the duty roll, missed roll call or were found to be off base during the night of the riots were presumed to be rioting and summarily arrested, according to Graham and other historians.
“There was no investigation,” Graham said. “Some of those who were found guilty probably were. But there was no way to tell which people actually fired the bullets that killed the people who died. There were soldiers who were hung who maintained until the end that they were not involved in the riot.”
Soldiers wrote letters home to their parents and friends, saying they had been sentenced to hang and vowed that they were not involved, Graham said. But it didn’t matter, she said.
“A lot of the soldiers just got caught up because of the color of their skin and because they weren’t accounted for,” Graham said. “You can’t just look at the testimony and you can’t believe the newspaper accounts. You have to look beyond those.”
1 lawyer for 118 defendants
The defense attorney who represented the soldiers at the courts-martial, Maj. Harry S. Grier, taught law at the U.S. Military Academy but had no trial experience and was not a lawyer, Graham and other historians say. The black soldiers were charged with murder and mutiny and faced a punishment up to death.
Three separate courts-martial were held, and Grier had two weeks to prepare for the initial proceeding on Nov. 1, 1917, Graham has written.
“One lawyer presented the cases for 118 soldiers,” Graham said.
She said the convictions were based on the testimony of the white officers, white civilians and seven soldiers who received immunity from prosecution because they agreed to testify against their fellow troops.
Graham said that when there was contradictory testimony, such as other soldiers testifying that an accused soldier was nowhere near the rioting, the court chose to believe the testimony that incriminated the black soldiers.
“You’ve got to understand racism was strong during this time and was the driving force behind this whole incident,” she said.
The initial execution of 13 men was carried out on Dec. 11, 1917 — at dawn, without public notice and without any opportunity to appeal the verdict, the actor McEachin said.
The U.S. Army created a rule on Jan. 17, 1918, that no enlisted personnel could be executed without first having the trial records examined by a judge advocate general, according to military records.
The army executed six additional Buffalo Soldiers in connection with the riots after the new judicial review process was established. Ten soldiers who were sentenced to death during two courts-martial had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by President Woodrow Wilson.
“They did not care whether the men were guilty or not guilty,” Graham said. “The only thing they cared about was public opinion.”
How the riot happened
The Buffalo Soldiers sprang from all-black regiments that were created during the Civil War. Some of the black soldiers had served in the Philippines, in Cuba and during the Spanish-American War, and regarded themselves as combat troops.
In the summer of 1917, about 650 Buffalo Soldiers and their white officers from the Third Batallion, 24th Infantry Regiment were assigned to guard Camp Logan, a training facility being constructed in Houston near the entrance to the current Memorial Park, just west of the city center in the Fourth Ward.
The assignment put the black soldiers in direct and often conflict-laden contact with white civilians and police officers, historians say.
On Aug. 23, 1917, two white Houston patrol officers chasing a gambling suspect barged into a Fourth Ward home and arrested a black woman they accused of hiding the suspect, according to multiple accounts.
The scantily clad woman screamed after being hit in the face and was hauled from her home by patrolmen Lee Sparks and Rufus Daniels, historians say. The commotion attracted a crowd and the attention of Alonzo Edwards, a soldier in the 24th Infantry who happened to be passing by, according to the accounts.
After Edwards inquired about the screaming woman, he was beaten and arrested, with Sparks referring to him using a racial slur and saying that he beat him “until his heart got right.”
Cpl. Charles Baltimore, a military policeman with the 24th Infantry who saw the beating inflicted on Edwards, inquired about his arrest and was told by Sparks that he was not in the habit of making reports to black people and hit him, Graham wrote. Then Baltimore was fired on three times as he ran from his assailants, Graham wrote. The police officers tracked him down, beat him, and then arrested him, Graham wrote.
Although he was subsequently released, a rumor circulated on base that he had been killed. According to some historians, even an appearance by Baltimore before some of the troops could not quell their anger.
The white officers of the 24th Regiment ordered that the weapons and ammunition on the base be taken up, but there was a rumor that a white mob was approaching the encampment, and the officers lost control of their troops, according to historian Robert Haynes and others. The mob never materialized, but black troops began firing at suspected attackers in the woods, and then loosely organized to march downtown.
A group of about 100 armed soldiers, believing that they were under siege and that their lives were in danger, began the two-mile trek into downtown Houston.
During the march and subsequent riot, the soldiers killed 15 white people, including four policemen, and seriously wounded 12 others, one of whom, a policeman, subsequently died, according to Haynes. Four black soldiers also died, one under uncertain circumstances. After the melee, the black soldiers slipped back into camp in the dark, Haynes wrote.
By Aug. 25, the Buffalo Soldiers were on two trains to Camp Furlong in Columbus, N.M. While on the train, seven soldiers agreed to testify against the others in exchange for clemency, the Texas State Historical Association Online Handbook said.
Once there, 118 of them were arrested by military officials and sent to the stockade at nearby Fort Bliss in El Paso to begin their wait for court-martial.
Two white officers each faced court-martial, but they were released, Graham wrote. No white civilians were brought to trial.
Called to right these wrongs
Tatum, the Fort Worth pastor, has toured Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and visited the places where the executed men were tried and buried. He said he has partnered with the Bexar County Buffalo Soldiers Association to erect a plaque or a monument that will honor the sacrifice of the men who died.
“We’ve long been aware of this history,” said Billy Gordon, Bexar County Buffalo Soldiers Association president. “We are seeking justice and pardons for all of those who were found guilty because of the way it was handled.”
Tatum said that white people in Houston at the time, particularly the police, were concerned that if black soldiers were treated with dignity, black residents would expect the same treatment.
“Not only was this a state-sponsored lynching, afterward there was a continuation of state-sponsored discrimination,” Tatum said. “The Army did not want black soldiers to carry guns and fight like men. And it took a long time for that attitude to change.”
Angela Holder said she first heard about the riot and those who were executed at the home of her great aunt, where a photograph of her great uncle Jesse Moore, one of those men who was executed, hangs on the wall.
Moore was 27 when he died, Holder said. He never married and never had any children. It took nearly a century to discover where his body was buried, said Holder, a history professor at Houston Community College. Holder admitted some information about the riot is missing.
“I’ve been on this mission since I was 6 years old,” Holder said. “This is not one of the shining moments in our history but for better or worse this is one of the moments that make us who we are. I’m on a journey to find out more about this.”
Holder is curator of an ongoing exhibit on the Camp Logan Mutiny at Houston’s Buffalo Soldier National Museum.
Presidents Wilson and Warren Harding commuted and granted clemency to those soldiers who remained alive after the courts-martial. The last prisoner was freed from prison in 1938, but their names were never cleared, Graham said.
“Several presidents have had an opportunity to get this done but it has not gone through,” Graham said. “One hundred years have passed. It would have been great if Obama would have done this, but now, I believe the best chance of getting this through is Trump.”
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