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In the spring of 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, the War Department, taking advantage of the temperate climate and newly opened Houston Ship Channel, ordered two military installations built in Harris County—Camp Logan and Ellington Field.
The Illinois National Guard was to train at Camp Logan, located on the northwest outskirts of the city. To guard the construction site, on July 27, 1917, the army ordered the Third Battalion of the black Twenty-fourth United States Infantry to travel by train with seven white officers from the regimental encampment at Columbus, New Mexico, to Houston.
From the outset, the black contingent faced racial discrimination when they received passes to go into the city. A majority of the men had been raised in the South and were familiar with segregation, but as army servicemen they expected equal treatment. Those individuals responsible for keeping order, especially the police, streetcar conductors, and public officials, viewed the presence of black soldiers as a threat to racial harmony.
Many Houstonians thought that if the black soldiers were shown the same respect as white soldiers, black residents of the city might come to expect similar treatment. Black soldiers were willing to abide by the legal restrictions imposed by segregated practices, but they resented the manner in which the laws were enforced. They disliked having to stand in the rear of streetcars when vacant seats were available in the "white" section and resented the racial slurs hurled at them by white laborers at Camp Logan.
Some police officers regularly harassed African Americans, both soldiers and civilians. Most black Houstonians concealed their hostility and endured the abuse, but a number of black soldiers openly expressed their resentment. The police recognized the plight of the enlisted men, but did little to alert civil authorities to the growing tensions. When they sought ways to keep the enlisted men at the camp, the blacks disliked this exchange of their freedom for racial peace.
On August 23, 1917, a riot erupted in Houston. Near noon, two policemen arrested a black soldier for interfering with their arrest of a black woman in the Fourth Ward. Early in the afternoon, when Cpl. Charles Baltimore, one of the twelve black military policemen with the battalion, inquired about the soldier's arrest, words were exchanged and the policeman hit Baltimore over the head. The MPs fled.
The police fired at Baltimore three times, chased him into an unoccupied house, and took him to police headquarters. Though he was soon released, a rumor quickly reached Camp Logan that he had been shot and killed. A group of soldiers decided to march on the police station in the Fourth Ward and secure his release. If the police could assault a model soldier like Baltimore, they reasoned, none of them was safe from abuse.
Maj. Kneeland S. Snow, battalion commander, initially discounted the news of impending trouble. Around 8 p.m., Sgt. Vida Henry of I Company confirmed the rumors, and Kneeland ordered the first sergeants to collect all rifles and search the camp for loose ammunition. During this process, a soldier suddenly screamed that a white mob was approaching the camp. Black soldiers rushed into the supply tents, grabbed rifles, and began firing wildly in the direction of supposed mob.
The white officers found it impossible to restore order. Sergeant Henry led over 100 armed soldiers toward downtown Houston by way of Brunner Avenue and San Felipe Street and into the Fourth Ward. In their two-hour march on the city, the mutinous blacks killed fifteen whites, including four policemen, and seriously wounded twelve others, one of whom, a policeman, subsequently died.
Four black soldiers also died. Two were accidentally shot by their own men, one in camp and the other on San Felipe Street. After they had killed Capt. Joseph Mattes of the Illinois National Guard, obviously mistaking him for a policeman, the blacks began quarreling over a course of action. After two hours, Henry advised the men to slip back into camp in the darkness—and shot himself in the head.
Early next morning, August 24, civil authorities imposed a curfew in Houston. On the twenty-fifth, the army hustled the Third Battalion aboard a train to Columbus, New Mexico. There, seven black mutineers agreed to testify against the others in exchange for clemency.
Between November 1, 1917, and March 26, 1918, the army held three separate courts-martial in the chapel at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The military tribunals indicted 118 enlisted men of I Company for participating in the mutiny and riot, and found 110 guilty. It was wartime, and the sentences were harsh.
Nineteen mutinous soldiers were hanged and sixty-three received life sentences in federal prison. One was judged incompetent to stand trial. Two white officers faced courts-martial, but they were released. No white civilians were brought to trial.
The Houston Riot of 1917 was one of the saddest chapters in the history of American race relations. It vividly illustrated the problems that the nation struggled with on the home front during wartime.
Austin American-Statesman, March 20, 1989. Houston Chronicle, July 15, 25, 1917. Houston Press, August 24, 25, 1917. Robert V. Haynes, A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976). Edgar A. Schuler, "The Houston Race Riot, 1917," Journal of Negro History 29 (July 1944).