Houston Riot (1917)

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Houston Riot (1917)
Largest Murder Trial in the History of the United States. Scene during Court Martial of 64 members . . . - NARA - 533485.tif
Court Martial of 64 members of the 24th Infantry. Trial started Nov. 1, 1917, Fort Sam Houston
Location Houston, Texas
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
Arrests, etc
Deaths: 28
Injuries:
Arrests: 51+
Deaths: 16
Injuries:

The Houston Riot of 1917, or Camp Logan Riot, was a mutiny by 156 African American soldiers of the Third Battalion of the all-black Twenty-fourth United States Infantry Regiment. It occupied most of one night, and resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and sixteen civilians. The rioting soldiers were tried at three courts-martial. A total of nineteen would be executed, and forty-one were given life sentences.

Preliminary situation[edit]

Map of Buffalo Bayou area - Camp Logan Riots (circa 1917)

In the spring of 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Imperial Germany, the War Department, taking advantage of the temperate climate and newly opened Houston Ship Channel, ordered two military installations built in Harris County, TexasCamp Logan and Ellington Field.[1] To guard the Camp Logan construction site, the Army on July 27, 1917, ordered the Third Battalion of the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry Regiment to travel to Houston by train from their camp at Columbus, New Mexico, accompanied by seven white commissioned officers.

Precipitating causes[edit]

Around noon August 23, 1917, two Houston police officers stormed into the home of a black woman, allegedly looking for someone in the neighborhood, after firing a warning shot outside. They physically assaulted her, then dragged her partially clad into the street, all in view of her five small children. The woman began screaming, demanding to know why she was being arrested, and a crowd began to gather. A soldier from the 24th Infantry, Alonso Edwards stepped forward to ask what was going on. The police officers promptly beat him to the ground and arrested him as well. Their official reports and later news reports stated the soldier was charged with interfering with the arrest of a publicly drunk female.[2] Later that afternoon, Corporal Charles Baltimore went to the Houston police station to investigate the arrest, as well as beating of another black soldier, and also to attempt to gain the release of the soldier. An argument began which led to violence, and Corporal Baltimore was beaten, shot at, and himself arrested by the police. Once he was set free and sent back to camp all beaten up, the infantry became angry, and decided to strike on the evening of August 23.[3]

The riot[edit]

The Camp Logan riot began the evening of August 23, when 156 angry soldiers stole weapons from the camp depot and marched on the city of Houston. They were met outside the city by the police and a crowd of armed citizens, frightened by the reports of a mutiny. A virtual race riot began, which left 20 people dead - four soldiers, four policemen, and 12 civilians. Order was restored the next day, and the War Department disarmed the soldiers. The Third Battalion was sent by rail back to New Mexico.[3]

Immediate aftermath[edit]

Martial law was declared in Houston, and the Third Battalion was not only returned to Columbus, New Mexico, but the entire regiment was later transferred to the Philippines. Seven of its soldiers agreed to testify in exchange for clemency.

Almost two hundred witnesses testified over twenty-two days, and the transcripts of the testimony covered more than two thousand pages. Author Robert V. Haynes suggests that General John Wilson Ruckman was “especially anxious for the courts-martial to begin” (p. 251).[4] Ruckman had preferred the proceedings take place in El Paso, but eventually agreed to allow them to remain in San Antonio. Haynes feels the decision was made to accommodate the witnesses who lived in Houston, plus “the countless spectators” who wanted to follow the proceedings (p. 254).[4] Ruckman “urged” the War Department to select a “prestigious court” (p. 255).[4] Three brigadier generals were chosen, along with seven full colonels and three lieutenant colonels. Eight members of the court were West Point graduates. The court contained a geographic balance between northerners, southerners and westerners.[citation needed]

Map 24th infantry camp; Houston, Texas, showing bullet holes in vicinity (circa 1917)

The Departmental Judge Advocate General, Colonel George Dunn, reviewed the record of the first court martial (known as “the Nesbit Case.”) and approved the sentences. He forwarded the documents materials to Gen. Ruckman on December 3. Six days later, thirteen of the prisoners (including Corporal Baltimore) were told that they would be hanged for murder, but they were not informed of the time or place (p. 3).[4] The court recommended clemency for a Private Hudson, but General Ruckman declined to grant it. Many soldiers were wrongly accused because no witnesses were able to distinguish the soldiers during the riot.

The first hanging[edit]

The condemned soldiers (one sergeant, four corporals, and eight privates) were transferred to a barracks on December 10. That evening, motor trucks carried new lumber for scaffolds to some bathhouses built for the soldiers at Camp Travis near a swimming pool in the Salado Creek. The designated place of execution was several hundred yards away. Army engineers completed their work by the light of bonfires. The thirteen condemned men were awakened at five in the morning and brought to the gallows. They were hanged simultaneously, at 7.17am, one minute before sunrise. The scaffolds were disassembled and every piece returned to Fort Sam Houston. The New York Times, impressed by the clean-up operations, observed the place of execution and place of burial were “indistinguishable.” Only army officers and County Sheriff John Tobin had been allowed to witness the execution.

Gen. Ruckman told reporters he had personally approved the death sentences and said that forty-one soldiers had been given life sentences and four received sentences of two and a half years or less. He said he was the one who chose the time and place for the executions. (p. 7).[4] Weiner’s 1989 law review articles point out that what Ruckman had done in the first court martial was “entirely legal” and “in complete conformity” with the 1916 Articles of War. This conclusion was reported in the nation’s newspapers.

Second court martial[edit]

Six days later, a second court martial began (known as “the Washington Case”). Fifteen men of the Lower A Division were tried and five were sentenced to death. On January 2, 1918, Ruckman approved the sentences in a public statement. A new rule - General Orders No. 167, dated December 29, 1917 - prohibited the execution of any death sentence until after review by the Judge Advocate General’s Office. Just over two weeks after Ruckman approved of the verdicts in the second court martial, the War Department also issued General Orders No. 7 requiring that – as a matter of policy - all death sentences be suspended until the President of the United States could officially review all records. It is certain that Major General Ruckman was aware that this order was in the making. The Washington Post reported that representatives of the New York branch of the NAACP had presented a petition to President Wilson to extend clemency to the five soldiers recently sentenced to hang. The Commander of the Southern Department waited until both the Secretary of War and President Woodrow Wilson could review the case.

Meanwhile, Ruckman approved the holding of a third court martial (known as “the Tillman Case”) to try forty more soldiers. Haynes suggests the announcement of the third trial encouraged President Woodrow Wilson to wait to review records until all of the verdicts were in for the Houston Riot cases. On March 26, twenty-three soldiers were found guilty. Eleven were sentenced to death and the others to life in prison. On May 2, Ruckman approved the sentences.

Wilson's clemency and commentary[edit]

On August 31, 1918, President Wilson granted clemency to ten soldiers by commuting their death sentences to life in prison.[5] Wilson also issued a rare public statement in order that the basis of his action might be “a matter of record.”[6]

The President’s statement began by recounting the events that led to the deaths of “innocent bystanders” who were “peaceable disposed civilians of the City of Houston.”[5] He noted the investigations that followed were “very searching and thorough.” In each of the three proceedings, the court was “properly constituted” and composed of “officers of experience and sobriety of judgment.” Wilson also noted “extraordinary precautions” were taken to “insure the fairness of the trials” and, in each instance, the rights of the defendants were “surrounded at every point” by the “safeguards” of “a humane administration of the law.” As a result, there were “no legal errors” which had “prejudiced the rights of the accused.”[6]

Wilson stated that he affirmed the death sentences of six soldiers because there was “plain evidence” that they “deliberately” engaged in “shocking brutality.”[6] On the other hand, he commuted the remaining sentences because he believed the “lesson” of the lawless riot had already been “adequately pointed.” He desired the “splendid loyalty” of African American soldiers be recognized and expressed the hope that clemency would inspire them “to further zeal and service to the country.”

Most importantly, from General Ruckman’s standpoint, Wilson (a former law professor) wrote the actions taken by the former Commander of the Southern Department were “legal and justified by the record.” Indeed, the President agreed that “a stern redress” of the rioters’ “wrongs” was the “surest protection of society against their further recurrence.” However, the morality and justice of the trial was doubted from the first.[5] As historian Calvin C. Smith noted in 1991, there was no proof of a "conspiracy," and many of the sentenced were not conclusively identified in the dark and rainy night as having even participated in the riot.[7] Whites who defended Houston from the illegal actions of the rioting blacks were not charged for their actions.[8]

On September 29, 1918, five more soldiers met their deaths at daybreak. One week later, the sixth was marched to the gallows.

Camp Logan today[edit]

Map – Camp Logan (circa, 1917)

The area where Camp Logan was located is now called Memorial Park. It is bordered by highways I-10 and I-610.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Johnson, Thomas A. (1999), A History of the Houston Police Department., retrieved 2013-03-02 
  2. ^ Greuning, Martha (November 1917). "Houston". The Crisis 15 (1). pp. 14–19. ISSN 0011-1422. 
  3. ^ a b Trotter, Joe William (2001). The African American Experience: From Reconstruction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Haynes, Robert V. 1976. A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge.
  5. ^ a b c Morris, Lawrence J. (2010-02-26). Military Justice: A Guide To The Issues. ABC-CLIO. 
  6. ^ a b c "PRESIDENT SAVES RIOTERS.; Commutes Sentences of Half a Score of Negro Soldiers Convicted of Murder.". The New York Times. 1918-09-05. p. 10. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2013-03-02. 
  7. ^ Smith, C. Calvin (1991). "The Houston Riot of 1917, Revisited". Houston Review 13: 85–95. Retrieved 2013-03-02. 
  8. ^ Smith, C. Calvin (1991). "The Houston Riot of 1917, Revisited". Griot 10 (1): 3–12. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]