Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The 100th anniversary of the Houston Mutiny & Riot

by Heather Kushnerick, Special Collections Librarian & College Archivist

             On this day in 1917, over 100 African American soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 24th US Infantry disobeyed orders, took up arms,  and marched into Houston. The men were stationed in Houston to oversee the construction of Camp Logan, which was to be a training facility to prepare soldiers to fight in World World I. The men of the 24th had been in Houston for most of the summer and during that time "there were frequent racial confrontations between the soldiers acting as guards for the construction of a training camp and the city police and townspeople of Houston, Texas. Most of these incidents consisted merely in applying epithets of opprobrium to each other, sometimes resulting in a soldier’s arrest.”[i] Secretary of War Newton Baker informed President Woodrow Wilson in a letter on August 22, 1918, “[t]here were some instances of assaults committed upon colored soldiers by Houston policemen and, generally, verbal disputes and clashes were frequent occurrence.”[ii]
The racial tension boiled over on Thursday, August 23, 1917. On that day, the Houston police raided a craps game, and chased two African American men into a woman’s house. There is no evidence that the married mother of five knew the men or invited them into her house. The police decided to arrest the woman, Sara Travers, who was also African American.  Private Alonzo Edwards heard her screams as she was dragged from her house and intervened. One of police officers, Lee Sparks, pistol whipped Private Edwards and arrested him as well.[iii]
A member of the military police, Corporal Charles Baltimore, heard about the encounter and went to the police station to investigate the matter. He was himself assaulted, shot at, and arrested by Lee Sparks. A rumor started among the troops that Baltimore had actually been killed by police. The commanding officer, Major Kneeland Snow, sent his adjutant, Captain Haig Shekerjian, to the police station, to determine the state of their soldiers. Corporal Baltimore was released that afternoon; however, Private Edwards was so beaten up that he was left in jail overnight, until he could be brought clean clothes, because Shekerjian did not want the troops to see the amount of blood that covered his shirt. Throughout the afternoon, and into the evening, the troops at the 24th’s camp talked about the events of the day, and got more and more angry.[iv] That night, over 100 soldiers disobeyed orders, took up arms, and marched into the city. Three hours later, the riot ended and 15 white citizens of Houston were dead.
Martial law was declared in the city and additional troops were brought in to assist with restoring order. All members of the 24th were disarmed and the suspected mutineers were sent to the stockade in Fort Bliss, Texas. The rest of the men were sent to Columbus, New Mexico. They returned to active duty at the end of October 1917.[v]  
Following an investigation, 118 men were brought up on charges and divided into three groups for trial. Held at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, the first trial, United States vs. Sergeant William C. Nesbit, et al, was the largest of the three courts-marital, with 63 defendants. The second trial, United States vs. Corporal John Washington, et al, involved 15 men. Finally, United States vs. Corporal Robert Tillman, et al, involved 40 men. The men were charged with violating the 64th, 66th, 92nd, and 93rd articles of war (disobeying orders, mutiny, murder, and intent to commit a felony). In total, 110 men were convicted; 19 were executed and 91 were sentenced to various terms of confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The majority of these were life sentences. 
The Nesbit trial is the largest murder trial in American history. It began November 1, 1917 and concluded November 30. “The accused – all of whom pleaded not guilty – were represented by a single defense counsel, MAJ Harry H. Grier. … While he had taught law at the U.S. Military Academy and almost certainly had considerable experience with court-marital proceedings, Grier was not a lawyer.”[vi] During the course of the trial, the court heard from 196 witnesses, with the most harmful testimony coming from a few riot participants who testified in exchange for immunity. In the end, 5 men were acquitted, 41 men were sentenced to life in prison, 4 men were sentenced to lesser terms of imprisonment, and 13 were given death sentences.[vii]
Those 13 men were executed at dawn on December 11, 1917, on the banks of Salado Creek, near Camp Travis, and were promptly buried. Several hours later, the press was informed of the executions. Because the US was at war, there was no legal requirement for the sentences to be reviewed. General Samuel T. Ansell, Assistant Judge Advocate General, told the Senate Committee on Military Affairs that, “[t]he men were executed immediately upon the termination of the trial and before their records could be forwarded to Washington or examined by anyone, and without, so far as I can see, any one of them having had time or opportunity to seek clemency from the source of clemency, if he had been so advised.”[viii]
There was a great deal of public outrage and criticism over the executions. W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The Crisis, “They have gone to their death. Thirteen young, strong men; soldiers who have fought for a country which never was wholly theirs; men born to suffer ridicule, injustice, and, at last, death itself.”[ix] Citizens from all over the country began writing letters to Congressmen, Senators, and the President to ask for clemency for the accused as the other two trials took place.  Unlike the Nesbit trial, Washington and Tillman were subject to review before sentences were carried out. Five men in the Washington case and 11 men in the Tillman case were given death sentences. President Wilson confirmed the Washington verdict, but commuted 10 of 11 death sentences in the Tillman case to life in prison.[x]
As a direct result of the Nesbit trial, General Order No. 7 was promulgated by the War Department, on January 17, 1918, requiring the review and a determination of legality by the JAG in any case involving a death or the dismissal of an officer. General Order No. 7 led to the establishment of a Board of Review in the JAG office with duties “in the nature of an appellate tribunal.”[xi] The Board was the first formal appellate structure in the Army. The revised Article of War of 1920 provided the first statutory basis for the review board. Today, it is the legislative basis for the Army’s Court of Criminal Appeals.[xii]
                The record of these events are in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. However, they were microfilmed in the 1970s, and several university and college libraries have the microfilm, include the Fred Parks Law Library. In order to increase access to these records, we digitized our microfilm and have placed the records online. By clicking here, you can read the trial testimony, read over the petitions and letters requesting clemency, read correspondence to and from the JAG office, the Secretary of War, and President Wilson. You can read letters from the imprisoned soldiers explaining their role, or lack thereof, in the events of that day in August, so long ago.
                In honor of the 100th anniversary of this tragic event, “A City under Martial Law: Remembering the Houston Mutiny & Riot of 1917” is now on display in the library lobby. The exhibit includes items from the digital collection as well as related materials from the library collection.

[i] The Army Lawyer: A History of the Judge Advocate Generals’ Corps, 1775-1975. GPO: Washington, DC, 1975, p. 126.
[ii] [Letter] 1918 August 22Secretary Newton Baker to President Woodrow WilsonWashingtonD.C Accessed last 7/7/2017.
[iii] Haynes, Robert V. A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1976. Pp. 94-95.
[iv] Ibid, pp. 99-99.
[v] The Army Lawyer: A History of the Judge Advocate Generals’ Corps, 1775-1975. p. 127.
[vi] Borch, Fred L., III. “The largest murder trial in the United States”: the Houston Riots Courts-Martial of 1917. Army Lawyer (Feb 2011) p.2 . Available online at Last accessed 7/10/2017.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] The Army Lawyer: A History of the Judge Advocate Generals’ Corps, 1775-1975, p. 127.
[ix] DuBois, W.E.B. “Thirteen”, The Crisis, vol. 15, no. 3 (January 1918), p. 114. Last accessed 7/10/2017.
[x] [Explanation of Presidential affirmation of sentences in Washington and Tillman cases.] August, 31, 1918. Last accessed 7/10/2017.
[xi] The Army Lawyer: A History of the Judge Advocate Generals’ Corps, 1775-1975, p. 130.
[xii] Borch,  “The largest murder trial in the United States,” p.3.