On the afternoon of Thursday 23 August 1917 Private Alonzo Edwards, Company L, Third Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment, was arrested for interceding with two white police officers in the arrest of Houston resident Sara Travers. That incident triggered a series of events culminating in a night of spectacular violence that would leave almost twenty people dead and many more wounded, some of them mortally. It led to three trials over the next seven months that gripped Americans and challenged assumptions about race and Jim Crow segregation. It required the attention of local law enforcement officials, military authorities, the Secretary of War, and ultimately President Woodrow Wilson himself. Finally, it led to the hanging deaths of nineteen African-American soldiers and life sentences for scores of others. I wrote this piece in different form for a class almost fifteen years ago and wanted to share it on the anniversary of one of worst days in American history.
The Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment
The Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment had a long history of service. In the decades after the Civil War these Buffalo Soldiers protected communication and supply lines during the Indian Campaigns, and in 1898 went up San Juan Heights with Theodore Roosevelt. They fought in the Philippine Insurrection and in 1916 were stationed in New Mexico under the leadership of Brigadier General John J. Pershing, protecting supply lines between Columbus, New Mexico and Ojo Federico, Mexico. The Third Battalion of the Twenty-Fourth arrived in Houston on 28 July 1917. Things got off to a bad start. The Twenty-Fourth had less than half the officers assigned to a full regiment, and two of its companies were commanded by first lieutenants, not captains. The quality of this leadership was poor, as many white officers did not want a commission leading negro troops. Conditions were spartan and the soldiers were camped on the outskirts of town between the city limits and a more established base for whites called Camp Logan, where the men pulled guard duty. Cramped conditions in a hot and humid Southern city, far away from the action in Europe was bad enough. Dealing with the Jim Crow restrictions was worse. Relations between the soldiers and the local civilians were tense. The presence of the Twenty-Fourth, however, raised expectations in the local African-American community.
Tensions simmered for weeks in the summer heat and when the riot came it happened quickly. In the early afternoon of 23 August Private Edwards asked two police officers why they were arresting Ms. Travers and for this was himself detained. A few hours later Corporal Charles Baltimore of the Twenty-Fourth’s Third Battalion went to police headquarters in his capacity as a military policeman to check on Private Edwards’ status. A scuffle ensued in which Baltimore was shot at, apprehended, beaten, and taken into custody. A rumor spread quickly to the base that Baltimore had been killed. By nightfall a contingent of 125-150 soldiers of the Twenty-Fourth had amassed and began marching from their camp into Houston. In the succeeding hours, the armed soldiers killed four policemen and eleven residents, wounded an additional dozen, and caused intense panic in the city. Four men from the Twenty-Fourth Regiment lost their lives.
News spread rapidly throughout the country of the Houston incident. The New York Times had a small article, way below the fold, on page one of the 24 August edition sketching out the still-hazy details. A day later the newspaper had a significantly larger article, this time above the fold. Over the seven months there were no less than three trials relating to the Houston riot. The first court-martial was in November 1917 and led to the hanging of thirteen soldiers and life sentences for forty-one others. The next two trials concluded in December 1917 and March 1918. The punishment called for a total of sixteen death sentences and prison sentences of varying lengths for thirty-six other individuals. This time the government’s position was more cautious. Secretary of War Newton Baker wrote to President Wilson counseling that the number of death sentences in the two cases be reduced to six, with the remaining commuted to life sentences. Wilson acted on Baker’s recommendations.
(images/Baseball & Old Mexico, NYPL; Philippine Islands & Pershing/Bliss, LOC)