Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,

Woodrow Wilson and the Houston Riots

I'm listening to a biography of Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper in audiobook format, and I was interested to learn of an incident in 1917 which led to Wilson saving some African-American soldiers from the gallows. As the book suggests, Wilson wasn't a great supporter of civil rights for African-Americans and in fact is on record as making several statements confirming his belief that he believed them to be inferior. Despite this, he was actually able to attract a significant number of votes from the African-American community and support from some prominent African-American leaders of the day.

In the spring of 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Imperial Germany, the War Department had two military installations built in Harris County, Texas — Camp Logan and Ellington Field. The Third Battalion of the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry Regiment, a battalion of African-American soldiers, was ordered to guard the Camp Logan construction site. Around noon on August 23, 1917, two Houston police officers entered the home of an African American woman, allegedly looking for someone in the neighborhood. They physically assaulted her, then dragged her partially clad into the street, all in view of her five small children. The woman began screaming, demanding to know why she was being arrested, and a crowd began to gather. A soldier from the 24th Infantry stepped forward to ask what was going on. The police officers promptly beat him to the ground and arrested him as well. Corporal Charles Baltimore went to the Houston police station to investigate the arrest, as well as beating of another black soldier, and also to attempt to gain the release of the soldier. An argument began and Corporal Baltimore was beaten, shot at, and himself arrested by the police.

That evening the evening, 156 angry soldiers from the battalion ignored their officers' orders, stole weapons from the camp depot and marched on the city of Houston. They were met outside the city by the police and a mob of armed citizens. A riot began, which left 20 people dead - four soldiers, four policemen, and 12 civilians. Order was restored the next day, and the War Department disarmed the soldiers. The Third Battalion was sent by rail back to New Mexico.

At a subsequent court-martial, thirteen soldiers were ordered to be hanged. These men were simultaneously hanged on December 10th at 7:17 a.m., a minute before sunrise. A second court martial took place on December 16th. Fifteen men were tried and five were sentenced to death. A third court martial was schuled for forty more soldiers. On March 26, 1918, twenty-three soldiers were found guilty. Eleven were sentenced to death and the others to life in prison.

Wilson was criticized by some African-American leaders for his slowness in reviewing the cases. On August 31, Wilson granted clemency to ten soldiers by commuting their death sentences to life in prison. Wilson released a statement in which he found the proceedings leading up to his review to be “very searching and thorough.” In each of the three proceedings, Wilson wrote that the court was “properly constituted” and composed of “officers of experience and sobriety of judgment.” He also said that “extraordinary precautions” were taken to “insure the fairness of the trials” and, in each instance, the rights of the defendants were “surrounded at every point” by the “safeguards” of “a humane administration of the law.” As a result, there were “no legal errors” which had “prejudiced the rights of the accused.” Wilson upheld the death sentences of six soldiers because there was “plain evidence” that they “deliberately” engaged in “shocking brutality.” On the other hand, he commuted the remaining sentences because he believed the “lesson” of the lawless riot had already been “adequately pointed.” He desired the “splendid loyalty” of African American soldiers be recognized and expressed the hope that clemency would inspire them “to further zeal and service to the country.”

On September 29, 1918, five of these soldiers were hanged at daybreak. One week later, the sixth was marched to the gallows.
Tags: civil rights, woodrow wilson

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