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1917: Thirteen black soldiers of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment

December 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1917, thirteen black soldiers were secretly hanged at dawn at a military camp outside San Antonio for their parts in a Houston race riot four months earlier.

During the nadir of American race relations and just months after America’s entry into World War I, the soldiers of this historic all-black unit had been dispatched to build military facilities in Harris County, where they met animosity from whites beyond the everyday insults of Jim Crow law. Here, the service of “arrogant, strutting representatives of black soldiery” was hated and feared.

When white police arrested a black infantryman who tried to prevent their detaining a drunk black woman, then beat up and shot at a black corporal sent to inquire after him, hostility boiled over. Over one hundred soldiers marched through the city — confronting a mob of white citizens and police who had likewise armed themselves. Fifteen whites and four blacks were killed in the ensuing confrontation.

This documentary segment is from Mutiny on the Bayou:

The next day’s Houston Chronicle knew just what to do about it.

Their lenient treatment has led negro soldiers to believe that the government is in sympathy with their arrogance and impudence toward white people …

A COURT MARTIAL, A HOLLOW SQUARE AND A FIRING SQUAD WILL SETTLE THE MATTER FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL.

No white Houstonian was ever prosecuted for the day’s events, but the largest court-martial in U.S. military history tried 63 black soldiers and condemned 13 to die:

Sgt. William C. Nesbitt
Corp. Larsen J. Brown
Corp. James Wheatley
Corp. Jesse Moore
Corp. Charles W. Baltimore*
Pvt. William Brackenridge
Pvt. Thomas C. Hawkins
Pvt. Carlos Snodgrass
Pvt. Ira B. Davis
Pvt. James Divine
Pvt. Frank Johnson
Pvt. Rosley W. Young
Pvt. Pat MacWharter

The sentence was carried out without appeal, the time and place only announced after the men had already hanged but evidently witnessed by the New York Times reporter who wrote that “the negroes, dressed in their regular uniforms, displayed neither bravado nor fear. They rode to the execution singing a hymn, but the singing was as that of soldiers on the march.”

Two more mass courts-martial would follow, resulting in six more hangings the following year.

For years afterward, the incident clouded and complicated race relations, especially in the War Department.

Some blacks openly applauded the mutiny as a justified resistance against racist provocation. This inflammatory opinion piece, quoted in Mark Ellis’ Race, War and Surveillance, landed the editor who agreed to run it in federal prison:

We would rather see you shot by the highest tribunal of the United States Army because you dared to protect a Negro woman from the insult of a southern brute in the form of a policeman, than to have you forced to go to Europe to fight for a liberty you cannot enjoy. Negro women regret that you mutinied, and we are sorry that you spilt innocent blood, but we are not sorry that five southern policemen’s bones now bleech [sic] in the graves of Houston, Tex.

Meanwhile, the Army noted “the tendency of the Negro soldier, with fire arms in his possession … to become arrogant, overbearing, abusive and a menace to the community in which he happens to be stationed.” It held down its black enlistment throughout the interwar period.

Sympathizers with the policy would continue — until the raw manpower requirements of World War II trumped the discussion — to cite the Houston riots both as evidence of the dangers of arming blacks, and the disloyalty of a populace willing to register open disgust with lynch law during wartime.

* Baltimore was the soldier who had come after the missing men; his altercation with a white policeman who answered, “I don’t report to any negro” and pistol-whipped him — and, it was incorrectly rumored among the 24th Infantry that night, killed him — triggered the riot.

Baltimore’s role is developed in a fascinating study of primary documentation on the case in Edgar A. Schuler’s “The Houston Race Riot, 1917″ published in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (July, 1944). Schuler also treats the interesting tensions between the Houston black community and the black regiment, and the emergence of a white narrative of uppity, out-of-control Negroes rather than ones responding (however wrongly) to specific provocations … which conveniently turned Jim Crow law from the problem into the solution.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rioting,Soldiers,Texas,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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10 Responses to “1917: Thirteen black soldiers of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment”

  1. 1
    Flash Says:

    Found at blackfacts.com: 1917 Lynchings
    Thirty-six Blacks reporters lynched in 1917.

    Searched the web found your site but no matching story. Already sent inquiry to blackfacts just wondering if you know about same incident.

  2. 2
    Headsman Says:

    I don’t know, but I’d love to have more. That sounds like it must be a total for the year rather than a single incident. I’d imagine that NAACP Legal Defense Fund might also have more background, or know where to get it?

  3. 3
    The Vapour Trail Says:

    [...] rights-movement photography at the the Smithsonian International Gallery. Also a harrowing post on Executed Today. It tells us about 13 black soldiers secretly hanged by a military tribunal in 1917 for their part [...]

  4. 4
    ExecutedToday.com » Executed Today’s Second Annual Report: Once Bitten, Twice Die Says:

    [...] 13 black soldiers of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment – a once-notorious racial incident in the Jim Crow South that helped keep the military segregated until World War II. [...]

  5. 5
    Open thread for night owls: Illinois bans capital punishment | Anti American Says:

    [...] nation’s history were of Indians and African Americans. Those were long ago. But today [...]

  6. 6
    Illinois Bans Capital Punishment | luna-canus.com Says:

    [...] two largest mass executions in the nation’s history were of Indians and African Americans. Those were long ago. But today capital punishment continues to be racist, as does the [...]

  7. 7
    ExecutedToday.com » 1911: Laura and Lawrence Nelson lynched Says:

    [...] This blustery conservative southern Democrat would, the next year, name his third child for the Confederate-friendly academic Woodrow Wilson, who was then making a run for the White House that would see the U.S. to the nadir of its race relations. [...]

  8. 8
    ExecutedToday.com » Executioner-in-Chief: a tour of U.S. Presidents and the death penalty Says:

    [...] execution, but he kept the U.S. out of World War I until he didn’t. Wilson presided over the nadir of race relations … which is why an Oklahoma white supremacist named his son for Woodrow and gave the future [...]

  9. 9
    Edens Sahara Says:

    This is just another ironclad reason why black people should stay the hell out of the US Army. We should not be defending a rotten colony that has slaughtered our men, women and children from its inception… and continues to slaughter us to this very day.

  10. 10
    ExecutedToday.com » 1902: Privates Edmond Dubose and Lewis Russell, deserters to the Philippine Resistance Says:

    [...] put down Philippine national resistance against the American occupation faced an obvious conundrum: they were second-class citizens back home, fighting a savage war to keep Filipinos second-class citizens [...]

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