1917 - Fed up with violent discrimination, these black soldiers took to the streets of Houston for b
It was raining on the night of August 23, 1917, when a group of black soldiers took to the streets in Houston. They were there to protest their inhumane treatment and to avenge the death of a fellow soldier. By the end of the night, 20 people would be dead, resulting in one of the largest court-martials in American military history and, ultimately, the death by hanging of 19 black soldiers.
When the U.S. entered World War I in the spring of 1917, the Army began building several training facilities, including Camp Logan, an aviation training center about three and a half miles from the center of Houston. Camp Logan housed one particularly noteworthy group: the all-black Third Battalion of the 24th infantry. They were the successors of the famed Buffalo Soldiers, African American regiments who fought courageously on the western frontier. City officials assured the military that the black soldiers wouldn’t pose any problems. The city’s chamber of commerce promised that, “in a spirit of patriotism, the colored soldiers would be treated all right.” But not everyone celebrated their arrival. Houston’s mayor, Dan M. Moody, noted that the “feeling that something was going to happen [was] in the air from the moment the 24th Infantry arrived on Saturday, July 28, 1917.”
Racial tensions were already high in Texas, and indeed across the country, even before the arrival of the Third Battalion. Texas was a forcefully segregated state with a reputation for racist violence. Lynchings had occurred all over the state, in cities such as Temple, Waco, and Galveston. Black Americans were also still reeling from the recent, widely reported riots in East St. Louis, Illinois, by white mobs that left dozens of African Americans dead and communities decimated.
Many of the black soldiers in the Third Battalion were well versed in racial justice. Some read W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Chicago Defender, another important black newspaper. They also would have been aware of an event that had occurred about a decade earlier when 167 Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Brown were dishonorably discharged after white citizens falsely implicated them in the death of a bartender and the wounding of an officer.
When the Third Battalion arrived, they found that city officials’ promises had been empty. As historian Robert V. Haynes describes in The Houston Mutiny and Riot of 1917, white Houstonians wanted to keep black soldiers in check, so that black civilians wouldn’t also demand equal treatment.
While in the city, soldiers endured racial slurs and discrimination from residents and police officers. The mere presence of the black men in uniform threatened to undo the social hierarchy, and white residents clung to the old order. Haynes recounts incidents in which police officers pistol-whipped and arrested black soldiers who tried to intervene when black civilians were harassed by white residents for sitting in “white only” sections on the streetcars or drinking from “white only” fountains.
Understandably, the soldiers chafed at the officers’ attempts to domineer them. They were, after all, distinguished members of the U.S. Army, serving their country and risking their lives. On streetcars, they defied segregation laws, saying they “would just like to see the first son of a bitch that tried to put them off.”
A few soldiers removed the Jim Crow screens (dividers between black and white sections on segregated streetcars) and threw them out the window or kept them as souvenirs.
White civilians working at Camp Logan resented having to show their credentials to the black soldiers standing guard. Sergeant William C. Nesbit, who was later convicted for his role in the riot, reported that “those [white] people out there wouldn’t obey and said they weren’t taking orders from niggers.” The black soldiers resented being called “niggers” and insisted that they should be referred to as “colored men.”
Senior officers didn’t do much to calm these tensions. Instead, they put the onus on the black soldiers to make sure things went smoothly, telling them to always be courteous to white civilians. The slightest sign of discourtesy was reported, and soldiers were swiftly reprimanded. Their fellow soldiers weren’t of any help, either. According to Haynes, members of the Texas National Guard, stationed downtown, would also make derogatory statements when they saw the black soldiers.
The black soldiers were treated not just as second-class citizens, but as a threat to society. They weren’t allowed to be armed while acting as provost guards in black neighborhoods. Outside the camp, they weren’t allowed to congregate in groups of more than three.
The riot began when two mounted white police officers, Rufus Daniels and Lee Sparks, assaulted Private Alonzo Edwards for interfering in the arrest of a black woman.
Later, when Corporal Charles Baltimore, a black man in the battalion, tried to inquire about the arrest, it irritated the officers. Sparks struck him with a pistol and shot at him three times. Baltimore fled, but police pursued him until he was cornered in an unoccupied house. He was arrested, but by the time news reached the camp, Baltimore’s fellow black soldiers assumed he was dead.
Vida Henry, a black acting first sergeant, sensed discord within black ranks and relayed this concern to Major Kneeland S. Snow, commander of one of the companies. Snow ordered first sergeants to collect the black soldiers’ rifles and search their tents for loose ammunition after he witnessed some soldiers stealing ammunition from a supply tent. Henry started to carry out the orders, but then a black private yelled that a white mob was coming, so the men prepared for a fight.
A shot rang out, and a scuffle ensued in the dark. After about 30 minutes of firing their weapons into the woods and nearby buildings, the men planned to move into the city.
One soldier yelled, “To hell with going to France. Get to work right here.”
Snow and other military personnel couldn’t convince the men to stand down.
At least 100 men from different companies marched into the city around 9 p.m. They went to the San Felipe district, a historic black community, in search of Lee Sparks and Rufus Daniels, the two officers involved in the Baltimore arrest.
They found Daniels, whom they killed, along with three other officers. As they moved through the city, they encountered civilians and shot them at random. All in all, 20 people were killed that night. The soldiers had no real plan. Henry, leading the effort, suggested that they march to the police station and confront officers there, but the other men either returned to the camp or hid in black residents’ homes, where they were captured the following day.
As the disarmed black soldiers boarded a train out of Houston a few days later, they left behind a piece of paper that read: “Take Texas and go to hell. I don’t want to go there anymore in my life. Let’s go East and be treated as people.”
The next day, Sergeant Henry’s body was found on a nearby railroad track. It was widely believed that he had committed suicide out of guilt, though an embalmer would report finding a knife or bayonet wound near his heart, making the death appear more like foul play.
Though the surviving soldiers had vowed not to snitch, military investigators persuaded eight of them to testify against their battalion mates in exchange for immunity. Thirteen black soldiers were hung at Camp Travis, a National Guard training facility in San Antonio, a few months later. By September 1918, following two additional court-martial cases, 53 soldiers were given life sentences and six more soldiers were hung at Camp Travis.
In the 1930s, 17 of the executed soldiers’ bodies were exhumed and reburied at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, in San Antonio — their simple headstones feature only a name and date of death, with no mention of their military service, rank, or honors.