Remembering a Night of Violence

Violence is bad for business.

That view, held by a handful of Houston’s business and political leaders in the early 1960s, contributed to the peaceful integration of Houston’s lunch counters that decade. One business leader at the time, Bob Dundas Sr., was acutely aware of mayhem resulting from racial tensions. He was a teenager in the summer of 1917 when gunfire erupted near downtown Houston. Fifteen Anglo civilians and police officers were killed by African American soldiers of the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry, along with four Buffalo Soldiers, as the African American infantrymen were known.

This little-known tragedy in Houston’s past will have its 100th anniversary in August, 2017. Efforts are underway to raise awareness and dialogue about that violent night and explore what still may be learned from it.

It remains a sensitive subject. Was it a race riot, a mutiny or, as I tend to believe, the inevitable outcome when soldiers who fought valiantly in Cuba, the Philippines and elsewhere in defense of their country were then subjected to segregation and mistreatment by the Jim Crow conditions of their time.

History scholar Garna Christian writes that the soldiers of the 24th Infantry played an integral role in helping Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders take San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. But when they and other Buffalo Soldiers were later dispatched to Brownsville, El Paso, Texarkana and Waco, they were greeted with suspicion, fear and discrimination.

The 24th Infantry arrived in Houston on July 28, 1917 to guard the construction of Camp Logan, located on the eastern edge of today’s Memorial Park. The camp was one of three Army bases built in Texas after the outbreak of World War One. Their prior mistreatment in Texas helps shed light on why, less than a month and several ugly provocations after their arrival, about 100 soldiers left Camp Logan on the night of August 23 and marched toward downtown Houston, firing their rifles indiscriminately along the way.

What followed was the largest court martial in American military history. Less than four months after the incident, 13 soldiers were hung near Camp Travis in San Antonio. An additional five soldiers were later tried and executed. They were among 110 soldiers who at trial were given death sentences, life in prison or lesser sentences. Following the haste and questionable appeal process surrounding the hanging of the first 13 soldiers, the War Department issued an order suspending the implementation of death sentences by military tribunals until each case had been reviewed by the Judge Advocate General or the U.S. President.

I first learned about the Camp Logan incident about 20 years ago from Acres Homes businessman and publisher, Roy Malonson. Most Houstonians I ask about it, regardless of race, are unaware. No wonder perhaps, since the event was not mentioned in the Texas history books my daughters read in public schools growing up in Houston.

The approaching centennial of the Camp Logan incident may help change that. The Board of Directors of Houston’s NAACP voted recently to recognize the centennial. Its Veterans Affairs Committee is leading the initiative. The committee is chaired by W. Clyde Lemon, Esq. The committee is making plans to commemorate the centennial, identify parallels between what happened in 1917 and today, and seek Presidential pardons of the 13 soldiers who were executed following the event. I am proud to be serving on this committee, along with NAACP veterans, members and community leaders.

Author’s note: The most complete account of the Camp Logan incident can be found in Professor Robert V. Haynes’ book A Night of Violence, published in 1976. Dr. Haynes earned his Ph.D. from Rice University in 1959 and taught at the University of Houston for more than 20 years.

George Smalley works in the energy industry and has been a Houston resident since 1985.