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MARTIAL LAW IN HOUSTON

By Fred Mittag

 

law-martialThe War Department established Camp Logan 14 miles from Houston in 1917. The Army brought in 645 soldiers of the Third Battalion of the black 24th United States Infantry. The 24th had a distinguished history. They had been Indian fighters (called “buffalo soldiers”), fought the Spanish in Cuba, and had fought Pancho Villa in northern Mexico. They also had the lowest desertion rate in the entire Army.

The Greek goddesses Discord and Rumor were never more active than they were at noon on the 23rd of August in 1917. Discord sent two Houston police officers storming into the home of a black woman after firing a warning shot outside. They dragged her, partially clad, into the street. She was screaming and asking why she was being arrested and a crowd gathered. A black soldier stepped forward to ask what was going on, and the two policemen beat him with the butts of their pistols and then placed him under arrest. They later claimed the black soldier had tried to interfere with the arrest of a publicly drunk black female.

Later that afternoon, an Army MP, Charles Baltimore, went to the Houston police station to try to gain his release. The result of the MP’s effort was that he himself was beaten. He ran and the police fired at Baltimore three times as they chased him into an unoccupied building where he was arrested.

Discord had done her work well and now it was time for Rumor to take control. Rumor rushed the news to Camp Logan that Baltimore had been shot to death by the police. Baltimore was a model soldier, so his black comrades thought that if he could be killed by the police, then none of them was safe from abuse.

The white officers at Camp Logan were oblivious to the seething rage among their black troops. Before nightfall, most of them had left the camp for social engagements. City officials had promised to investigate the beatings and assumed that was enough.

But the soldiers believed the beatings would not be investigated and decided to take matters into their own hands. Major Kneeland S. Snow, the battalion commander at Camp Logan, initially discounted the news of impending trouble. Around 8:00 p.m. he heard convincing evidence and ordered the first sergeants to collect all rifles. During this process, Rumor busied herself by having a soldier scream “A white mob is approaching the camp.” Black soldiers rushed into the supply tents, grabbed rifles, and began firing wildly into the direction of the supposed mob. The remaining white officers found it impossible to restore order. About 150 men marched for Houston, with Sergeant Vida Henry acting as their leader.

A contingent of police and armed local residents met the soldiers on the outskirts of the city. The black soldiers killed 15 whites, including five policemen and seriously wounded 11 others. Four black soldiers died. They mistook one of their officers, Captain Joseph Mattes, for a police officer and killed him, bringing the dead to 20. When Sgt. Henry realized they had killed their captain, he advised the men to slip back into camp in the darkness and then he shot himself in the head, bringing the toll to 21.

The authorities put Houston under martial law. The Army rushed the Third Battalion out of Houston on a train to New Mexico. The black 24th Infantry, of which the Third Battalion was a part, was transferred from Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio to the Philippines.

En route to Columbus, New Mexico, seven black mutineers agreed to testify against the others in exchange for clemency. The Houston Chronicle did not mince words: “Their lenient treatment has led negro soldiers to believe that the government is in sympathy with their arrogance and impudence toward white people. A court martial ... and a firing squad will settle the matter once and for all.”

The Army held three separate courts-martial at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The military tribunals indicted 118 enlisted men for participating in the riot, and found 110 guilty. Of those, 19 were hanged and 63 received life at hard labor in federal prison, with the rest receiving lesser sentences. This remains the biggest court-martial in U.S. history. Among those hanged was Charles Baltimore, the one who had otherwise been considered a model soldier.

The former Camp Logan is now Houston’s Memorial Park, with fine homes, wooded areas, and jogging trails.

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