On December 11, 1917, 13 Black soldiers were hanged following racial violence in Houston. It was the largest mass execution of American soldiers in the history of the U.S. Army.
By September 1918, a total of 110 Black soldiers had been convicted and 19 had been hanged following military trials that the Army on Monday acknowledged were fundamentally unfair and racially biased.
In July 1917, the all-Black 3rd Battalion of the 24th United States Infantry Regiment, a unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers, was stationed at Camp Logan, near Houston, to guard white soldiers preparing for deployment to Europe. From the beginning of their assignment at Camp Logan, the Black soldiers were harassed and abused by Houston police.
Early on August 23, 1917, a well-respected corporal was brutally beaten and jailed by police. Police officers regularly beat Black troops and arrested them on baseless charges; the August 23 assault was the latest in a string of police abuses that had pushed the Black soldiers to their breaking point.
Seemingly under attack by local white authorities, more than 150 Black soldiers armed themselves and left for Houston to confront the police about the persistent violence. They planned to stage a peaceful march to the police station as a demonstration against their mistreatment by police. However, just outside the city, the soldiers encountered a mob of armed white men. In the ensuing violence, four soldiers, four policemen, and 12 civilians were killed.
No white civilians were ever brought to trial for involvement in the violence.
The Army convicted 110 Black soldiers of murder, mutiny, and other crimes in three mass trials where the soldiers were represented by just one officer who was not even a lawyer, Gabe Camarillo, the under secretary of the Army, told The New York Times.
The all-white military court took just two days to convict the first 58 soldiers. Thirteen men were sentenced to death. They were denied any appeal and were hanged less than 24 hours later—sparking negative public reactions and prompting the Army to ban future executions without review by the War Department and the president, Mr. Camarillo said.
Before his execution, Pfc. Thomas C. Hawkins wrote a letter to his parents maintaining his innocence. “When this letter reaches you I will be beyond the veil of sorrow,” he wrote. “I will be in heaven with the angels. I am sentenced to be hanged for the trouble that happened in Houston, Texas. Altho I am not guilty of the crime that I am accused of, but mother, it is God’s will that I go now and in this way.”
The second and third trials resulted in death sentences for an additional 16 soldiers. President Woodrow Wilson commuted 10 of those sentences, but the remaining six men were hanged.
NAACP advocacy and legal assistance later helped secure the early release of most of the 50 soldiers who were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The Army said it received petitions in 2020 and 2021 requesting a review of the convictions; the Secretary of the Army subsequently asked the Army Board for Correction of Military Records to investigate the cases. After a careful review of each individual case, board members found that “significant deficiencies permeated the cases,” according to a statement from the Army. The board acknowledged that the proceedings were “fundamentally unfair” and unanimously recommended that all 110 convictions be set aside.
“After a thorough review, the Board has found that these Soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials,” said Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, who approved the board’s recommendation. “By setting aside their convictions and granting honorable discharges, the Army is acknowledging past mistakes and setting the record straight.”
The Army said that, to the extent possible, the soldiers’ military service will be characterized as “honorable.” Officials told the Times the soldiers will be given proper gravestones recognizing their service and their descendants will become eligible for benefits.
“I am proud that the Army has now formally restored honor to Soldiers of the 3-24 and their families,” Mr. Camarillo said. “We cannot change the past; however, this decision provides the Army and the American people an opportunity to learn from this difficult moment in our history.”