Houston’s Hidden History In 1917, Black Soldiers Marched in Rage And Took Their Secrets to the Grave BY ROSALIND ALEXANDER San Antonio THE GALLOWS and original grave site aren’t marked anymore. The scaffolding that Fort Sam Houston Museum curator John Manguso describes as “about the size of a two-car garage” was torn down and burned immediately after the hanging before the press got wind that there was a hanging. But there’s a little rise by Salado Creek that is still barren and lonely in the middle of the day. And former state legislator Maury Maverick remembers that “as a kid on a bike” he was afraid to go beyond the well-known line dividing the road from the hanging place. There’s also a little indention in the ground marked with a worn and worried circle path that San Antonio private investigator Mike Kaliski identifies as the original burial place. Beneath it, for 40 years, lay the heart of the black military column from Camp Logan in graves marked only by Army bunk tags numbered one through nineteen. To find the official graves that the Army finally dug in 1937, walk north, two rows east of the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery flagpole. There, you can find 17 of the marble stones, each engraved with a standard cross over each “mutineer’s” name. Below the crosses are the dates of the hangings. No ranks, no serial numbers, no birth dates. Just typically strong black family names like Williams, Johnson, Collier, Nesbit, and Hawkins. After seven decades, the incomplete markings still serve to segregate the graves. They do not, according to Manguso, represent a further slight by the army. “Regulations change,” he shrugs. IN LATE AUGUST of 1917, a few short years before the “Negro” came into vogue in New York, and a few months after the U.S. declaration of World War I, 100 soldiers of the all-black 24th Infantry stationed near Camp Logan, outside Houston, armed themselves, marched into the city, killed 20 whites and wounded 12 others. For weeks, the troops who had accompanied Pershing in New Mexico and completed tours of duty in the Philippines had been harassed and beaten by Houston police, demeaned on street cars and at Rosalind Alexander is a freelance writer living in Austin, drinking water barrels, forced to adhere to Jim Crow laws, and stripped of their military dignity and privilege in the presence of initially reverent black civilians and a jeering white community. The soldiers heard rumors of white mobs forming to T.C. Hawkins attack their bivouac and word flew through camp that one of the unit’s exemplary M.P.s had been beaten to death by local police while inquiring about a jailed soldier who had been severely beaten for protecting a black civilian’s rights. Upon seeing a few soldiers carrying ammunition from a supply tent, the unit’s white officers, who had been all but oblivious to the unrest, tried to roundup the battalion’s guns. Earlier, at the suggestion of Houston police, officers had disarmed black soldiers before they went into town. This time the act was disastrously timed. Attempting to take the weapons from men who had reason to fear local lynch mobs was the breaking straw, even for the largely Southern, obedient, and warseasoned soldiers. So, on August 23, during a sudden summer rainstorm and after one of the hottest days then recorded in Houston, the best of the 24th Infantry’s “I” Company and a few soldiers of “L” and “M”Companies loaded. their Springfield rifles, formed a loose column under the command of 13-year veteran Sgt. Vida Henry, and marched east toward downtown from what is now known as Memorial Park. Some fell in with the column because they wanted revenge for the indignities and abuse they’d suffered at the hands of bigoted and brutal policemen like Rufus Daniels and Lee Sparks and from hostile white Houstonians. Some followed because they were trained to obey orders, and others stood with the column because they feared being killed by the mutineers for not adhering to cries of “To hell with going to France, . . . get to work right hpre,” and “Stick by your own race.” Whatever their reasons, 118 black infantrymen of the 24th were subsequently tried in one of the largest courts-martial in U.S. military history. Of the 111 who were convicted, 19 were hanged, 63 were sentence to fife in prison, and 29 received lesser he’d-labor sentences. The circumstantial evidence by which the infantrymen were convicted was gathered largely from a few black witnesses granted immunity in exchange for labeling someone a “ring leader.” And from hundreds of helpful whites who claimed they could tell one insignificant black face from another that they may or may not have seen on .a dark, stormy Houston night. But because Sgt. Henry had blown his own head off after he lost command of the splintered column, and the court-martialed men maintained an unbroken code of silence save proclamations of their innocence many important questions about Camp Logan will never be answered. On December 11, 1917, the first of the 13 sentenced to die were hanged. Several months later, six more “mutineers” were executed in the same place and in the same manner. The truth of their individual guilt or innocence may never be proven. The strength to be silent comes from innocence. Everyone who was there [at the hanging] can still hear the song the condemned 18 APRIL 7, 1989
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