Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Houston Riot (1917)

From Wikipedia:

The Houston Riot of 1917, or Camp Logan Riot, was a mutiny by 156 African American soldiers of the Third Battalion of the all-black Twenty-fourth United States Infantry. It occupied most of one night, and resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and sixteen civilians. The rioting soldiers were tried at three courts-martial. A total of nineteen would be executed, and forty-one were given life sentences.


Around noon August 23, 1917, two Houston police officers stormed into the home of an African American woman, allegedly looking for someone in the neighborhood, after firing a warning shot outside. They physically assaulted her, then dragged her partially clad into the street, all in view of her five small children. The woman began screaming, demanding to know why she was being arrested, and a crowd began to gather. A soldier from the 24th Infantry stepped forward to ask what was going on. The police officers promptly beat him to the ground and arrested him as well. Their official reports and later news reports stated the soldier was charged with interfering with the arrest of a publicly drunk female. Later that afternoon, Corporal Charles Baltimore went to the Houston police station to investigate the arrest, as well as beating of another black soldier, and also to attempt to gain the release of the soldier. An argument began which led to violence, and Corporal Baltimore was beaten, shot at, and himself arrested by the police.

The Camp Logan riot began the evening of August 23, when 156 angry soldiers ignored their officers' orders, stole weapons from the camp depot and marched on the city of Houston. They were met outside the city by the police and a crowd of armed citizens, frightened by the reports of a mutiny. A virtual race riot began, which left 20 people dead - four soldiers, four policemen, and 12 civilians. Order was restored the next day, and the War Department disarmed the soldiers. The Third Battalion was sent by rail back to New Mexico.

More here

I only just today heard of this because it was briefly mentioned on NPR's Fresh Air, which I had sort of playing in the background while I was doing stuff around the house.  And that's kind of weird to me.  I'm from Houston.  I've spent most of my life there.  But I've never heard of this race riot, and you'd think I would have because it sounds like it was pretty hardcore.  I'm not surprised, of course, because, as with lynchings and other racist travesties in the US, cities, towns, and other localities tend to keep this shit quiet, and people just forget in the long run.  But this ought to be taught in elementary school to all Houstonians.

While I don't like the notion of supporting members of the military taking the law into their own hands, this strikes me as a pretty unique case.  It is completely clear that the HPD not only provoked the confrontation in the first place, but that they also ramped it up every opportunity they got.  And the white power structure's reaction to it, punishing only the soldiers, when the police obviously were to blame for fanning the flames so intensely, and when the "civilians" were armed and standing with the cops, brings to mind the overly-harsh and brutal responses to slave uprisings in the antebellum South.  That is, this thing was so racist, from top to bottom, that it makes me sick.  

And it happened in my home town.

Another thought.  I've seen a few gun nuts on television lately speculating how if enslaved African-Americans had access to firearms, there wouldn't have been a need for the Civil War.  Leaving aside the absurd notion that slave-owners or the Southern political establishment would have ever allowed this, the 1917 race riot in Houston makes achingly clear what happened to blacks who dared defend themselves with arms against racist oppression in the days of Jim Crow: the white power structure obliterated them totally with all the force they could possibly muster, as if their very existence was on the line.