Army Aims to Rectify 'Largest Mass Execution' in Its History

More than a century later, soldier convictions related to the 1917 Houston riots are overturned
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 14, 2023 10:55 AM CST
Army Aims to Rectify 'Mass Execution' of Black Soldiers
Some of the Black soldiers charged following the 1917 Houston riots are shown during a trial at Fort Sam Houston.   (Wikimedia Commons/US National Archives and Records Administration)

It was, as the Washington Post reports, "the largest mass execution carried out in the history of the US Army." On Dec. 11, 1917, 13 Buffalo Soldiers were hanged in a military camp near Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. The African American cavalry soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment—who claimed their innocence following the deadly 1917 Houston riots, which saw soldiers take up arms against police enforcing Jim Crow laws—had been convicted of murder and mutiny by an all-white jury in a trial by court-martial, with no option to appeal for clemency. They were hanged no more than 12 hours after the verdict was delivered, per the Houston Chronicle. "Later, six more soldiers were executed," per the Post. More than a century later, the Army has admitted it was all a mistake.

Army Brig. Gen. Ronald D. Sullivan, chief justice of the Army's Court of Criminal Appeals, described "the miscarriage of justice" at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston on Monday as the Army announced it had overturned 110 soldiers' convictions, would correct the military records of 95 soldiers to show honorable discharge, and would work to ensure descendants receive survivor benefits, per the Post. The 3rd Battalion had been deployed to guard construction at Camp Logan in 1917 "but were met with racist provocations and physical violence," Sullivan said. Tensions escalated when a Black soldier, Army Pvt. Alonzso Edwards, tried to intervene in the arrest of a Black woman who'd been scantily dressed when dragged from her home by white police officers.

Edwards was beaten and arrested. Cpl. Charles Baltimore, another Black soldier, was beaten, shot at, and detained by police. Wrongly believing Baltimore had been killed, more than 150 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion marched on Houston. Nineteen people, including five white police officers, were killed in the ensuing violence. No white soldiers or citizens were charged, per the Chronicle. However, 63 Black soldiers faced charges and "were defended by a single man, Maj. Harry S. Grier, who taught law at West Point but was not a lawyer and had no trial experience," per the Post. Forty-one were given life sentences.

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The soldiers' descendants, joined by the South Texas College of Law, have flagged the injustice for years, per Axios. The Army's move marks a "truly unique" case in US history, historian John Haymond, who co-authored a petition requesting clemency for the soldiers, tells the Chronicle. "This is the Army recognizing it's never too late to do the right thing." A white soldier who witnessed the hanging of the 13 soldiers noted that "even the hardest of us" were left in tears as the men, confronted with nooses, broke into a hymn, "Lord, I'm comin' home," per the Post. "Even with the backdrop of entrenched, state-sanctioned racial segregation, there was an immediate public outcry" that led to a revamp of the military justice system, including the establishment of an appeals court, Sullivan said. (More US Army stories.)

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