By: Rachel Thompson
The Houston Riot of 1917, which occurred on August 23rd has maintained lasting repercussions on race relations between the Houston Police Department and Black Houstonians for over 100 year. Depending on who tells the story, the heroes and villains change. In 1917, the heroes were the ve White Houston police officers who died in the line of duty that day. The riot was sparked by the arrest of a Black soldier for interfering with the arrest of a Black woman in the Forth Ward. Recently the US Army set aside the court-martial convictions from over a century ago of 110 African American soldiers, including 19 who were executed, saying they were denied fair trials in a landmark acknowledgement of oofficial racism in America. The Army Board for Correction of Military Records overturned the convictions, restoring their service records as having concluded honorably and making their descendants eligible for military bene ts. The historic change comes after the Army received petitions from retired general officers and the South Texas College of Law, requesting a review of the court’s decision and clemency for the 110 soldiers. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth directed a board in charge of military record corrections to review each of the cases. e board determined the court proceedings to be “fundamentally unfair,” and unanimously recommended that all convictions be set aside and that the soldiers’ military service be re-characterized as honorable.
“After a thorough review, the Board found that these soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials. By setting aside their convictions and granting honorable discharges, the Army is acknowledging past mistakes and setting the record straight,” Army Secretary Wormuth said in a statement. According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), in the spring of 1917 the War Department ordered two military installations to be built in Harris County—Camp Logan, which later became Memorial Park, and Ellington Field. The Illinois National Guard was to train at Camp Logan, located on the northwest outskirts of the city. To guard the construction site, on July 27, 1917, the army ordered the ird Battalion of the Black Twenty-fourth United States Infantry to travel by train with seven White officers from the regimental encampment at Columbus, New Mexico, to Houston. e 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment was one of four regiments of all Black servicemen also known as “Bu alo Soldiers”, a nickname dating back to the 1860s. From the outset, the Black contingent faced racial discrimination when they received passes to go into the city. A majority of the men had been raised in the South and were familiar with segregation, but as army servicemen they expected equal treatment. Those individuals responsible for keeping order, especially White police, viewed the presence of Black soldiers as a threat to racial harmony.
Black soldiers were willing to abide by the legal restrictions imposed by segregated practices, but they resented the manner in which the laws were enforced. They still had to stand in the rear of streetcars when vacant seats were available in the White section and endure racial slurs hurled at them by White laborers at Camp Logan. Some police officers regularly harassed African Americans, both soldiers and civilians. TSHA further reported that early in the afternoon, when Cpl. Charles Baltimore, one of the twelve Black military policemen with the battalion, inquired about the soldier’s arrest, words were exchanged and the policeman hit Baltimore over the head. The police read in Baltimore three times, chased him into an unoccupied house, and took him to police headquarters. Though he was soon released, a rumor quickly reached Camp Logan that he had been shot and killed. A group of soldiers decided to march on the police station in the Fourth Ward and secure his release. Nearly 8pm that evening a Black soldier suddenly screamed that a White mob was approaching the camp. Over 100 armed Black soldiers rushed into the supply tents, grabbed rice, and started toward downtown Houston by way of Brunner Avenue and San Felipe Street and into the Fourth Ward in their two-hour march on the city. e White officers found it impossible to restore order. The Black soldiers killed fifteen Whites, including four policemen, and seriously wounded twelve others, one of whom, a policeman, subsequently died later. Four Black soldiers also died.
Early the next morning, August 24th, civil authorities imposed a curfew in Houston. On August 25th, the Army hustled third Battalion aboard a train to Columbus, New Mexico. Here, seven Black mutineers agreed to testify against the others in exchange for clemency. Between November 1, 1917, and March 26, 1918, the army held three separate courts-martial in the chapel at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. e military tribunals indicted 118 enlisted men of I Company for participating in the mutiny and riot, and found 110 guilty. Of those found guilty, 19 Black soldiers were hanged and 63 received life sentences in federal prison. One was judged incompetent to stand trial. Two White officers faced court-martial, but they were released. No White civilians were brought to trial. The mass execution of 19 soldiers was the largest carried out by the Army of American soldiers in history, the Army said. The first set of executions took place in secrecy the day following the sentencing hearing. Ultimately, this led to a regulatory change that prohibited future executions without review by the War Department and the president. e Houston Riot of 1917 vividly illustrated the problems that the nation struggled with on the home front, and continues to struggle with today over 100 years later. As Chief Troy Finner stated at the annual Police Week Memorial Ceremony of 2021 and featured on the HPD website, “We honor today everything about our culture, our hearts, our training and our tactics. We will never let you down.” e culture, heart, training, and tactics prevalent then in 1917 and now in 2024 is that ‘white is right’ and that Black people are ‘guilty until proven innocent.’
The five Houston police officers killed on August 23, 1917, are listed on the Houston Police Department’s Fallen Officers online roll, and have their names etched on the Houston Police Officers Memorial that was installed in 1991 to honor those who lost their lives in the line of duty. The memorial, located at 1400 Memorial Drive, is continuously guarded by police officers. These officers have been commemorated annually and memorialized in stone. Now that the 110 Black soldiers have overturned convictions, and their service records are restored to have concluded honorably, will these five police officers continue to be honored? Will their names be removed from the piece of public art erected in their honor? The 24th Infantry Regiment will soon be honored in an official headstones unveiling ceremony. In light of the changes, Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery located in San Antonio, where 17 of the soldiers are interred, will provide new headstones with the “same amount of information that every veteran is entitled to,” said Matthew Quinn, Under Secretary for Memorial A airs. The Army also announced 17 personal soldier pages featured on the Veterans Legacy Memorial.
“While we cannot go back in time to change the past from today on, we have an obligation to correct the record. Not only should we recognize the dedicated service of these Buffalo Soldiers, we
must restore and preserve their legacies in perpetuity,” Quinn said. In terms of culture, training, and tactics, what will Mayor Whitmore and Chief Finner do to change the belief system and entrenched biases toward Black people, especially Black men, found among the rank and le of the Houston Police Department? Changes that preserve the lives of Black men, along with their physical and mental health, are imperative and deserves more than lip service. Symbolic change is not enough. The Army will correct the military records of Black soldiers hanged by
the U.S. military following the 1917 Houston race riots and deliver veteran bene ts to their descendants in a display of historical reckoning. The Army is setting aside the soldiers’
convictions, correcting records to note honorable discharges for 95 soldiers, and setting up a mechanism to deliver survivor bene ts through the Department of Veterans A airs. Army Under
Secretary Gabe Camarillo announced Monday the service’s steps to right the wrongs of the U.S. military justice system which resulted in the largest mass execution of American soldiers by the
“Today, the legacy of the soldiers, their patriotism and service to our nation — protecting freedoms that they themselves could not enjoy — is being respected, and upli ed,” said Jason Holt, an attorney and descendent of Pfc. omas Hawkins, at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston, Texas. “I pray with all my heart that their souls witnessed these moments of reckoning e historic change comes a er the Army received petitions from retired general officers and the South Texas College of Law, requesting a review of the court’s decision and clemency
for the 110 soldiers. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth directed a board in charge of military record corrections to review each of the cases. The board determined the court proceedings to
be “fundamentally unfair,” and unanimously recommended that all convictions be set aside and that the soldiers’ military service be re-characterized as honorable.and are set free.”
In light of the changes, Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, where 17 of the soldiers are interred, will provide new headstones with the “same amount of information that every veteran is
entitled to,” said Matthew Quinn, Under Secretary for Memorial A airs. The Army also announced 17 personal soldier pages featured on the Veterans Legacy Memorial. “While we cannot go back in time to change the past from today on, we have an obligation to correct the record. Not only should we recognize the dedicated service of these Buffalo Soldiers, we must restore and preserve their legacies in perpetuity,” Quinn said.In the summer of 1917, the 3rd Battalion was sent to Houston to guard a construction site that would later become Camp Logan. As racial tensions boiled up in Houston that summer, rumors and threats spurred a group of more than 100 Black soldiers to seize weapons and leave camp “thinking that they were marching in their own self defense,” Camarillo said. The 19 Black soldiers were charged with mutiny and murder and sentenced to hanging. The first set of executions took place in secrecy the day following
the sentencing hearing. Ultimately, this led to a regulatory change that prohibited future executions without review by the War Department and the president. “While we commemorate this momentous occasion, wherein we have literally been the arc of the moral universe toward justice, we cannot rest on our laurels,” said Rep. Al Green (D-Texas). “The pain for the 10 Black
soldiers is a stark reminder of the racial prejudices that men and women of color continue to face.”
The soldiers who received clemency served in the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry Regiment and were nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers,” a term for service members of color who were assigned to
segregated, all-Black Army units after the end of the Civil War. e 24th regiment served in Cuba, Mexico, and the Philippines and “with their own hands, helped build the American West,” Camarillo said. Congress established six all-Black regiments in 1866 to help with postCivil War rebuilding efforts and to fight on the Western frontier during the American Indian Wars. Native
Americans who fought against these troops referred to the Black cavalry as “Buffalo Soldiers” because of their dark, curly hair which resembled a buffalo’s coat, according to popular lore. While
the origins have not been confirmed, Black soldiers embraced the nickname by World War I and the 92nd Infantry Division adopted the buffalo as the symbol for its unit patch, according
to the National Museum for African American History and Culture.
All-black regiments were disbanded during the Korean War under a 1948 executive order from President Harry Truman which desegregated the military.“Most people had moved on over the years. The Houston incident had become a historical footnote for niche academics, but the story was very much alive for the descendants of the wrongfully executed and the wrongfully convicted,” said Brig. Gen. Ronald D. Sullivan. He now serves as the chief judge of the Army Court of Criminal Appeals created in the wake of the Houston incident. The Fort Sam Houston National Cemetary’s plaque will feature the historic reckoning of the Army’s role in hanging its troops and the “widespread racism and the tensions” that “pervaded the trial process for the soldiers making their trials unfair,” Sullivan said. It will also reflect the soldiers’ honorable discharges. “I cannot even tell you that when the Under Secretary Camarillo made his announcement about the honorable discharges being restored or granted and that the descendants would get bene ts, I don’t know about you, but I had tears in my eyes knowing that long though it may be, the arc of the moral universe still bends towards justice,” Green said.