Houston riot of 1917

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Houston riot of 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 November 1, 1917, Fort Sam Houston
Date23 August 1917
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
Sergeant Vida Henry General John Wilson Ruckman;
Sheriff John Tobin
Casualties and losses
Deaths: 5 (4 killed by friendly fire during the riot and 1 suicide)
Arrests: 60+
Deaths: 16 (11 civilians and five policemen)
unknown number of wounded
19 soldiers executed after court-martials and other proceedings.

The Camp Logan Mutiny (also called the Houston Riot of 1917) occurred on 23 August 1917. It was a mutiny and riot by 156 soldiers of the Third Battalion of the all-black Twenty-fourth United States Infantry Regiment. The events of the riot occurred within a climate of overt hostility from members of the Houston Police Department against members of the local black community and black soldiers stationed there. Following an incident, where police officers arrested and assaulted some black soldiers, many black soldiers at Camp Logan mutinied and marched to Houston, where they opened fire and killed numerous people. The events took place over a single night, and resulted in the deaths of 11 civilians and five policemen. Four soldiers were also killed and Sergeant Vida Henry, who led the mutineers, died by suicide. In accordance with policies of the time, the soldiers were tried at three courts-martial for mutiny. Nineteen were executed, and 41 were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Gregg Andrews, author of Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle, wrote that the event "shook race relations in the city and created conditions that helped to spark a statewide surge of wartime racial activism".[1]

Preliminary situation[edit]

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

Shortly after the United States declared war on the German Empire in the spring of 1917, the War Department rushed to construct two new military installations in Harris County, TexasCamp Logan and Ellington Field.[2] On July 27, 1917, the Army ordered the Third Battalion of the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry Regiment to Houston to guard the Camp Logan construction site. The regiment traveled to Houston by train from their camp at Columbus, New Mexico, accompanied by seven commissioned officers.[citation needed]

Precipitating causes[edit]

Almost from the arrival of the Twenty-fourth Infantry in Houston, the presence of black soldiers in the segregated Texas city caused conflict.[3]:10 Jim Crow laws were in place when the Twenty-fourth was deployed in Columbus, New Mexico,[4] and as a result, in Houston the soldiers encountered segregated street cars and white workers at Camp Logan who demanded drinking water facilities be separated by race into "white" and "colored". Prior to the riot, the soldiers from the Twenty-fourth were involved in a number of "clashes" with city police, several of which resulted in the soldiers sustaining injuries after being beaten and attacked.[3]:10

Around noon August 23, 1917, Lee Sparks and Rufus Daniels, two Houston police officers, disrupted a gathering on a street corner in Houston's predominantly-black San Felipe district by firing warning shots.[3]:12 Sparks, pursuing those who fled the gunshots, burst into the home of a local woman, Sara Travers.[5] He did not find any of the citizens he was chasing and after refusing to believe Travers protestations that she had no knowledge of the whereabouts of anyone fleeing, struck her and dragged her outside dressed only in a nightgown and arrested her.[6]

As Sparks and Daniels called in the arrest from an area patrol box, they were approached by Private Alonzo Edwards. Edwards offered to take custody of Travers, but instead was pistol-whipped repeatedly by Sparks and then arrested himself.[6] Later that afternoon, Corporal Charles Baltimore approached Sparks and Daniels in the same neighborhood to inquire about the status of Edwards. Sparks struck Baltimore with his pistol and fired three shots at him as he fled into a nearby home. Sparks and Daniels pursued Baltimore, eventually finding him under a bed. They pulled him out, beat him, and placed him under arrest.[3]:10

A rumor reached the camp of the Twenty-fourth that Baltimore had been shot and killed. The soldiers immediately began meeting in small groups to vent their anger and eventually a plan to retaliate for the constant harassment and abuse by initiating a battle with the Houston police was formed and set into motion.[7]:1390 An officer from the Twenty-fourth retrieved the injured Baltimore from the police station, which seemed to calm the soldiers for the moment.[3]:126

The mutiny and riot[edit]

The officers of the Twenty-fourth received reports of impending trouble and violence at the hands of an angry white mob.[8] Major K.S. Snow revoked all passes for the evening and ordered the guard around the camp to be increased, but later that evening stumbled upon a group of men attempting to arm themselves from one of the supply tents.[3]:39 He ordered the men to assemble without arms and warned them that it was "utterly foolish, foolhardy, for them to think of taking the law into their own hands."[3]:40 One of the men, who had smuggled his rifle into the formation, fired it and cried out that a mob was approaching the camp. At this point, order broke down completely and the soldiers mobbed the supply tents, grabbing rifles and ammunition in order to protect themselves.[7]:1292

The soldiers began firing indiscriminately into the surrounding buildings. After several minutes of shooting at the camp, Sergeant Vida Henry ordered the men in the area – about 150 – to fill their canteens, grab extra ammunition, and fall in to march on Houston.[7]:1295 The group marched through neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, firing at houses with outdoor lights. They fired on a car with two white occupants, but let a second car with black occupants pass.[3]:1214 They marched nearly two and a half miles, all the way to the San Felipe district before they encountered any police officers. Due to the disorganization of the police department and the belief that the black soldiers would be unable to arm themselves, officers had only been sent out in small numbers,[9]:141 expecting to quickly subdue unarmed men. The first police casualties occurred when a group of six officers stumbled upon large numbers of armed soldiers. Two policemen (including Rufus Daniels) were killed immediately, and one later died of wounds he had sustained.[3]:527

As the soldiers moved through the town, an open-topped car carrying a man in an olive-drab uniform approached them. Believing this to be the uniform of a Houston mounted policeman, the soldiers opened fire only to discover later that they had killed Captain Joseph W. Mattes of the Illinois National Guard.[3]:651 The killing of a military officer drove home the seriousness of their uprising and of the consequences faced by blacks for attacking whites.[9]:162 At this point, soldiers began to desert the group, and Sergeant Henry led the remainder on a march to return to camp. Just outside the San Felipe district, Henry shook hands with the remaining soldiers and informed them that he planned to kill himself after they left.[7]:1322 Despite this vow, Henry's body was found in the area the next day, with a crushed skull and bayonet wound to the shoulder.[10]

By the time the firing ceased, 17 people were dead (four police officers, nine civilians, and two soldiers).[11] One soldier and a police officer later died from wounds sustained during the riot, and one soldier died from wounds sustained during his capture the next day.

Immediate aftermath[edit]

The next morning, Houston was placed under martial law.[12] The remaining soldiers in the Twenty-fourth's camp were disarmed, and a house-to-house search uncovered a number of soldiers hiding within the San Felipe district. Soldiers in local jails were turned over to the Army, and the Third Battalion was sent by rail back to New Mexico.[13]

In the ensuing court-martial, 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 the army's Southern Department commanding general, General John Wilson Ruckman was "especially anxious for the courts-martial to begin".[9]:251

Ruckman had preferred the proceedings take place in El Paso, but eventually agreed to allow them to remain in San Antonio. Haynes posits the decision was made to accommodate the witnesses who lived in Houston, plus "the countless spectators" who wanted to follow the proceedings (p. 254).[9] Ruckman "urged" the War Department to select a "prestigious court".[9]:255 Three brigadier generals were chosen, along with seven full colonels and three lieutenant colonels. Eight members of the court were West Point graduates.

Map 24th infantry camp; Houston, Texas, showing bullet holes in the vicinity (c. 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.[9]:3 The court recommended clemency for a Private Hudson, but General Ruckman declined to grant it.

The court-martial took 22 days. However, although 169 witnesses testified, the darkness and rain meant that many of the witnesses were unable to correctly identify any of the alleged assailants. Historians have also questioned the veracity of witness testimony, noting that the some of the witnesses who testified as participants were granted immunity or promised leniency.[14][15]

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 taken 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, commenting on 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.[citation needed]

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.[9]:7 Military jurist Frederick Bernays Wiener has observed that Ruckman's approval and execution of the death sentences were "entirely legal" and "in complete conformity" with the 1916 Articles of War.[16]:122

Second and third courts martial[edit]

A second court-martial, the "Washington" case, began six days later. 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. But a new rule, General Orders 167 (December 29, 1917), prohibited the execution of any death sentence until the Judge Advocate General (JAG) could review the sentence(s)[16]:115 (the JAG Boards of Review tasked with reviewing death sentences were created by a subsequent rule, General Orders 7 (January 7, 1918).[16]:115[17]:2–3 Those boards, though they had advisory power only, were the Army's first appellate courts.[17]:3)

While waiting for the JAG review to occur, Ruckman approved a third court-martial, the "Tillman" case, of forty more soldiers. On March 26, 1918, twenty-three of those forty soldiers were found guilty. Eleven of the twenty-three were sentenced to death and the remaining twelve to life in prison. On May 2, Ruckman approved the sentences.[citation needed]

Wilson's clemency and commentary[edit]

Private LeRoy Pickett, convicted of murder, mutiny, and assault with intent to murder. Sentenced to death but received clemency. He was released from prison in 1935.[18]

On August 31, 1918, President Wilson granted clemency to ten soldiers by commuting their death sentences to life in prison.[19] Wilson issued a rare public statement in order that the basis of his action might be "a matter of record."[20]

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."[19] He noted the investigations that followed were "very searching and thorough", in the fashion of most investigations involving alleged attacks by black citizens. In each of the three proceedings, the court was promised to be "properly constituted" and composed of "officers of experience and sobriety of judgment." Wilson also took pains to claim that "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, technically there were "no legal errors" which had "prejudiced the rights of the accused."[20]

Wilson stated that he affirmed the death sentences of six soldiers because there was "plain evidence" that they "deliberately" engaged in "shocking brutality."[20] 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."[20]

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".[19] 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, despite the pledge of fair trials and absolute transparency.[15][21] On September 29, 1918, five more soldiers met their deaths at daybreak. One week later, the sixth was marched to the gallows.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The hanging of the first 13 soldiers is mentioned in part 4 of the 1979 television miniseries Roots: The Next Generations.
  • KHOU, a CBS affiliated TV station located in Houston produced a documentary of the riot in 2006 entitled Mutiny on the Bayou: The Camp Logan Story.[22]
  • The 24th, a movie about the riot, was filmed partly in the Brooklyn-South Square section of Salisbury, North Carolina in June 2019 tells a more balanced version of the events.[23]
  • Fire and Movement is a newly commissioned public performance by interdisciplinary Chicago-based artist Jefferson Pinder in 2019. The uprising saw African American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th United States Infantry revolt and attempt to march on the city police department after experiencing abuse from white citizens and the police in Jim Crow-era Houston. On July 11, 2019, Pinder and a trained group of performers retraced the route taken by African American soldiers. This incident is one of Houston’s most complicated and often-misrepresented historical events.
  • In late 2021, Latino author and lawyer Jaime Salazar (Legion of the Lost, Escaping the Amazon) is to release an updated account of the mutiny and courts martial, Mutiny of Rage. The work is published by Rowman & Littlefield and represented by Leticia Gomez of Savvy Literary Agency. A foreword was penned by distinguished military law professor and retired US Army JAG lieutenant colonel Geoffrey Corn. Salazar, a graduate of South Texas College of Law Houston, had access to recently declassified archives, court transcripts, and historical archives.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Andrews, Gregg. Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle. University of Missouri Press, 2011/06/14. ISBN 0826219128, 9780826219121. p. 20.
  2. ^ Johnson, Thomas A. (1999), A History of the Houston Police Department, retrieved 2013-03-02
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j United States vs. Sergeant William C. Nesbit, et al., vol 1.
  4. ^ "Negro Uprising Been Feared For Days, Says Chief". Houston Chronicle. August 24, 1917. p. 5.
  5. ^ Christian, Garna L. (January 1, 2009). "The Houston Mutiny of 1917". Trotter Review. 18 (1): 112.
  6. ^ a b Greuning, Martha (November 1917). "Houston: An N.A.A.C.P. Investigation". The Crisis. 15 (1). pp. 14–19. ISSN 0011-1422.
  7. ^ a b c d United States vs. Corporal Robert Tillman, et al., 24th Infantry, vol 2.
  8. ^ Record of Trial by General Court Martial of Corporal John Washington, et al., 24th Infantry, vol 1, p. 22.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Haynes, Robert V. (1976). A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 978-0-8071-0172-8.
  10. ^ "Vida Henry Inquest". August 24, 1917.
  11. ^ "17 Killed; 21 Are Injured in Wild Night". Houston Chronicle. August 24, 1917. p. 1.
  12. ^ "Martial Law Declared". Houston Post. August 24, 1917. p. 1.
  13. ^ Trotter, Joe William (2001). The African American Experience: From Reconstruction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  14. ^ Brown, Deneen L. (August 24, 2017). "Relatives seek justice for the mass hanging of black soldiers after the bloody 1917 Houston riots". Washington Post. Stars and Stripes. Retrieved February 12, 2018.
  15. ^ a b Smith, C. Calvin (1991). "The Houston Riot of 1917, Revisited" (PDF). Houston Review. 13: 85–95. Retrieved 2013-03-02.
  16. ^ a b c Wiener, Frederick Bernays (1989). "The Seamy Side of the World War I Court-Martial Controversy" (PDF). Military Law Review. 123: 109–28. Retrieved December 11, 2015.
  17. ^ a b Borch, Fred L., III (2011). "'The Largest Murder Trial in the History of the United States': The Houston Riots Court-Martial of 1917" (PDF). The Army Lawyer (February 2011): 1–3.
  18. ^ Graham, Priscilla T. (13 April 2019). Camp Logan. Lulu.com. ISBN 9781387021086 – via Google Books.
  19. ^ a b c Morris, Lawrence J. (2010). Military Justice: A Guide to the Issues. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-275-99366-5.
  20. ^ a b c d "President Saves Rioters; Commutes Sentences of Half a Score of Negro Soldiers Convicted of Murder". The New York Times. September 5, 1918. p. 10. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2013-03-02.
  21. ^ Smith, C. Calvin (1991). "The Houston Riot of 1917, Revisited". Griot. 10 (1): 3–12.
  22. ^ Mutiny on the Bayou. KHOU TV. OCLC 64667563.
  23. ^ Moomey, Liz (June 27, 2019). "Brooklyn-South Square tunes in as 'The 24th' continues filming". Salisbury Post.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]