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Court Martial in Texas
On this date in 1917 Black soldiers in Houston, TX retaliated against Jim Crow white racism.
The hostile racial climate in Houston after Reconstruction was a constant reminder to Blacks of their second-class citizenship. When a battalion of the 24th Infantry arrived there, the soldiers resented the racial epithets of whites working on a nearby National Guard camp, the segregation on local streetcar lines, and the violence the police used against them. Many of the older, more steady, non-commissioned Black officers had been reassigned elsewhere as the country prepared for World War I.
Among the battalion’s white officers, there was little understanding or empathy between the two groups. When two Black soldiers protested the beating of a Black woman, they were pistol-whipped and arrested for interfering. Tensions rose and attempts to get the arrested soldiers away from police and restrict the unit to the camp were unsuccessful. Roughly 100 armed soldiers, including some officers, headed into town to retaliate against any policeman they found. Over the next two hours, the soldiers killed a number of individuals who looked like the police.
They attacked the police station where the two arrested soldiers were held; four other mutineers died. Following the rampage, they returned to the camp. Initially, the troops were moved to Columbus, NM. At the first Court Martial held in December, 54 of the 60 charged were found guilty of mutiny and premeditated murder, and 13 of them were sentenced to be hanged.
There was no appeal process and the records of the convictions reached the judge advocate general’s office weeks after the hangings were carried out. The outraged African American community protested vehemently about the injustice of the proceedings. Two more court-martials occurred against others in the battalion for leaving their guard post to participate in the mob action. Ten were sentenced to prison and five were ordered executed for desertion and murder.
In March 1918, 40 more soldiers were tried. In the end, only six soldiers from these two court actions were hanged. The NAACP intervened, and the Army slowly responded, reducing some sentences and granting releases to others. It was not until 1938 that the last Houston soldier was released from prison.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York