It happened in 1917, and till date, it’s an incident that reportedly still haunts the U.S. today, particularly Houston.
In 1917, thirteen black soldiers were secretly hanged at dawn at a military camp outside San Antonio for their alleged role in a Houston race riot some months earlier. The soldiers were charged with murder, mutiny, aggravated assault and disobeying orders after the riot that was caused by the “rough” arrest of a black woman.
The race riot resulted in the deaths of at least 15 whites and four black soldiers and the consequent jailing of more than 100 others.
More than 100 years later, families of the deceased – some who have grown up hearing about the incident – have sought to have all the soldiers pardoned on the account that their arrests and trials were unjust. Most of them petitioned former U.S. President Barack Obama but did not get any response. At the moment, they have written to President Donald Trump asking for the pardons and are yet to receive a reply.
The Houston race riot, also referred to as the Camp Logan mutiny, was one of the only riots in U.S. history in which more white people died than black people, according to varying accounts. The largest court-martial in U.S. history also followed the unrest.
The little-talked about riots began in July 1917, after America had declared war on Germany and entered World War I. The 3rd Battalion of the 24th United States Infantry, a predominantly black unit, was sent to guard the construction of Camp Logan — part of the new war effort — being constructed on the edge of Houston.
About 650 of the Buffalo Soldiers sprang from all-black regiments that were created during the Civil War. Some had served in the Philippines, in Cuba, and during the Spanish-American War, and regarded themselves as combat troops, according to Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
From the start, these soldiers met Jim Crow law and racism from police and civilians, as well as, workers who were constructing the camp.
“They sent these soldiers into the most hostile environment imaginable,” said Charles Anderson, a relative of Sgt. William Nesbit, one of the hanged soldiers.
“The soldiers should never have been sent there — they should have remained at their base in New Mexico until the order came to go to France.”
Most of the black soldiers who were raised from the South were aware of Jim Crow laws but since they were army servicemen, they expected to be treated fairly during their service at Houston.
The opposite was the case as they were viewed as a threat by police and locals. Both thought that if black soldiers were given the same respect as white soldiers, black residents would also want to be treated the same.
“Tensions grew between the troops guarding Camp Logan and the Houston police and locals. The sight of black men wearing uniforms and carrying guns incensed white residents. The soldiers themselves were angered by the “Whites Only” signs, being called the n-word by white Houstonians, and streetcar conductors demanding they sit in the rear,” writes James Jeffrey in The Progressive.
Then on August 23, 1917, two white Houston police officers who were chasing a gambling suspect burst into a Fourth Ward home and arrested a black woman they accused of hiding the suspect.
A black soldier who had interfered in the arrest was also arrested. When one of the black soldiers went to make inquiries about his arrested colleague, an argument followed suit. The black soldier had to flee from the police station when the arguments escalated into shots before he was later arrested.
False rumours reached Camp Logan that the soldier had been killed and that a white mob was on its way to the camp. The soldiers who had had enough of the racial tensions and feared what awaited them grabbed their rifles and marched into downtown Houston, against the orders of their superiors. During the two hour riot, the soldiers, numbering about 100, killed 16 white residents, including five policemen. Four black soldiers also died.
When tensions had eased, the soldiers returned to camp and the next day, martial law was declared in Houston. The following day, the unit was dispatched back to New Mexico before three courts-martial were convened to try 118 indicted soldiers, with 110 being found guilty.
“It was a dark, rainy night during the riot,” Anderson said.
Sixty-four men were tried in San Antonio, charged with disobeying orders, mutiny, murder, and aggravated assault, during the first court-martial that began November 1, resulting in the 13 death sentences, reports PRI.
“They were represented by just one lawyer and didn’t even have a chance to appeal,” said Angela Holder, great-niece of Cpl. Jesse Moore, one of the hanged soldiers.
“They were denied due process guaranteed by the Constitution,” Holder, who is also a history professor at Houston Community College added.
Varying accounts said that civilian witnesses couldn’t identify a soldier firing shots that killed people. Seven soldiers, however, agreed to testify against the others in exchange for clemency.
On November 28, the 13 men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Two weeks later, without an appeal, they were hanged on December 11 from a scaffold beside the Salado Creek in San Antonio. Only two white officers faced courts-martial, and they were released. No white civilian was brought to trial.
The hasty executions were condemned from military and civilian figures, compelling the U.S. Army to make changes to its Uniform Code of Military Justice to prevent execution without a meaningful appeal.
These changes are still in place today, according to PRI. The changes made do not affect the soldiers hanged at dawn, but it is not too late to seek justice for them, their families and relatives believe. They are awaiting a response from the pardon petitions sent to the White House.
In 2017, some inroads were made towards preserving the memory of the late soldiers when Holder was able to lobby the Veterans Association for gravestones in a Houston cemetery for two soldiers killed during the riot.
She also helped organize the August 23 rededication of a Texas Historical Commission marker at the former site of Camp Logan to mark the riot’s 100th anniversary.
“The men did not have a fair trial,” Sandra Hajtman, great-granddaughter of one of the policemen killed said.
“I have no doubt about the likelihood the men executed had nothing to do with the deaths. You have to look at the whole story, why it happened, and learn from it — both sides bear responsibility.”