Houston Riot of 1917

“Dear Mother and Father, When this letter reaches you I will be beyond the veil of sorrow. I will be in heaven with the angels…I am sentenced to be hanged for the trouble that happened in Houston, Texas. Altho (sic) 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….”

In the wake of the largest murder trial in United States history, United States v. William C. Nesbit, thirteen Black men, including the previously quoted Thomas Hawkins, were sentenced to death by hanging with no opportunity for appeal. A white soldier from the 19th company recounted the gruesome scene stating, “The unlucky thirteen were lined up. The conductors took their places and the men for the last time heard the command, “March!” Thirteen ropes dangled from the crossbeam of the scaffold, a chair in front of every rope, six on one side, seven on the other. As the ropes were being fastened about the men’s necks, big (Pvt. Frank) Johnson’s voice suddenly broke into a hymn – “Lord, I’m comin’ home” – and the others joined him. The eyes of even the hardest of us were wet.”

Due to the United States active involvement in World War I, the brutal executions were justified under the Articles of War. Additionally, forty-one more soldiers received life-sentences, while four were given a lighter sentence, and five were fully acquitted. The charges against them were disobeying orders, aggravated assault, murder, and mutiny. Although each man maintained their innocence and submitted a not guilty plea, 169 prosecution witnesses provided testimony, compared to twenty-nine for the defense. However, the testimony did not provide conclusive evidence to indict any man, due to forceful coercion, the promise of immunity, and general unreliability. Predictably, this injustice elicited an impassioned and fiery response from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and investigative journalist Martha Gruening wrote of her findings in the NAACP-funded Crisis newspaper. In the introduction of her article, Gruening highlights police brutality as the primary reason for the 1917 Houston Riot. She then delineates the lack of arms amongst Black military police and the lax discipline amongst the ranks as contributing causes for the explosion of violence on the scorching hot summer day.

Gruening correctly observes that the events of the riot were the culmination of simmering racial tensions, sparked by the influx of Black soldiers into Houston. The 24th Infantry, composed of 654 Black men and their all-white officer group, arrived at Camp Logan on July 28th, 1917, one of the thirty-two training facilities across the United States erected in order to expedite military training. Although the majority of these men were raised in the South under Jim Crow, they expected more equitable treatment as servicemen, and many refused to comply with the racist laws. Unsurprisingly, this civil disobedience was met with verbal and physical harassment from the white community, as well as the notoriously racist police force. Black soldiers were arrested regularly for minor violations, and were referred to by racial slurs on a frequent basis, both by the police and the white soldiers and construction workers of their Camp. Ultimately, the mutual hostility reached a fever-pitch on the 23rd of August, in response to an unsubstantiated rumor involving a respected soldier. In the morning hours of the brutal day, officer Lee Sparks, known for his blatant hatred for minorities, and his partner Rufus Daniels entered the home of a minimally clothed Black woman, searching for a man accused of playing dice in the alleyway. Unable to find the man, they arrested the woman, refusing to allow her the opportunity to clothe, cursing and striking her, and accusing her of hiding the fugitive. Private Edwards, a soldier with the 24th Infantry, observed the scene and approached the officers, inquiring about the nature of her arrest, and if he could provide her with clothing. The officers immediately beat him to the ground with their weapons and arrested him.

Later that afternoon Corporal Baltimore, a military policeman from the same unit, approached the officers to question the arrest of his subordinate, as was his duty. Officer Sparks instantaneously opened fire on the Corporal, and being unarmed, he fled the scene. Eventually, he was apprehended and taken to the police station, and although he was subsequently released, a rumor spread to the Camp that he had been shot and killed by the officer. In an emotional response to the unjust events of the day, a group of soldiers recruited others in the unit to march with them to the police station with the intention to free Baltimore, if he was alive, and kill every member of the Houston police they faced. While Major Kneeland Snow and his officers were collecting all of the loose rifles and ammunition around the camp with the hope of quelling any violence, a soldier screamed that a white mob was approaching them. A group of 100 armed soldiers then began a two hour march to the jailhouse, killing fifteen white people, including four policemen. After the group killed Captain Joseph Mattes of the Illinois Guard, mistaking him for a police officer, the men dispersed under the cover of darkness, and the supposed leader of the riot, First Sergeant Vida Henry, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. After the startling events of the 23rd, martial law was implemented on the 24th, and by the 25th, the Battalion was sent back to New Mexico.

Seven years later, the City of Houston took ownership of the land, and created a park to serve as a memorial to the soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. Notably, the memorial does not feature the Black soldiers with the 24th Infantry, whose lives were cut short due to an explosive environment, in which they had no choice but to reside. This erasure was ultimately rectified in 2017, as a group of descendants from both the soldiers and Houston police organized a rededication ceremony, complete with a historical marker to acknowledge the centennial anniversary of the events at Camp Logan. Current Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke at the event, calling for “good people of all backgrounds to speak against hate and stand united”. Unfortunately, less than twenty-four hours later, the monument was desecrated with a smear of red paint, and one of the darkest moments in the history of Houston race relations was once again cast off into the shadows of obscurity.

Video

Houston Riot of 1917
This video features a personal account of the 1917 Houston Riot provided by Houston Community College Professor, Angela Holder. Holder's Great Uncle, Cpl. Jesse Moore, was among the thirteen soldiers hung in response to the riot. Additionally,...
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