When the black soldiers of the 25th Infantry moved into Fort Brown, Texas, they arrived in a place that had already had problems with the presence of armed troops in its midst. Several sections of the town resented the soldiers’s presence and openly expressed their hostility. The soldiers were subjected to racial slurs and taunts, and received biased or surly hospitality from the white businesses. Customs inspector Fred Tate pistol-whipped Private James W. Newton for “jostling” (brushing against) Tate’s wife and another white woman (Christian 1995, p. 72). Private Oscar W. Reed was pushed into the river for being seemingly drunk and loud (Christian 1995, p. 72). On August 12, 1906, rumors circulated that a black soldier had attacked a white woman, Mrs. Lon Evans, near the red-light district (Christian 1995, pp. 72–73), which provoked the post commander to impose an eight o’clock curfew on the men. However, the peace was disturbed permanently between the townspeople and the troops when shots, allegedly fired by some black soldiers, were heard around midnight and reports of attacks by black soldiers spread through town. Many witnesses surfaced, claiming that they had actually seen black soldiers, while others asserted that the shots were from military Springfield rifles. These reports were dubious and inspired at best. Mayor Frederick Combe brought forth some spent shells that proved the guilt of the black soldiers beyond doubt for many people, for whom this was only a confirmation of their racist beliefs and paranoia about armed black men (Christian 1995, p. 73). Even though Major Charles W. Penrose had checked the presence of all his men on the night of the shooting, and found all enlisted men accounted for and their weapons clean and undischarged, he still believed in the veracity of the mayor’s “evidence.”
Despite the questionable circumstantial evidence, it seems everyone believed in the guilt of the black soldiers. U.S. senators Charles Culberson and Joseph Weldon Bailey wrote to the secretary of war William Howard Taft for immediate removal of the black troops (Christian 1995, p. 74). The editors and writers at several newspapers, mainly the Houston Post, Dallas Morning News, and Austin Statesman, further stoked the public sentiment against the black troops by publishing inflammatory editorials and irresponsibly exaggerated accounts of assaults against white citizens by armed soldiers. They described the soldiers’s provocations to be minimal and unjustified and actively called for the soldiers to be removed from Texas.
Major Augustus P. Blocksom, assistant inspector-general of the Southwestern Division, was in charge of the investigation and found twelve members of the garrison of companies B, C, and D guilty, and arrested them (Christian 1995, pp. 76, 78). Later, President Roosevelt ordered the dismissal of 167 men of the regiment without a trial in December 1907 (Christian 1995, p. 81). He did not offer a reprimand to the white men who had been guilty of assault or decry the racism of the townspeople, but commented that blacks were more proud and unaccepting of rude treatment than before. He gave more credence to the accounts of the raid given by the townspeople than to the protestations of the black soldiers of their innocence. He did not even credit the testimony of the white officers of the division who claimed that assertions of the men’s involvement were not creditable. Major Blocksom recommended that all enlisted men in the battalion be discharged dishonorably unless they gave up the names of the guilty parties.
Twelve men of the garrison were arrested subsequently under the persuasion of Texas Ranger William Jesse McDonald (Christian 1995, p. 78). This openly defied the stance of General William S. McCaskey that there was no evidence of the direct involvement of any of the men. Further removal of the troops to Fort Reno, Oklahoma Territory, and the twelve incarcerated men to Fort Sam Houston did not resolve the situation. President Theodore Roosevelt asked General Ernest A. Garlington to discharge the 167 men of the companies A, B, and C if they did not give forth the guilty men’s names (Christian 1995, p. 79). The investigations of General Garlington did not provide any conclusive results, and subsequently, on November 4, Roosevelt’dismissal order was signed and published. The fact that Roosevelt withheld his decision until after Election Day provoked charges from black newspapers and leaders that his act was politically motivated and unconstitutional. Du Bois urged black men to vote Democratic in the next election in 1908, while Washington remained silent and loyal to the white administration, resulting in increasing criticism of his conciliatory policies. The Military Affairs Committee convened on February 4, 1907, and nine of its members eventually suggested that the decision was justified, while four members found considerable flaws and gaps in the evidence (Christian 1995, p. 82). The campaign by Ohio senator Joseph B. Foraker to provide the 167 men due process through trial and possible acquittal did not succeed. Foraker and Senator Morgan Bulkeley (of Connecticut) submitted a minority report, which suggested that the eyewitnesses were unreliable and the shells produced as evidence had been brought from a firing range at Fort Niobrara (Christian 1995, p. 83). Roosevelt only conceded to allowing fifteen of the men to reenlist in the face of growing criticism of his decision. This event only highlighted the racism present in the social and political system, which denied black men justice. The men were subsequently given an honorable discharge by the Richard Nixon administration in 1972 (66 years later), which did not result in due reparations to more than one survivor from among the 167 men. Another casualty of this incident was Corporal Edward A. Knowles, who was charged with a shooting attempt on Captain Edgar A. Macklin of the 25th; despite lack of direct evidence, Knowles was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor. He never received an honorable discharge posthumously. It was widely felt by black leaders, newspapers and their editors, black ministers, and even W. E. B. Du Bois (Christian 1995, p. 80) that the government was merely catering to racist public sentiment and evincing support for itself by acting highhandedly in disallowing due process to black soldiers.
All of these incidents reinforced the racism that prevailed in the country and clearly defined the different moderate and extremist ideologies of black leaders, politicians, and organizers. The failure of the political strategies of Washington and Du Bois led to the more radical movements of Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. While neither movement quite succeeded, both helped continue the struggle of black people toward attaining full citizenship and leading lives of dignity and equality.
Sources cited: Christian, Garna L. 1995. Black Soldiers in Jim Crow Texas, 1899–1917. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
Around midnight on August 13, 1906, shots rang out on the road between Brownsville, Texas, and Fort Brown, the old army garrison. Ten minutes later a young civilian lay dead, and angry residents swarmed the streets, convinced their homes had been terrorized by newly arrived soldiers. Inside Fort Brown, the alarm was sounded. Soldiers leaped from their bunks and grabbed their rifles, thinking they were under attack by hostile townspeople. The soldiers were black; the civilians were white.
Still proclaiming their innocence, 167 black infantrymen of the segregated Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiment were summarily dismissed without honor (or a trial) by President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Brownsville Raid, first published in 1970, is John D. Weaver’s searching study of the flimsy evidence presented in a 1909-1910 court of inquiry. That court had upheld the president’s action and closed the case against the soldiers, not one of whom had ever been found guilty of wrongdoing. The case remained closed until 1971 when, after reading The Brownsville Raid, Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins of Los Angeles introduced a bill to have the Defense Department rectify the injustice.
Amid a flurry of national publicity, honorable discharges were finally granted in 1972. All were posthumous except for that of Private Dorsie Willis, who received his in a moving ceremony on his eighty-seventh birthday.