By Fletcher Word
The Truth Editor
On the morning of December 11, 1917, 13 Black soldiers, also known as “Buffalo Soldiers” were taken to the gallows in a military camp near Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas and hanged. They had been convicted in a court martial of murder and mutiny. Later an additional six Black soldiers were also hanged in the same case.
The 19 deceased were part of a group of 110 soldiers who were convicted following the 1917 Houston riots. The rest of the group were convicted of lesser charges but most were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Two weeks ago, those convictions were finally set aside by the Army.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth formally gave the green light to overturn the court-martial convictions of 110 Black soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment. The Army said in a news release that officials made the decision based on a suggestion from the Board for Correction of Military Records and to atone for the unfair treatment of soldiers after the 1917 Houston Riots.
“After a thorough review, the Board has found that these Soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials,” Secretary Wormuth stated. “By setting aside their convictions and granting honorable discharges, the Army is acknowledging past mistakes and setting the record straight.”
In the summer of 1917, the 3rd Battalion of the 24th U.S. Infantry had been deployed to Texas to guard construction at Camp Logan, a base that was to be built after the country entered World War I.
The arrival of armed Black soldiers in the Houston area enraged the white populace. The soldiers were forced to hear racial taunts and subjected to vile treatment as were Black folks in much of the country during that time. The summer of 1917, for example, saw white mobs bringing racial violence upon Black citizens in numerous cities such as East St. Louis, Missouri; Chester, Pennsylvania.
In Houston, on August 23, white Houston police officer broke into the home of a Black family, assaulting the mother and dragging her into the street. A Black soldier, Army Pvt. Alonzso Edwards, intervened. He was pistol whipped and arrested.
Cpl. Charles Baltimore, another Black soldier, went to the police station to check on Edwards and he was beaten, shot and arrested. Apparently reports reached the camp that Baltimore had been murdered and 156 Black Soldiers armed themselves and headed into town. In the riot that ensued, 15 whites were killed, among them five police officers. Four Blacks were killed.
Initially 63 Black soldiers were charged with mutiny, murder and aggravated assault. They were defended by one man, Maj. Harry Grier, who had taught law at West Point but was not a lawyer and had no trial experience. Things did not go well for his clients.
Those who were hanged, were done so before they had time to appeal their convictions and sentences.
On Monday, November 8, 2023, 106 years later, the Army announced it had overturned the convictions of the 110 soldiers. The Army will also correct the military records of 95 Buffalo Soldiers who were not restored to duty to show “honorable discharge” and will partner with Veterans Affairs to bring survivor benefits to the soldiers’ descendants.
“Even with the backdrop of entrenched state-sanctioned racial segregation, there was an immediate public outcry about the miscarriage of justice,” said Army Brig. Gen. Ronald D. Sullivan, chief justice of the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston. The trial and mass executions, one of the largest in the history of the U.S. Army, led to a major overhaul in the military justice system, establishing a process for a board of review.
Family members of the 110 soldiers may be entitled to benefits, and guidelines for applying to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records can be found at https://arba.army.pentagon.mil/abcmr-app.html. Online applications can be submitted at https://arba.army.pentagon.mil/online-application.html or through mail to Army Review Boards Agency (ARBA), 251 18th Street South, Suite 385, Arlington, VA 22202-3531.
Applications should include documentation proving a relationship to one of the 110 formerly convicted soldiers. Family members and interested parties can request a copy of the corrected records from the National Archives and Records Administration, following the NARA Archival Records Request procedures at https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records.