On July 27, 1917, soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, an all-Black unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers, arrived in Houston to guard the construction of the Camp Logan training base. The city, still ruled by Jim Crow laws, proved hostile. Tensions rose and finally boiled over on August 23, 1917: Soldiers clashed with white police and civilians, leaving more than a dozen dead.
In the wake of that fateful night, the United States Army convicted 110 of the soldiers of murder, mutiny and other crimes. Nineteen were executed, marking the “single largest mass execution of American soldiers by the Army,” as the New York Times’ Michael Levenson writes.
Now, more than a century later, the Army has overturned these convictions. The news was first reported by the Houston Chronicle’s Amber Elliott and Sig Christenson.
“After a thorough review, the [Army Board for Correction of Military Records] has found that these soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials,” says Christine Wormuth, the Army secretary, in a statement. “By setting aside their convictions and granting honorable discharges, the Army is acknowledging past mistakes and setting the record straight.”
A number of “deficiencies” marked the case, according to the Army’s statement. Just one officer, Major Harry Grier, who was not an attorney, represented all the defendants throughout three courts-martial with only ten days’ preparation, per the Houston Chronicle. During the trial, Grier did not raise the issue of race and made public statements that the mutiny had been proven.
After a 29-day session, a military court deliberated for just two days before convicting the first 58 soldiers, as Gabe Camarillo, the under secretary of the Army, tells the Times. Thirteen soldiers were hanged less than 24 hours later. Even at the time, this triggered immediate regulatory changes banning future executions without review by the War Department and the president. In the year that followed, 52 more would be convicted and 6 more executed.
“This is not only the largest murder trial in American history, this is also the largest court-martial in American history,” Haymond tells the Houston Chronicle. “No case this large or this serious with this many death penalties has ever been completely overturned by the Army on review.”
At the time, law enforcement said the soldiers had staged a deadly and premeditated assault on Houston’s white population. However, “historians and advocates say the soldiers responded to what was thought to be a white mob heading for them,” writes the Associated Press (AP).
Indeed, since their arrival in Houston, the soldiers had been subjected to racial slurs and insults from white workers, police and soldiers, as well as arrests and beatings if they attempted to stand up to the police, according to the Houston Chronicle.
“The soldiers came to town with patriotism in their hearts, ready to serve their country faithfully. But they were met with racist provocations and physical violence,” said Brigadier General Ronald D. Sullivan at a ceremony on Monday, per Houston Public Media’s Patricia Ortiz.
On August 23, after raiding a craps game led by Black men, police assaulted a Black woman, then arrested a soldier who tried to intervene. Rumors of additional threats reached the camp, where soldiers seized weapons and then marched into Houston, write the Times. Among those who died in the violence were white police officers, soldiers and civilians, as well as four Black soldiers.
Given the lack of physical evidence and inconsistent eyewitness accounts, as well as the unfair circumstances of the trial itself, “I recommended … that the convictions be set aside,” Deputy Secretary of the Army Michael Mahoney tells the Houston Chronicle.
The soldiers have been granted honorable discharges, which means their descendants may now be eligible for benefits.
Jason Holt, the nephew of Thomas C. Hawkins, one of the 19 soldiers hanged, says that while the decision can’t undo the wrongs of the past, it is a step toward atonement.
“The acknowledgment that this was a miscarriage of justice and granting him an honorable discharge is as close to justice as we’re going to get,” he tells the Times. “And I hope his soul is at peace.”