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:
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.