By Jessica R. Alexander, J.D., M.L.S., Reference Librarian
The issue of race, military tribunals and the imposition of the death penalty is an issue that has been shaped by events that occured in August 1917 in Houston. African-American soldiers who were involved in the construction of Camp Logan, a World War I military encampment were the subjects. They rioted and murdered white citizens and police officials in August 1917. The catalyst was the police beating of two soldiers and a false report that one of them had died. The racial hostility from the white population and law enforcement authorities contributed to the atmosphere of violence. As a result, sixty-three African-American soldiers were court-martialed. Five of the accused were acquitted, thirteen were sentenced to death, forty-one were sentenced to life in prison, with only four receiving lesser sentences. See the article written by Fred L. Borsch, III, The Army Lawyer, February 2011, under the byline, Lore of the Corps, "The Largest Murder Trial in the History of the United States: The Houston Riots Courts-Martial of 1917." at page 1. (The table of contents does not refer to the piece, but scroll to page 1 to read it.)
The issues in the Houston riots are still reverberating. The rush to judgment and near summary executions involved in the Houston incident has shaped military justice ever since.
When the The New York Times published an editorial on August 31 called "The Military and the Death Penalty," it called to mind the 1917 executions. The editorial highlights the results of a study co-authored by David Balthus which showed that "Minority service members are more than twice as likely as whites — after accounting for the crimes’ circumstances and the victims’ race — to be sentenced to death." (David Baldus died in June).
The Fred Parks Library is fortunate that Mark Lambert, our former archivist, acquired the entire microfilm collection of the trial proceedings. We asked the Law Library Microform Consortium (LLMC) to digitize the film and our present archivist Heather Kushnerick has loaded the digital files into our South Texas College of Law Digital Collection and provided indexing and other annotations of the resource.
To highlight this unique accomplishment we are planning a symposium on the Houston Mutiny and Riots for the spring of 2011. Stay tuned for more information about this event. Professor Geoffrey has volunteered to spearhead this event, along with Professors Kenneth Williams and Val Ricks. Professor Corn has already recruited Fred Borsch,III to be one of the keynotes. Professors David Cowan, Library Director and Dean Helen Jenkins are supporting the event from an institutional standpoint.