It was another hot and humid August day in Houston. The policeman on his horse figured that the man approaching him was just another “n—–.” To make it worse, this “n—–” started asking him about an arrest earlier in the day, as if the two of them were equals.
The black man, for his part, saw himself as his uniform proclaimed—military policeman, corporal, U.S. Army, 24th Infantry, with its valiant history. The white policeman proceeded to beat the soldier on the head with the butt of his pistol, then shot at him three times as he ran away.
Within 24 hours four policemen were dead, along with 11 other whites. Four black soldiers were also dead or mortally wounded. The night became known as the Houston mutiny and riot or the Camp Logan mutiny, or variations of those names—when it was known at all. That evening of August 23, 1917, a dozen other whites were seriously wounded, and another policeman, mortally, according to the definitive book on the riot, A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917, by Robert V. Haynes. Before the year 1917 was out, Corporal Charles Baltimore, the former MP—stripped of all military titles—would be “hanged by his neck until dead” along with a dozen fellow ex-soldiers. And there were two courts-martial to go. In total, all but eight of the 118 African-American soldiers who were indicted were found guilty. Nineteen of them were hanged, and 63 received life sentences. The rest were sentenced to serve shorter times.
All of their actions were magnified because it was wartime. The U.S. had entered the Great War only four months before. Many cities lobbied to have military bases built in their towns. Houston won contracts for two training bases–Camp Logan, part of which became the large and popular Memorial Park, and Ellington Field. The 3rd battalion of the 24th Infantry (colored) arrived in Houston from New Mexico July 28, 1917, to serve as guards during the building of Logan. The men did not live at Logan; their (unnamed) camp was about a mile east, in the present-day Heights, a revitalized and gentrified area near downtown, with Victorian houses and new boutiques.
That day, August 23, between the beating by the cop, or “friction,” as the ineffectual chief of police termed such things, and the riot that night, Baltimore was arrested and released back to his camp, quashing rumors that he’d been killed. The officers—all white—reported that the policeman was suspended as punishment. The major confined the men to camp for the evening, to keep them under control. But by 8pm soldiers were making a grab for rifles and ammunition in supply tents and began shooting wildly and threatening officers. That was the beginning of the mutiny part.
A soldier yelled that a white mob was coming, and about a 100 men marched out onto the nearby streets. Now in the area there are stucco and stone two-and-three story townhouses heavy with the scent of jasmine; residences with facades that look like corrugated aluminum; Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality; Luke’s Ice House; a Velvet Taco; and one-to-two-story houses–some bungalows, some Queen Anne and Craftsman.
We can say: Police brutality led to the riot. But even less than a month after the riot, two army investigations concluded it wasn’t so simple. “Racial conditions led to a desire for revenge,” according to one. The treatment of the soldiers was “brutal, unwarranted, unjustified,” according to the report by the regional commander. The men of the 24th Infantry encountered Jim Crow on streetcars, they were repeatedly insulted by white civilian workers at Camp Logan. “A majority of the men had been raised in the South,” notes riot historian Haynes, “and were familiar with segregation, but as army servicemen they expected equal treatment.” The military police felt emasculated—in order to placate city fathers, the army brass had agreed that MPs would not carry their usual sidearms. Blacks with guns made white Southerners nervous. In fact, if the MPs had had guns, the police beating and subsequent riot would not have happened, local African-Americans told Martha Gruening, reporting for the NAACP’s The Crisis monthly magazine.
Texas had been a slave state, after all. The men of the 24th were rebelling against their own treatment, but also against the American Way of Life, against our original sin that has touched on everything American. Even now, we are finding out every week, it seems, about some great institution or other that was built by slaves or from money gotten from slave trading or other business that was dependent on the trade. They were rebelling against the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, stating that separate could be equal. They were rebelling against disenfranchisement, which was the Southern reaction to the Reconstruction. They were rebelling against racism and discrimination that was maintained through violence, supported by an ideology of white superiority.
They also had the East St. Louis riots of early July 1917 in mind, during which eight whites and an estimated 39 to 100 blacks were killed; at least 300 African-American houses were burned. “All the lynchings, all the burnings at the stake, all the outrages of the past were in the minds of the Negroes at Houston,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, as reported in the October 1917 issue of The Crisis. Still, the Eagle did not excuse the murderers. After the first hangings, the Pueblo, New Mexico, Chieftain declared: “If anything, the acts of the white people in East St. Louis were far more grave than the acts of the Negroes in Houston. In no manner was either act excusable and the military authority exercised wide judgment in inflicting a sure and quick punishment on the Negroes. If the civil population in East St. Louis fails to inflict a similar punishment on the men who were guilty of those murders and crimes, it will only go to show that our government falls down in certain circumstances.”
In the year of the mutiny and riot, The Crisis listed nine lynchings in Texas. In 2015 the Equal Justice Initiative documented more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings from 1870 to 1950, in a dozen Southern states.
Two army investigations had recommended that two or possibly three white officers be court-martialed after the soldiers’ trials. This never happened.
You could say panic, miscalculation, paranoia, lack of training, are behind the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Paul O’Neal, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and all the other men and women who have become famous because they were killed by a white vigilante, or by police, or allegedly by police or other law enforcement officials or while in custody. Or you could say racism is the culprit. But if you take the long view, you see that just as in the Houston mutiny, the real smoking gun is a whip: our history of slavery, and everything that came from it.
“Wanton discrimination is definitional to the black experience, and very often is law enforcement which implements that discrimination with violence,” a commentator has noted. “A community consistently subjected to violent discrimination under the law will lose respect for it, and act beyond it. When such actions stretch to mass murder it is horrific. But it is also predictable.” The writer is Ta-Nehisi Coates, in response to the murder of five police officers in Dallas last summer.
Black Lives Matter has linked recent killings to one another, has provided context so that we have become used to intoning or hearing others intone the names of victims in a litany, as a grand J’accuse! BLM and a coalition of more than 50 African-American groups have recently released a detailed platform partly based on the Black Panthers’ 1960s agenda. It demands better schools, the demilitarization of law enforcement, reparations, and other key political and societal changes.
But we don’t want to look at it. It’s too painful and disconcerting to contemplate that our whole system is still shaped by centuries of slavery and the ideology of white supremacy. Despite a biracial president and African-Americans in high places in the military, business, politics, arts, and academia. Despite Black History Month. Despite, even, Hamilton.
The riot and mutiny has had some positive consequences. After the first court-martial, the 13 soldiers were hanged without an appeal, without a review by the president–because they weren’t required. Now all army court-martial verdicts are automatically reviewed.
The night of August 23, whites flocked to the morgues to get a glimpse of the carnage, to look for souvenir bullets. One of these people was Bob Dundas, Jr., son of a minor city official and barely a teen at the time. In the 1960s Dundas was part of a group of white elites who responded to local African-American protests by quietly arranging the integration of restaurants and movie theaters, without media coverage. Dundas, who headed public relations and more at Foley’s department store, worked with African-American attorney Hobart Taylor, Jr., said Angela Holder in a University of Houston oral history. Holder teaches history at Houston Community College. “Between the two of them, they helped push desegregation in Houston, and they did it behind the scenes,” Holder said. Taylor also worked in the Kennedy Administration, and was the principal drafter of the executive order on affirmative action, a term that Taylor coined.
In the 1997 book No Color is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston, Thomas Cole writes that Dundas was motivated by a mix of circumstances; he was “driven by personal ambition, committed to the welfare of the city, and haunted by fear of racial violence.” I didn’t know about the 1917 riot until I read a brief mention in Cole’s book.
Holder’s great-uncle Corporal Jesse Moore was in the group of soldiers hanged in December 1917. For years the family had no idea what had happened to him, before Holder did research. She has created exhibits on the riot for the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston, and is working on exoneration of Moore; the museum has pushed for the all the guilty verdicts to be overturned. The courts-martial were rushed, Holder said, and some soldiers were co-opted by the prosecution and coached to testify against others. I’ve read thousands of pages of trial transcripts. They’re overwhelming, and it wasn’t clear to me–in all the self-exoneration and blaming and counter-blame and refusal to testify–who stayed at camp and who went on the rampage, who went willingly, and who was threatened with death if he didn’t march with the others, shooting whites. Throughout the night of August 23 roll was taken in camp, and these lists were used in court, though an army report of the mutiny cautioned that such rolls were not always accurate.
I interviewed Holder at the museum last year. She told me she tells her students: “You know where your pet hamster is buried. You know where your goldfish is buried.” Why didn’t her great-uncle get the same respect?
The Buffalo Soldiers museum is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the riot with a series of lectures and other events this week, concluding August 26.
S.L. Wisenberg is working on a musical based on the Houston riot. She’s a Houston native and author of three books, the most recent of which is the personal-political chronicle The Adventures of Cancer Bitch. A version of this essay appeared in the Houston Chronicle in 2016 and 2017.