100 Years Since the Bloody 1917 Houston Race Riots and We’re Still Fighting
When two Houston police officers struck Corporal Charles Baltimore in the head on August 23rd, 1917, it was because he asked too many questions for a black man. The Houston officers were white.
Baltimore was a black military police officer. They didn’t care that he was an Army Corporal, Military police. They didn’t have to answer to him.
Although this story took place 100 years ago, it isn’t too unfamiliar to our modern ears. Today’s racial battles may not be as bloody as what went down in Houston in 1917, but racial tension is still what we talk about.
This is not history forgotten, but our modern times.
What followed the beating on August 23rd was an awful race riot, sometimes called the Houston or Camp Logan Mutiny. The net result was four dead police, 11 white citizens, and four dead black soldiers from the U.S. Army 24th Infantry.
The racially charged court trial which followed would only further embroil the national race tension.
The 24th Infantry
In the spring of 1917, the United States hadn’t yet declared war on Germany. It was coming, but the U.S. was neutral. The War Department ordered two military installments constructed near Houston, Camp Logan, and Ellington Field.
On July 27, 1917, the army ordered the all black 24th Infantry to guard the construction. At the time, they were in New Mexico. They took the train to Houston, where they found a different world than the one they left behind.
The soldiers were mostly from the south, no strangers to racial prejudice, but as soldiers, in the army, they’d grown accustomed to different treatment. Houston, however, wasn’t quite there yet.
Their arrival in Houston brought stress to whites in the city. They couldn’t have repressed blacks witness to black soldiers receiving respect. It would undermine their system of control.
Still, the 24th took it stride, riding in the back of streetcars, ignoring slurs, doing their duty… for a time.
When two white police officers attempted to arrest a black woman, one of the men from the 24th interfered with the arrest. They arrested that soldier along with the woman, which is why Colonel Baltimore came asking questions.
By that point in the day, around noon, the officers had their fill of blacks causing problems. What they didn’t realize or care about was the consequences of hitting a respected colonel.
Baltimore and his MPs fled the scene under fire from the two cops, but the cops chased and arrested him. Word got back to Camp Logan that two cops had shot Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the police released him from custody, but not soon enough. By the time he returned to camp, the black soldiers of the 24th were already on the streets of Houston marching for justice.
For two hours why marched with rifles and ammunition, shooting whites as they marched. Fifteen whites suffered death at the end of those rifles. Four of the black soldiers also perished. Another committed suicide in the wake of the event.
It was a mess.
From November 1917 to March 1918, the army held trials for the men in the 24th. Seven of the men testified against their comrades for clemency. All told, the army indicted 118 men. They found 110 guilty.
Sixty-three of those men would serve life sentences in jail for their part in the riot. They were the lucky ones. There were 19 who would hang. Despite their participation in the exchange, no civilians stood trial, and the court released the two white officers after a brief court martial.
Woodrow Wilson, at the behest of black leaders at the time, stepped in to commute ten of the death sentences, but not that of Colonel Baltimore. They stripped him of his rank and hanged him before the end of 1917.
Today’s racial tensions may be less bloody, but not by much. There’s still blood.
After 100 years one has to wonder how it is Americans haven’t been able to move forward. What would the people of Houston from 1917, and the men of the 24th say about the state of affairs if we could ask them?