by Michael Corcoran
The gallows smelled of fresh-cut lumber. Thirteen nooses for the black soldiers who’d killed 15 white cops and civilians in Houston. As the ropes were tightened around their necks, one of the condemned men started singing a Negro spiritual. The others fell in with shaky voices that got stronger. “I’m comin’ home,” they sang. “Lord, I’m coming home.” They’d be joining their four brothers of the 24th Infantry, who died in Houston on Aug. 23, 1917, during an incident that has been called a riot or a mutiny, but it was really a battle. The enemy was racism.
The 100-plus men who took rifles to the streets to avenge brutal cops were “Buffalo Soldiers,” a battalion whose service goes back to 1866, when the U.S. Congress added six all-black regiments to the U.S. Army.
Degradation and intimidation were the methods whites in power used to stay that way and Southern blacks of the era were expected to take all the slurs, all the humanity-stripping injustices and all the Jim Crow laws put in place to extend slavery of a different name.
But the men of the “Deuce Four,” who had just got back from fighting under Gen. Jack Pershing in Mexico, had enough of that. They believed their sacrifices and contributions to the security of this country had earned them the right to be treated with equality, as described in the 14th Ammendment.
And so they snapped.
It was the U.S. Constitution vs. the “Southern way of life,” with battle lines drawn even before the arrival of the soldiers (who got their nickname from the Indians they fought because their tightly curled black hair resembled a bison’s mane.) In the midst of World War 1, the Army built an additional 32 training bases, including Camp Logan in Houston, about four miles west of the center of town. The 653 men of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry were assigned to guard the camp for seven weeks, while it was under construction.
The prospect of young black men, armed and in uniforms of authority, roaming the streets of Houston, terrified much of the white populace. They wanted their blacks to be docile. And guns were a white folks thing.
The Chamber of Commerce voiced those concerns to the Army, which said the black battalion was the only one available, and they were exemplary soldiers. Houstonians saw a potential racial powderkeg, but the Chamber finally relented “in the spirit of patriotism.” It didn’t hurt that the lucrative federal contract would pump $2 million a year into the local economy. “The colored soldiers will be treated all right,” the Chamber president announced, sounding less like a vow than a concession.
There had been trouble between the black troops and white citizens since the very first night. The soldiers headed out on the town and ended up at the city-sanctioned red light district called The Reservation. A large group of soldiers jumped on a streetcar to get back to the garrison before 11 p.m. curfew, but the driver stopped and ordered them off. There were so many soldiers that they overflowed to the “whites only” area. There was an altercation and the rumor in the white community, completely untrue, was that the blacks had beaten the streetcar driver almost to death. They had actually just threatened him and removed the Jim Crow screens, which showed where blacks were allowed to sit.
Things weren’t much better on post, as white contractors bristled at having to show credentials to black guards. “We’re not taking orders from niggers,” was a common epithet, a black sergeant told investigators.
One day there was a fight between white and black civilian workers in the payroll line and the black guards watched their brothers pummel the whites before stepping in.
To try and calm the overheated racial climate, Camp Logan officials tried to keep the soldiers on base by allowing black citizens of Houston to visit any day until 10:45 p.m. Women came by looking for husbands, preachers came in search of souls to save and black men visited to hear the tales of battle. Civic groups provided home-cooked meals and entertainment to the famous soldiers, who were heroes in the black community. Perhaps hearing the stories of life as a second-class citizen instilled in the proud soldiers the idea that they were to fight a greater battle for their own people.
After the deadly violence of 8/23/17, four weeks after the arrival of the uniformed undesirables, the Army assigned Col. G.O. Cress to investigate what may have caused the all-consuming rage. “The attitude of police and most white citizens in Houston is that a nigger is a nigger and his status is not effected by the uniform he wears,” Cress reported.
That was the gunpowder. The fuse would be lit when racial insults escalated into physical assaults by white police officers. The morning of Aug. 23, 1917, Houston’s longest day, a black private was pistol-whipped and arrested when he interfered with the police manhandling a black female. When Corporal Charles Baltimore, a provost patrolling the area, asked about the private’s arrest, he was beaten by police for being uppity and taken into jail.
When word got back to the camp that two black soldiers had been assaulted and arrested by cops, some called for a mutiny. “To hell with what’s going on in France,” one yelled, “we’ve got work to do here!” Another soldier vowed, “to shoot every white face I see,” but the focus was on the cops.
The black mob, armed with rifles, killed two police officers, including the one who arrested Baltimore, at the corner of Washington and Brunner Streets. They murdered three more cops at Wilson and San Felipe. They killed discriminately, shooting only at cars with white passengers and waving black drivers through. None of the four black soldiers were killed by whites, with three from friendly fire and one from suicide.
Sgt. Vida Henry, who had warned the white camp commanders about the simmering rage, but then led his men into battle on the streets of Houston, shook the hands of each of the mutineers as they hurried back to Camp Logan. Then he went for a walk by the railroad tracks, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Civic leaders of Houston helped quell a mob uprising against the soldiers, whose base was built to withstand outside attacks. The next day, all the black soldiers, except those who’d been fingered as shooters by four informants, got on a train to take them back to New Mexico. One threw a piece of paper outside the window, which 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 like people.”
After the largest murder trial in American history, 19 black soldiers were executed, at three separate hangings, and 63 received life sentences. The final death toll of the battle of Aug. 23, 1917 was 23 blacks and 15 whites.
World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Camp Logan closed in 1919 at the site that is now Memorial Park.
Here’s a great 1973 paper, The Houston Mutiny and Riot of 1917 by Robert V. Haynes, which was a main source.