The Mass Hanging of Black Soldiers in America in 1917

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After hurricane Harvey ruined Houston in the September of 2017, recovery and clean-up employees discovered that vandals had put red paint over a historical marker at the one-time location of Camp Logan, recently rededicated to commemorate the one hundredth day of remembrance of the Houston “riot” of 1917.

The paint blocked off the section of the inscription that explained the history of the Third Battalion of the 24th United States infantry, a preponderantly black unit appointed to protect the camp throughout its construction shortly after the united states entered world war I.

Beneath the paint, the words read: “The Black Soldiers’ August 23, 1917, armed revolt in response to Houston’s Jim Crow Laws and police harassment resulted to the camps most heralded incident, the ‘Houston Mutiny and Riot of 1917.’”

The Houston riot grew out of a confrontation between the black soldiers and Houston town police, at the end of which sixteen Caucasians were dead, together with 5 policemen, with four soldiers additionally killed. It had been one among the riots in U.S. history during which a lot of white people died more than black people.

At the ensuing 3 courts martial, the first of which was the biggest one in U.S. military history, a total of 118 enlisted black soldiers were indicted, with 110 of them found guilty. Nineteen black men were killed by hanging and 53 received life sentences.

For a century, families of the killed black soldiers have lived with the recollections and loss. Relatives alive these days grew up hearing their families mention the soldiers’ fates, that served as the catalyst to find out more, and demand for justice to create amends.

“My family was upset when I started looking into it,” admits Jason Holt, a relative of private Hawkins, one amongst the black soldiers hanged.

Holt is in possession of a 100-year-old letter written by private Hawkins to his mother the night before his execution, telling her to not be upset concerning him taking his “seat in heaven,” and of his innocence.

“They sent those black soldiers into the most hostile atmosphere thinkable,” Charles Anderson, a relative of Sergeant William Nesbit, one of the hanged black soldiers, told me over the phone. “There was Jim Crow law, racist cops, racist civilians, laws against them being treated fairly inside street cars, while the employees building [Logan] camp despised [the soldiers’] presence.”

“The riot was an issue created by community policing in a very hostile atmosphere,” agrees Paul Matthews, founding father of Houston’s Buffalo soldier’s National museum, which examines the role of African-American soldiers throughout U.S. military history. “It’s up to individuals now to come to a decision whether or not there are lessons relevant to the present.”

Majority of the black soldiers posted at Camp Logan were raised within the South and accustomed to segregation and Jim Crow laws. However, as army servicemen, they expected honest treatment throughout their service in Houston. The police and public officers in the town viewed the presence of the black soldiers as a threat. several Houstonians were worried that if the black soldiers were shown a similar respect as white soldiers, black residents may come to expect similar treatment.

Tensions grew between the troops guarding Camp Logan and also the Houston police and locals. The sight of black men sporting uniforms and carrying guns outraged white residents. The black soldiers themselves were furious by the “Whites Only” signs, being referred to as the n-word by white Houstonians, and streetcar conductors requesting they sit in the rear.

Then, in August, the police arrested a black soldier for meddling with the arrest of a black woman. once one of the battalion’s military police went to inquire concerning the arrested soldier, an argument ensued, leading to the military policeman fleeing the police station amid shots, before being arrested himself.

Rumors—which were later said to be false—reached Camp Logan that the man had been killed and that a white mob was approaching the camp. The black soldiers had adequate reason to be fearful. The country was rife with racial tensions. Just 2 years later, cities would erupt in unrest throughout the “Red Summer,” and in 1921 a white mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma, murdered hundreds of innocent black individuals.

More than one hundred black soldiers grabbed rifles and headed into downtown Houston to defend themselves and black lives. Throughout a two-hour riot between blacks and whites, sixteen white residents, including 5 policemen lost their lives. The next day martial law was declared in Houston, and also the following day the black soldier’s unit was sent back to its base in New Mexico. The court martial shortly followed.

“It was a dark, rainy night throughout the riot,” Anderson says. “At the trial the civilian witnesses couldn’t identify one soldier firing shots that killed individuals.”

Seven mutineers united to testify against the others in exchange for clemency.

Only one lawyer represented the 63 black soldiers throughout the first court martial. The 13 sentenced to death on November 28 weren’t given right to appeal. On December 11, they were taken by truck to the scaffold where 13 ropes dangled from a beam.

“The men didn’t have a fair trial,” says Sandra Hajtman, great-granddaughter of one of the policemen killed. “I haven’t any doubt regarding the probability the men executed had nothing to do with the deaths.”

Only 2 white officers faced courts-martial, and they were discharged. Not one white civilian was brought to trial.

In Houston, a speedily growing town, knowledge of the event is mixed. Most newcomers know nothing regarding it. However, that’s changing.

“There was no public acknowledgment of it for a long time,” Lila Rakoczy, program coordinator of military sites and oral history programs at the Texas Historical Commission, explained during a phone interview. “The centennial of the American entry into world war have in all probability helped heighten awareness and inspired individuals to speak concerning it.”

Earlier in 2017, Angela Holder, a professor of at Houston community college and also the great grandniece of Corporal Jesse Moore, one among the black soldiers hanged, helped lobby for gravestones from the Veterans Association for unmarked graves in a Houston graveyard for two soldiers killed during the riot. However, a lot more still remains to be done for the black soldiers, the relatives say.

According to an account by one of the soldiers overseeing the execution of the black soldiers, the 13 men executed on Dec 11, 1917, showed great bravery that moved all those watching. None made any attempt to resist or maybe speak as they were taken from the trucks to the scaffold.

“Not a word out of any of you men now!” Sergeant William Nesbit declared to his men in his final living moment.

These lessons in history are vital in the construction of a narrative for the Negro race in America. In the face of heightened racial discrimination, it seems history only repeats itself.

Can we truly say, things have changed? Can we truly say America has learnt from its bitter racist and violent past? Well the answer is there for all to see.


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