By Aswad Walker
On Nov. 13, 110 deceased members of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry, who had been convicted during the nation’s largest mass court-martial trial in the aftermath of the Camp Logan rebellion on Aug. 23, 1917, had their convictions set aside and were granted honorable discharges.
For many in attendance at the ceremony, held at the National Buffalo Soldiers Museum, it was a fitting and long overdue acknowledgment of the wrongs done to these Black Buffalo Soldiers who were wrongly convicted, with 19 of them hanged, for responding to the ongoing white domestic terrorism they and Houston’s Black civilian population were forced to endure continually.
“In 1917, in the midst of a world at war, our nation bore witness to a great travesty; a tragedy that has taken over a century to address,” said U.S. Congressman Al Green, who acknowledged attendees who were descendants of these Camp Logan soldiers, including Professor Angela Holder, whose great uncle was Cpl. Jesse Ball Moore, and attorney Jason Holt, whose great-uncle was Pvt. 1st Class TC Hawkins.
During the program, the U.S. Army officially committed to address and redress these wrongs.
Gabe Camarillo, the 35th Under Secretary for the Army, laid out three specific things his institution is doing to restore the honor of the members of “3/24.”
“First, the Army hereby sets aside all 110 court-martial convictions of 3/24 soldiers stemming from the events of Aug. 23, 1917,” said Camarillo. “Second, we direct the correction of military records to show honorable discharge for the 95 soldiers of 3/24 not restored to duty.
“Third and finally, in partnership with the VA, we’ve established a mechanism to deliver survivor benefits to families long denied the financial resources owed to them,” he added, addressing the generational monetary wrong done to the soldiers’ surviving kin.
Creating a More Just Future
The fact that this move is coming over 100 years after the fact is a hard pill for many to swallow, but it is consistent with past moments when major U.S. institutions acknowledge past injustices perpetrated upon its Black citizens.
Camarillo added, “As much as we want to, we cannot revise this difficult chapter in our past, but we can learn its lessons. We can use them to create a more just future for all Americans, including those who have bravely chosen to wear the Army uniform.”
Camarillo also mentioned that as a direct result of the Camp Logan rebellion, “generations of American soldiers of all races and of all backgrounds have enjoyed more equal protections under the law.”
He acknowledged, however, that the soldiers most impacted by Aug 23. 1917 (members of the 3/24) did not benefit from those protections.
Restoring the Soldiers’ Names With Honor
Other program speakers emphasized that the clemency granted these soldiers who had so valiantly served a country that rarely even acknowledged their humanity on foreign battlefields in Cuba, Mexico and the Philippines, before being assigned to guard the construction site that would become Houston’s Camp Logan, was all about restoring their names and honor.
The event’s master of ceremony, Brigadier General Ronald D. Sullivan, however, set the stage for the gathering by retelling the story.
“The year was 1917. The United States had just entered the First World War and Houston, Texas was governed by racist Jim Crow laws,” said Sullivan. “The 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry, an all-Black Buffalo Soldier regiment, was assigned to guard the construction site that would become Camp Logan. The soldiers came to town with patriotism in their hearts, ready to serve their country faithfully, but were met with racist provocations and physical violence.
“On Aug. 23, 1917, these tensions boiled over and the soldiers of the 3rd and the 24th clashed with civilians and police in Houston. In the aftermath, 110 men of the 3rd and 24th were convicted after a mass court martial in a process that was recognized at the time as unfair. Nineteen men were summarily executed without appellate review. Even with the backdrop of entrenched, state-sanctioned segregation, there was an immediate public outcry about the miscarriage of justice. This led to a major overhaul of the military justice system, including establishing due process for service members and a board of review that would later become the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.”
Sullivan acknowledged that for many, Camp Logan simply became a footnote of history. But not for the descendants of the wrongfully executed and the wrongfully convicted, and not for a community of judge advocates, scholars and supporters who came together to petition the Army for the right to right this wrong.
“It took years of hard work, patience and hope to bring us to this point. And here we are, finally. As an Army officer and judge advocate, I am humbled to be with you today. I am also tremendously proud to currently serve as the Chief Judge of the same Army Court of Criminal Appeals created in the wake of this Houston event. Our court serves so that what happened in Houston in 1917 will never be repeated,” said Sullivan.
New headstones coming
Matthew Quinn, the 17th Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs for the Department for Veterans Affairs, informed attendees that the VA’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA) will correctly acknowledge and memorialize the service to our nation of the 17 members of the 3/24 interred at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.
“They have been interred there for more than a century, but their historical headstones make no mention of their Army service,” said Quinn, alluding to the practice of the time to keep headstone information to a minimum for soldiers convicted of a crime. “Now, with the Army setting aside these convictions and upgrading the discharges, NCA is ready to… provide new headstones with the same amount of information that every veteran is entitled to.”
He added that the VA will do whatever possible to also properly memorialize those soldiers not interred in the National Cemetery.
Additionally, through the Veterans Legacy Memorial (VLM), the NCA’s online platform to recognize and preserve the legacies of veterans, personal memorial pages are now live online for the 17 Buffalo Soldiers interred at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
“By using VLM, families, veterans, current soldiers, and any other supporter can now post tributes and mementos to recognize the service of these veterans to help restore and preserve their legacy. To do so, go to va.gov/remember and look up the VLM pages of any of the 17 of these veterans,” shared Quinn.