“A country which never was wholly theirs”

It was the middle of the afternoon on Thursday, August 23, 1917 in Houston’s San Felipe neighborhood. The district was south of downtown and home to many of Houston’s 30,000 black residents. Through waves of heat Captain Haig Shekerjian of the U.S. 24th Infantry drove into San Felipe from Camp Logan, about three miles away. The car stopped at the local police station, and Captain Shekerjian walked in.

It was 102 degrees.

Shekerjian, the first Armenian-American to graduate from West Point, was in San Felipe to find two soldiers from the 24th Infantry, one of whom he believed was shot. Corporal Charles Baltimore was there in the police station badly beaten, but alive. Corporal Baltimore was a Military Policeman who himself had come to look after the welfare of a fellow African American soldier, Alonzo Edwards. Edwards was arrested by two Houston mounted police officers when he appeared to question their rough handling of a black woman the two white officers were trying to arrest.

The officers, Lee Sparks and Rufus Daniels, instead beat Private Edwards with their firearms and transported him to the station. Officers Daniels and especially Sparks had a reputation for brutality in a police department that had only two black officers. Houston’s African Americans were twenty percent of the population of a city on the edge. Just over a month before, in East St. Louis, white rioters burned several city blocks leaving six thousand African Americans homeless. In the violence, hundreds were injured and dozens of African Americans were shot or lynched. Nine white and an unknown number of black people died in the violence in East St. Louis on July 2-3, 1917.

All of this and more was on Captain Shekerjian’s mind when he entered the police station.

Camp Logan in 1917

Buffalo Soldiers

The 24th U.S. Infantry was created in 1869 as a regiment of black soldiers led by white officers. At the time there were two black infantry and two black cavalry regiments. The Native Americans they were sent to guard and sometimes fight called them “Buffalo Soldiers”. Most of the Buffalo Soldiers were born in the south and, although the Army was segregated, many found life easier on post in the west and southwest.

The 24th Infantry battled Native American war parties on the western Plains and guarded remote army outposts as well as the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1898 the 24th Infantry was in Cuba, where they took the Spanish fortress of El Caney and stormed up San Juan Hill. The 24th also served three tours of duty in the Philippines between 1899 and 1915.

In 1916, the 24th was once again in the southwest during the Border crisis with Mexico; joining Brigadier General John Pershing’s expedition into Mexico on March 28. By the time they had returned the following February, the 24th had accumulated a record of resilience and professionalism. This did not keep white communities from chafing at the idea of being protected by black soldiers. Yet the 24th Infantry won the respect and friendship of nearby Salt Lake City when they were stationed at Fort Douglas, Utah from 1896-1899.

U.S. Army Soldiers in Houston, 1917

The crucible of Houston

However the same treatment did not greet the 24th in Houston in 1917. On July 28, the 645 men of Third Battalion moved into their quarters about a mile from Camp Logan. The massive camp was one of the nineteen training camps now under construction for National Guard divisions. Most of the camps were in the Southern or Western departments and all of them were a boon to local economies. Thousands of craftsmen, laborers, wholesalers and businessmen swarmed over each site in a rush to get the camps built. And they had to be guarded.

That Camp Logan was guarded by armed men who happened to be black was considered an affront in segregated Houston. Neighborhoods and facilities were segregated by race. White workers at Camp Logan did not hide their disrespect for them. Black Military Police were not allowed to carry firearms in Houston. Only sentries at the camp gates were given rifles. The soldiers had to ride in the back of streetcars behind a screen that read “Colored Only”. Sentries at Camp Logan were not allowed to drink from the same water cans as the white workers they were guarding.

Outrage

Beyond the epithets and the humiliations, there was also violence. The violence reached a critical point less than a month after the soldiers arrived in Houston. On August 23, after Private Alonzo Edwards was taken into custody, Corporal Charles Baltimore asked to see him. He was a Military Policeman and a leader in Third Battalion’s Company I. Houston Officer Lee Sparks struck Baltimore with his pistol and then started firing. Baltimore fled, but was soon captured by Sparks and Daniels and brought to the same police station as Private Edwards.

Captain Shekerjian managed to get the two released. He also notified Houston’s Chief of Police of the disturbance, leading to Sparks’ suspension. But the damage had been done. Once word of the arrests made it back to camp, the soldiers were incensed. Initially they had heard that Corporal Baltimore had been killed. They also believed that, as in East St. Louis earlier, carloads of armed white men were headed their way.

Members of the 24th Infantry Regiment in Houston, 1917

Mutiny

Although their white officers tried to prevent them, men scrambled for rifles and ammunition. At this point, soldiers were concerned for their safety. Some of them left camp for the woods nearby. Shots were fired in every direction, mortally wounding one soldier. The firing went on for as much as half an hour. By then the mood in the chaotic camp changed from panic to desperation. Sergeant Vida Henry, a 19 year veteran of the 24th, formed a column of men and left camp for Houston. Up to 150 men, mostly from Company I, were with him.

No one knows what Sergeant Henry was trying to accomplish with over one hundred angry armed men. As they moved toward the city, shots rang out from the column. Residents on their front porches seeking relief from the heat fled into their homes. A teenage boy was shot dead; his brother badly wounded. Police officers and armed civilians fired back, but were shot or driven away by the force.

If there was a purpose to this armed incursion, it was primarily for revenge against the police. There were a number of street battles that night as the column advanced over two miles from camp. They never did find Officer Lee Sparks. Officer Rufus Daniels and three other Houston policemen lay dead. Three other officers were shot, one of whom died in hospital.

Disaster

As the column neared downtown Houston, a car filled with uniformed men approached them.  Believing this to be more police, the mutineers opened fire. But four of the men in the car were in Army uniform. Captain J.W. Mattes of the 2nd Illinois Field Artillery and a police officer were dead. Two of the mutineers were also dead, one shot mistakenly in the night by his own.

The column started to disintegrate as the severity of their actions became more clear. Men began to slip away back to camp. Sergeant Henry told the men he wasn’t going: He shook their hands, gave his pocket watch to a private, and walked off toward the railroad track. His body was found the next morning.

Retribution

Third Battalion was sent back to its old post in Columbus, New Mexico within a day after the mutiny. Finding the mutineers in a battalion of 645 was hardly precise. 118 soldiers were arrested and charged with murder and mutiny. Sixty-three men were tried in San Antonio in November 1917. Fifty-eight were found guilty. Of these, thirteen were sentenced to die.

Before dawn on December 11, without informing the public or receiving approval from the Wilson administration, the thirteen were hanged near San Antonio. Among the condemned was Charles Baltimore.

Outcry

Meanwhile the public outcry after the rush to judgement by the Army reverberated in the African American community and elsewhere. “They have gone to their death.” W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “Thirteen strong, young men; soldiers who fought for a country which never was wholly theirs; men born to suffer ridicule, injustice, and, at last, death itself.”

In the wake of the executions and outcry, the War Department decreed in December and January that the Judge Advocate General had the power to review death sentences in the military. Therefore no executions could take place before review from Washington.

Nevertheless, fifty-five other soldiers in the 24th went to trial. Sixteen were condemned to hang. President Wilson, bowing to pressure from across the nation, commuted the death sentences of ten soldiers. Five men were hung on September 29, 1918. The last man was hanged on October 6th.

The unit that took over duties from the 24th Infantry was part of the National Guard, the 8th Illinois Infantry. An African American regiment, the 8th Illinois openly defied the segregationist rules on streetcars and everywhere else until the War Department reassigned them to another state. The 8th Illinois later formed the nucleus of the 370th Infantry Regiment and served with distinction in France as part of the 93rd Infantry Division.

A summary of the Houston Mutiny and Riot of 1917 can be found here.