Often referred to in history as a “riot” and a “mutiny,” the actions of more than 150 Black soldiers in 1917 serve as a reminder of just how deep police brutality against Black Americans is rooted in U.S. history. While the story of the Black soldiers rebelling against Houston police occurred just after the United States declared war in World War I and during the Jim Crow era, the actions by local cops and members of the community leading up to the uprising speak to many of the same issues we still have today. The soldiers were provoked into an encounter that would demonize them as insolent in the eyes of White people.
Shortly after the declaration of war, the United States began construction on two military facilities in the Houston area, Camp Logan (now Memorial Park) and Ellington Field. The all-Black 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment was deployed from Columbus, New Mexico, to guard the construction site of Camp Logan in Harris County, Texas (just outside of Houston at the time). Accompanied by seven White commissioned officers, the regiment traveled to Houston by train.
Immediately upon arrival in the heavily segregated city of Houston, the sight of armed Black men wearing uniforms angered White residents. The soldiers encountered racial slurs from the locals, including the construction workers they were protecting — who also demanded separate drinking fountains. Streetcar conductors demanded that the Black soldiers sit in the back of the trolleys. Troops were also incensed by “Whites Only” signs all over the city.¹
I was frequently told that Negroes in uniform were inevitably “insolent” and that members of the military police in particular were frequently “insolent” to the white police of Houston.Gruening (1917)
Most of the Black soldiers, who had honorably served in operations overseas, had incursions that historians refer to as “clashes” with locals who used the n-word — to which soldiers expressed their displeasure. According to court records, the defense for the soldiers explained: “The word ‘Ni**er’ appears to have been employed in connection with almost every case of disorder and was invariably met by angry responses, outbursts of profanity and threats of vengeance.” (Text from South Texas College of Law digital collection.)
In several cases, soldiers were beaten and injured by police. The defense argued this: “Up to August 23rd, 1917, there had been a number of clashes between soldiers and the city police and between soldiers and white workmen at the Camp. Most of these incidents consisted merely in applying, epithets of opprobrium to each other, but in several cases, soldiers were arrested and beaten up by the police. Without going into the merits of individual cases or attempting to pass judgment on the same, the fact remains that in several instances, colored soldiers of the 24th Infantry actually did receive injuries at the hands of the city Police.”
Many indicators point to the soldiers’ frustration regarding police brutality against Black citizens leading up to August 23, 1917. However, the incident that would ignite the uprising occurred when two Houston police officers, Rufus Daniels and Lee Sparks, broke up a gathering on a street corner in a predominantly Black neighborhood by firing warning shots. Sparks claimed they were breaking up a dice game when he pursued those who fled. He claimed one of the suspects entered the home of a local woman, Sara Travers, per court documents.
Upon searching her home for suspects and finding none, Sparks refused to believe Travers’ statements that she didn’t know any of the suspects or their whereabouts. He then began to beat Travers and drag her outside half-naked in front of her five children. According to historical records, as Sparks and Daniels called in the arrest via an area call box, they were approached by Pvt. Alonzo Edwards, who offered to get clothes for Travers. Instead, Sparks pistol-whipped Edwards and arrested him as well.²
As tensions continued to mount, one of the most respected soldiers in the regiment, Cpl. Charles Baltimore — who is Black and was one of 12 Black military police officers, approached officers Daniels and Sparks to ask about Edwards’ status as he was required to do. While the details of the discussion are unknown, Baltimore stopped a half-block away. Sparks then fired three shots at the corporal, who took off running. Daniels and Sparks followed him, searched a nearby home, and found him. The corporal was dragged to the street, beaten, and arrested.³
The feeling is strong among the colored people of Houston that this was the real cause of the riot. “You may have observed,” one of them said to me, “that Southerners do not like to fight the Negroes on equal terms. This is at the back of all the Southern feeling against Negro soldiers. If Corporal Baltimore had been armed, they would never have dared to set upon him and we should not have had a riot.” This was the general feeling I found among the colored people of Houston.Gruening (1917)
After the altercation, a small group of Black soldiers marched two miles into the city to demand the release of Baltimore. While the soldiers successfully retrieved him from police custody, the initial report from police that Baltimore was shot and killed had circulated among troops. Upon his return to Camp Logan, tensions remained high. The fuse that was lit with the beating and arrest of Edwards would soon explode.
On the evening of August 23, 1917, officers of the 24th Infantry Regiment began receiving reports of impending trouble by an angry White mob. While battalion commander Maj. Kneeland S. Snow initially discounted the claims of threats from an angry mob, around 8 p.m., Sgt. Vida Henry confirmed the threat. Snow then revoked all passes to the city of Houston for the evening, ordered the first sergeants to collect all weapons and ammunition, and ordered the guard around Camp Logan to be increased.³
Shortly after the orders were handed down, Snow reportedly found a group of Black soldiers attempting to arm themselves from a supply tent. According to court records, Snow ordered the men to assemble unarmed, warning them that it would be “utterly foolish, foolhardy, for them to think of taking the law into their own hands.” During the process of securing the camp, a soldier screamed that a White mob was fast approaching Camp Logan.³
As news of a White mob at the camp spread, Black soldiers rushed the supply tents, armed themselves, and allegedly began firing in the direction of the mob. Court testimony asserts that order at Camp Logan among Black soldiers quickly broke down, and troops began firing indiscriminately into buildings surrounding the camp. After the initial gunfire ended, it was alleged that Henry ordered soldiers in the area to grab extra ammunition, fill their canteens, and prepare to march into Houston.³
In all, about 150 Black soldiers began the two and a half-mile march to the San Felipe district of the city, where they would first encounter police. According to court testimony, the soldiers were accused of firing at houses on their journey into the city. Witnesses also accused the soldiers of firing on a car with White occupants while allowing a car with Black occupants to pass. In addition, White witnesses claimed the soldiers murdered civilians in cold blood.²
The Army established an all-White court in San Antonio made up of three brigadier generals, seven full colonels, and three lieutenant colonels. Testimony was heard for 22 days from 169 witnesses for the prosecution and 29 for the defense.⁸ Many Black residents who were witnesses to the events that unfolded were not interviewed or called to testify. Their accounts were recorded by Martha Gruening in the November 1917 edition of The Crisis, an NAACP publication.⁴
I been down to the Prosecutor’s office today. He asked me what did I know about the riot. I said, “I didn’t know nothing about it” … but I could tell him what happened before the riot to make it happen, and I started to tell him that Sparks came into my house and hit me. He say he didn’t want to hear anything more about that and he sent me home. That’s what I had to spend my carfare on.Sara Travers as quoted in The Crisis (1917)
The soldiers intended to march on the police station to hold the police accountable for their attacks on soldiers. Gruening wrote, “Even the white people of Houston do not believe that their original intention was to shoot up the town.” Nevertheless, the notion that soldiers fired on police and civilians indiscriminately has been adopted by many historians despite witness reports that soldiers were “met with opposition,” and that “they gave battle with terrible results.”²
The soldiers’ intent to protest at the police station quickly turned tragic, resulting in 17 deaths (four police officers, 11 civilians, and two soldiers). One of the victims was a young White girl who was killed by a stray bullet in a battle between soldiers and civilians. Another soldier and police officer later died from injuries sustained during the uprising, and a fourth soldier also died from injuries sustained during his capture the next day.³
The evidence is clear that Camp Logan had been fired into by outside forces and that the frightened soldiers panicked, seized their weapons, and left camp to meet their assailants.Smith (1991)
The Camp Logan uprising is regarded as the only uprising where more White people were killed than Black people. During the Jim Crow era, the anger and rage in Houston were so palpable that it’s no surprise court testimony would favor those with power to exact revenge rather than seek justice. In this case, as with every case of Black men facing prosecution, that’s precisely what happened. Houstonians wanted justice in a way any city in the South at the time would: by hanging. Their wishes would be granted using one-sided and often false testimony.
After an investigation made it apparent that the police instigated the uprising, the attempt to shift blame kicked into high gear almost immediately. As Gruening noted, “Strange stories began to be circulated in the papers and by word of mouth as to the real cause of the friction between soldiers and police … Testimony to this effect, which was obviously absurd, was given and reported apparently in all seriousness before the Citizen’s Board of Inquiry.”⁴
As with every case in history involving the Black community rising up to defend itself, this was no different and was quickly labeled a “riot.” The blame was immediately placed on the Black soldiers for being insolent and disobedient for not respecting Jim Crow laws. As many soldiers refused to sit in the back of trolleys and pushed back against the word “ni**er” being hurled at them, they began to draw more ire from White citizens who demanded their submissiveness.
Tensions inevitably escalated, and citizens began to involve the police — known for brutalizing Black citizens — who then began beating Black soldiers and arresting them. These incursions were corroborated by most witnesses in court. However, the narrative was to paint the soldiers as insolent and violent. The beatings by police were deemed justified based on the notion that the Black soldiers weren’t passive and silent in the face of official oppression as the Black community in Houston had been at the time.⁸
The soldiers were accustomed to being treated more respectfully while in New Mexico largely because of their service to the nation. And despite many of them being from the South, they had hoped their status as veterans would count for something in Houston. Almost immediately upon arrival and at the behest of angry citizens, the soldiers were disarmed in an effort to ease tensions in a city where Jim Crow laws were heavily enforced. The White population feared armed Black soldiers in uniform particularly because they commanded the respect they experienced elsewhere for their sacrifices overseas. Houstonians did not oblige that respect.⁶
It was again the insolence of the Negro soldiers which in this case took the form of ignoring the Jim Crow regulations of Houston, particularly on the Houston Street cars.Gruening (1917)
Even today, it’s easy to see how the uprising has been framed. Despite all of the available evidence to the contrary, the soldiers of Camp Logan are largely viewed as criminals simply for mutiny. The context of what led to the uprising—the near-constant clashes with police and the nonstop harassment by Houstonians—are rarely mentioned. Pushing Black people to the brink of fighting back, even violently, is too often ignored in history and in the stories told today.
The men were accused of many things to try to justify the actions of police officers who beat and arrested them. From ransacking streetcars and forcing White people to give up their seats to being accused of public drunkenness, none of which was corroborated in court. It was used instead as a narrative to beat Black soldiers and arrest them for their impertinence. This general narrative was applied to all Black soldiers in the days preceding the uprising.⁸
Historians still use these narratives to paint the Black soldiers as a mutinous pack of ungrateful “savages.” For example, they still declare that Henry was the ringleader of what they often refer to as an “attack” or “riot” based on testimony that was coerced. Henry at one point commanded the soldiers to return to base and advised them that he would die by suicide after an Illinois National Guard soldier was killed. He would not be given the opportunity to take his own life. Historians continue to perpetuate the lie that Henry died by suicide on the night of the uprising despite the coroner’s report declaring he was murdered and his skull was caved in.⁸
The trial of the soldiers wasn’t just riddled with false and largely unverifiable testimony. Their defense was in the hands of a man who wasn’t a lawyer. Maj. Harry S. Grier was the inspector general of the 36th Division and had taught law at West Point but had no trial experience and only two weeks of preparation. The soldiers were charged with disobeying orders, mutiny, murder, and aggravated assault.¹
All of the men entered not guilty pleas and maintained their innocence until their deaths.
The expediency of the trial raised many questions about whether justice was served. Men were tried in three separate groups. And despite the testimony of nearly 200 witnesses, none of them could identify any of the alleged assailants due to the darkness and the rain on the night of the uprising. It’s worth noting that many of the witnesses were also granted clemency or leniency (including those who accused Henry of leading an attack on the city of Houston), therefore many questions have arisen regarding the veracity of witness testimony.⁹
Indicted battalion members, accused of participating largely because they missed roll call or were found off base the night of the shooting, became enveloped in a civilian-military dispute over prosecution. The military ultimately won out.Christian (2009)
During the trials that lasted between November 1, 1917, and March 26, 1918, all of the testimony entered into the record was inconclusive that any of the men on trial had participated in the uprising. Regardless, the first trial (called the Nesbit trial) sentenced 13 soldiers to death for their assumed roles in the riot. They were executed in secrecy on December 11 with little notice and no opportunity to appeal.⁹
The second and third trials (the Washington and Tillman trials) resulted in another 11 death sentences. Although some were commuted after the trial, six more soldiers were hanged. Out of the 118 men tried, 110 were found guilty of at least one charge.⁵ The swiftness of the trials and the executions were largely justified using the Articles of War since the U.S. had declared war on Germany. This angered many in the Black community as well as high-ranking officials in the military.
In the New York Times, acting Judge Advocate General and Brigadier General Samuel T. Ansell argued, “The men were executed immediately upon the termination of the trial and before their records could be forwarded to Washington or examined by anybody, and without, so far as I can see, any one of them having the time or opportunity to seek clemency from the source of clemency, if he had been so advised.”⁷
The soldiers who were executed were buried in numbered graves near Salado Creek in Texas. Between 1934 and 1937, the 19 executed soldiers’ remains were exhumed, and 17 were given proper burials at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. Noticeably absent from their tombstones is any affiliation with the military; they bear only their names and death dates. Two other bodies were released to family members. Henry remained buried in an unmarked grave at College Memorial Park Cemetery for 100 years. He finally received a proper headstone on August 23, 2017, thanks to the work of history professor Angela Holder.¹⁰
Many of the narratives that are used today continue to place blame solely on the Black soldiers. Historians who continue to push those accounts without taking any of the precursors into consideration are being dishonest. Beginning with the failure of military leadership to heed the warnings of sending Black soldiers to Houston and ending with the treatment of Black people and Black soldiers by Houston police, there are many factors at play.⁹ Leaving out important witness accounts and sworn testimony frames a narrative that makes Black soldiers appear intentional in the outcome of the event. Making it seem as though a conspiracy was mounted by the soldiers.
There are many who view Henry as a scapegoat since he was murdered the night of the uprising. I argue he was not the “ringleader” and that there was no conspiracy to “shoot up the town” as many chroniclers suggest. Instead, Vida helped maintain order among the troops. The soldiers’ march to Houston in protest began when a White mob fired on Camp Logan. Soldiers shooting into random buildings and the Black soldier who warned of the incoming mob were not part of a plot to start a war with White people. None of this has been proven. The evidence clearly shows who the provocateurs were yet the “soldiers conspiring to attack the city” narrative led to their convictions.⁹
The evidence of a White mob attacking Camp Logan is rarely mentioned. Witness accounts that had implications for the case went unheard in favor of the White narrative that was bolstered by local newspapers spreading misinformation. Nineteen soldiers were ultimately hanged for being Black by those who sought revenge, not justice. They stood accused of insubordination for defending themselves after being fired upon.⁹ Soldiers from war zones were pushed to the brink by White forces, by hate. They fought battles overseas in the Philippines and Cuba, where they rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and were summarily executed for their so-called mutiny.
These rarely mentioned “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment fought against targeted police brutality and inhumanity at home and were criminalized for it. Aside from the 19 enlisted Black men who were hanged, 63 received life sentences in federal prison. Ten soldiers who were sentenced to hang were granted clemency by President Woodrow Wilson, who commuted their sentences to life sentences.
Soldiers served up to 20 years in prison before being released.
In 1972, after a Senate Military Affairs Committee report suggested the incident had been staged by citizens and/or outsiders to have the Black soldiers removed, U.S. Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-California) presented the research and criticized the handling of the case along with the soldiers’ dismissals. The Richard Nixon administration agreed and awarded the soldiers honorable discharges without back pay.¹¹
No White civilians were ever brought to trial.
The doomed men were taken off the trucks, not one making the slightest attempt to resist. They were shivering a little, but I think this was due more to the cold rather than fear. The unlucky thirteen were line 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. ¹¹A White soldier from Company C, 19th Infantry Regiment, who’d been charged with guarding the prisoners
- United States v. Sergeant William C. Nesbit, et al., Volume 1 (1917). https://cdm16035.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15568coll1/id/2058
- Record of Trial by General Court Martial of Corporal John Washington, et al., 24th Infantry, Volume 1 (1917). https://cdm16035.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15568coll1/id/2055
- Christian, Garna L. (2009). “The Houston Mutiny of 1917,” Trotter Review: Volume 18, Issue 1, Article 14. https://scholarworks.umb.edu/trotter_review/vol18/iss1/14
- Gruening, Martha (1917). “Houston: An N.A.A.C.P. Investigation,” The Crisis: Volume 15, Issue 1. https://books.google.com/books?id=O1oEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA14#v=onepage&q&f=false
- List of Prisoners, 24 Infantry, For trial for mutiny or murder or connection therewith (1917). https://cdm16035.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15568coll1/id/2006/rec/4
- Graham, Priscilla T. (2017). Camp Logan: 100 Year Anniversary. https://books.google.com/books?id=4LMrDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA46&lpg=PA46&dq=LeRoy+Pinkett&hl=en#v=onepage&q=LeRoy%20Pinkett&f=false
- Ansell, Samuel T. (1919). “Courts-Martial Called Atrocious,” The New York Times. https://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10E12FE385511738DDDAD0994DA405B898DF1D3
- Haynes, Robert V. (1976). A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917. Louisiana State University. https://archive.org/details/nightofviolencet00hayn/page/n1/mode/2up
- Smith, Calvin C. (1991). “The Houston Riot of 1917, Revisited,” The Houston Review. http://www.studythepast.com/4333_spring12/materials/houstonriot1917_houstonreview.pdf
- Crow, Matthew (2017). “Camp Logan 1917: Beyond the Veil of Memory,” Houston History Magazine. https://houstonhistorymagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Camp-Logan.pdf
- The 1917 Houston Riots/Camp Logan Mutiny. Prairie View A&M University. https://www.pvamu.edu/tiphc/research-projects/the-1917-houston-riotscamp-logan-mutiny/
*originally published in Momentum on Medium