August 23: Remembering The Houston Race Riot Of 1917

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Houston Race Riot 1917The mutiny of African-American soldiers in the Third Battalion of the all-Black 24th United States Infantry (pictured), also known as the Houston Race Riot of 1917, would result in the death of four soldiers, four policemen, and 12 civilians on this day 95 years ago.

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The riot took place after a Battalion soldier inquired about the arrest and public beating of an African-American Mother of five small children, prompting the officers to violently beat the infantryman. Angered by the beating, Corporal Charles Baltimore went to the Houston police station to get answers. The visit incited an argument and Corporal Baltimore was also beaten and then arrested.

On the evening of August 23, 156 angry soldiers from the Battalion ignored officer orders, took weapons, and proceeded to march to Houston. The soldiers clashed with police and other armed civilians who had heard about the mutiny. Throughout the night, the factions fought, before the War Department disarmed the men and banished the soldiers back to their original New Mexico training campground. Houston was placed under martial law, and later, the entire Third Battalion was sent off to serve in the Philippines.

Soldiers from the Battalion would face court martial, with 13 soldiers executed by hanging in December later that year. A second court martial involved 15 soldiers, with five of the group sentenced to death.

While several soldiers agreed to testify in exchange for clemency, some would not be granted a chance to do so. A Washington Post report said that New York representatives of the NAACP wrote to then-President Woodrow Wilson, requesting clemency for the five sentenced soldiers from the second court martial.

President Wilson would eventually grant clemency to 10 soldiers and even hoped to gain loyalty from other African-American soldiers by granting a stay of execution. Still, in the late summer of 1918, six soldiers were hanged.

Not surprisingly, the Houston Riot of 1917 is mired in controversy, considering that many of the soldiers who faced trial may have been wrongly accused as it was difficult to identify anyone in the dark and rainy night of the melee.

More to the point, one gets the sense that while African-American men were employed and assigned to fight for this country in uniform, the frustration of not being allowed to protect their own women and children Stateside had to be unbearable.

While White civilians were praised for defending Houston and were not charged for the riot, the casualties and abuse the African-American community sustained was clearly a glaring miscarriage of the law.

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