Brownsville affair

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This event should not be confused with the Brownsville Raid of 1859.
Brownsville Affair
Date August 1906
Location Brownsville, Texas, United States
Also known as Brownsville raid
Deaths 1

The Brownsville affair, or the Brownsville raid, was a racial incident that arose out of tensions between black soldiers and white citizens in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906. When a white bartender was killed and a police officer wounded by gunshot, townspeople accused the members of the 25th Infantry Regiment, a unit of Buffalo Soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Brown. Although commanders said the soldiers had been in the barracks all night, evidence was planted against them.

As a result of a United States Army Inspector General's investigation, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the dishonorable discharge of 167 soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment, costing them pensions and preventing them from serving in civil service jobs. A renewed investigation in the early 1970s exonerated the discharged black troops. The government pardoned them and restored their records to show honorable discharges but did not provide retroactive compensation.

Background[edit]

The Brownsville Affair arose out of racial tensions between the white residents of Brownsville, Texas, and the newly arrived black infantrymen of the 25th Infantry Regiment at nearby Fort Brown. The state had legal segregation at the time.

Since arriving at Fort Brown on July 28, 1906, the black soldiers had been subject to intense racial discrimination from the white citizens of Brownsville. As a result of these racial tensions, a fight broke out between a black soldier and a local Brownsville merchant. The city of Brownsville barred members of the 25th Infantry from setting foot in the city again.[1]

August 13, 1906[edit]

On the night of August 13, 1906, gunshots killed a white bartender and wounded a Hispanic police officer in the town. Immediately the residents of Brownsville cast the blame on the black soldiers of the 25th Infantry at Fort Brown. The soldiers of the 25th Infantry were accused of the shootings, but the all-white commanders at Fort Brown confirmed that all of the soldiers were in their barracks at the time of the shootings. Local whites, including Brownsville's mayor, still claimed that some of the black soldiers participated in the shooting.[2]

The evidence[edit]

Local townspeople of Brownsville began providing evidence of the 25th Infantry's part in the shooting by producing spent bullet cartridges from Army rifles which they said belonged to the 25th's men. Despite the contradictory evidence that demonstrated the spent shells were planted in order to frame men of the 25th Infantry's role in the shootings, investigators accepted the statements of the local whites and the Brownsville mayor.[2]

The results[edit]

When soldiers of the 25th Infantry were pressured to name who fired the shots, they insisted that they had no idea who had committed the crime.[2] Captain Bill McDonald of the Texas Rangers investigated 12 enlisted men and tried to tie the case to them. The local county court did not return any indictments based on his investigation, but residents kept up complaints about the black soldiers of the 25th.[1]

At the recommendation of the Army's Inspector General, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered 167 of the black troops dishonorably discharged because of their "conspiracy of silence". Six of the soldiers had been Medal of Honor recipients.[1] This dishonorable discharge prevented the 167 men from ever working in a military or civil service capacity. Some of the black soldiers had been in the U.S. Army for over twenty years, while others were extremely close to retirement with pensions, which they lost.[2]

The prominent educator and activist, Booker T. Washington, got involved and asked President Roosevelt to reconsider his decision in the affair.[2] Roosevelt instead dismissed Washington's plea and allowed his decision to stand.

Congress steps in[edit]

Blacks and many whites across the United States were outraged at the actions of President Roosevelt.[2] The black community, which had previously supported the Republican president (in addition to their loyalty to the party of Abraham Lincoln, blacks noted that Roosevelt had invited Booker T. Washington to a White House dinner, and had spoken out publicly against lynching), began to turn against him. The administration withheld news of the discharge of the soldiers until after the 1906 Congressional elections, so that the pro-Republican black vote would not be affected. The case became a political football, with William Howard Taft, positioning for the next candidacy for presidency, trying to avoid trouble.[1]

Leaders of major black organizations, such as the Constitution League, the National Association of Colored Women, and the Niagara Movement tried to persuade the administration not to discharge the soldiers, but were unsuccessful.[3] From 1907–1908, the US Senate Military Affairs Committee investigated the Brownsville Affair, and the majority in March 1908 reached the same conclusion as Roosevelt. Senator Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio had lobbied for the investigation and filed a minority report in support of the soldiers' innocence. Another minority report by four Republicans concluded that the evidence was too inconclusive to support the discharges.[1] In September 1908 W. E. B. Du Bois urged blacks to register to vote and to remember their treatment by the Republican administration when it was time to vote for president.[3]

Feelings across the nation remained high against the government actions, but with Taft succeeding Roosevelt as President and Foraker failing to win re-election, some of the political pressure declined.

On February 23, 1909 The Committee on Military Affairs recommended favorably on Bill S.5729 for correction of records and reenlistment of Officers and men of Companies B.C. and D of the 25th Infantry [4]

On April 7, 1909 under the provisions of the Act of March 30, 1909 a Military Court of Inquiry was sent up by Secretary of War Jacob M. Dickinson to report on the charges and recommend for reenlistment those who had been discharged under Special Order # 266 November 9. 1906. Of the 167 discharged men 76 were located as witness and 6 did not wish to appear.[5] The 1910 Court of Military Inquiry undertook an examination of the soldiers' bids for re-enlistment, in view of the Senate committee's reports, but its members interviewed only about one-half of the soldiers discharged. It accepted 14 for re-enlistment, and eleven re-entered the Army.[3][6]

The government did not re-examine the case until the early 1970s.[1]

Justice in 1970s[edit]

In 1970, John D. Weaver published The Brownsville Raid, which investigated the affair in depth. Weaver argued that the accused members of the 25th Infantry were innocent, and that they were discharged without benefit of due process of law as guaranteed by the United States Constitution. After reading his book, Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins of Los Angeles introduced a bill to have the Defense Department re-investigate the matter to provide justice to the accused soldiers.

In 1972, the Army found the accused members of the 25th Infantry innocent. At its recommendations, President Richard Nixon pardoned the men and awarded them honorable discharges without backpay. These were generally issued posthumously, as there were only two surviving soldiers: one had re-enlisted in 1910. In 1973, due to actions of Hawkins and Senator Hubert Humphrey, Congress passed a tax-free pension for the last survivor, Dorsie Willis, who received $25,000. He was honored in ceremonies in Washington, DC and Los Angeles.[7]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Christian, Garna L. (June 12, 2010). "Brownsville Raid of 1906". The Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved July 22, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Wormser, Richard (2002). "The Brownsville Affair (1906)". The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. Jim Crow Stories. PBS, Educational Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved July 22, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c Rucker, Walter C.; Upton, James N., eds. (2007). "The Brownsville (Texas) Riot of 1906". Encyclopedia of American Race Riots. Hartford, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Company. pp. 81–83. ISBN 978-0-313-33301-9. Retrieved July 22, 2012. 
  4. ^ Congressional serial set By United States. Government Printing Office 1909 Report #2248
  5. ^ Annual reports / United States. War Dept, Volume 1 1909 .p.57-68
  6. ^ United States Congressional serial set, Issue 5943 1911 Senate Document #833. pp.67–68. (Includes a list of those who re-enlisted.)
  7. ^ Weaver, John D. (1992) [1970]. The Brownsville Raid (reprint, with new Afterword, ed.). Texas A & M University. ISBN 978-0-89096-528-3. Retrieved July 22, 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Christian, Garna L. (July 1989). "The Brownsville Raid's 168th Man: The Court-Martial of Corporal Knowles". Southwestern Historical Quarterly 93. 
  • Lane, Ann J. (1971). The Brownsville Affair: National Crisis and Black Reaction. Port Washington, New York: National University Publications, Kennikat Press. 
  • The New York Times. September 29, 1972. 

External links[edit]