Friday, July 19, 2024

On Dec. 11, 1917, Pfc. Thomas C. Hawkins and 12 other Black soldiers who had been convicted of mutiny and other crimes during a riot in Houston earlier that year were hanged. It was the single largest mass execution of American soldiers by the Army.

On Monday, more than a century later, the Army said it had formally overturned their convictions and those of 97 other Black soldiers who were found guilty of crimes associated with the riot. The Army acknowledged that the 110 soldiers, 19 of whom were executed, had been convicted in military trials that were tainted by racial discrimination.

The soldiers were members of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, an all-Black unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The Army said their records would be corrected, to the extent possible, to characterize their military service as “honorable.” They will be given proper gravestones acknowledging their Army service, and their descendants will be made eligible for benefits, officials said.

At a ceremony marking the decision, Private Hawkins’s nephew, Jason Holt, read aloud the names of the first 13 soldiers who were executed, in the order in which they stood on the gallows. Mr. Holt has kept a letter that Private Hawkins wrote to his parents just before he was hanged in which he proclaimed his innocence but said, “It’s God’s will that I go now and in this way.”

“How can a life be replaced?” Mr. Holt said in an interview after the ceremony, which was held at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston. “What will a mother feel when she loses a child? How can you bring that back?”

Still, he said, his uncle “died with forgiveness in his heart, and the acknowledgment that this was a miscarriage of justice and granting him an honorable discharge is as close to justice as we’re going to get. And I hope his soul is at peace.”

The Army acted after it received a petition requesting clemency for the soldiers that had been written by John Haymond, a historian, and Dru Brenner-Beck, a lawyer. They had cited trial transcripts and other records to show that the soldiers had been denied due process and other basic rights.

“It is a long time coming, but it is justice that is finally achieved,” Mr. Haymond said on Monday, adding: “This isn’t a political action. This is the Army internally fixing a problem that was the Army’s problem 106 years ago.”

The soldiers had been assigned to guard the construction of a training camp for white soldiers in Houston. White residents greeted them with racial slurs and physical violence.

After two Black soldiers were assaulted and violently arrested, a group of more than 100 Black soldiers, hearing rumors of additional threats, seized weapons and marched into Houston, where clashes erupted on Aug. 23, 1917, Army officials said.

The violence lasted more than two hours and left 19 people dead — among them, white police officers, soldiers and civilians and four Black soldiers, according to historical records.

The Army convicted 110 Black soldiers of murder, mutiny and other crimes. But their trials were unjust, the Army now acknowledges. The soldiers were represented by a single officer who had some legal training but was not a lawyer, according to Gabe Camarillo, the under secretary of the Army.

After 29 days in session, a military court deliberated for only two days before convicting the first 58 soldiers, Mr. Camarillo said.

Less than 24 hours later, the first 13 soldiers were hanged, Mr. Camarillo said. The quick executions prompted an immediate regulatory change that banned future executions without a review by the War Department and the president.

But by September 1918, 52 additional soldiers had been convicted and six more had been executed, Mr. Camarillo said.

Christine E. Wormuth, the Army secretary, said in a statement on Monday that the Army Board for Correction of Military Records had “found that these soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials.”

“By setting aside their convictions and granting honorable discharges, the Army is acknowledging past mistakes and setting the record straight,” she said.

At the ceremony on Monday, the soldiers’ names were read aloud as a white-gloved soldier rang a bell for each one. After a moment of silence, a staff sergeant sang “Amazing Grace.”

Mr. Holt called it “a day of atonement for the Jim Crow-era South and legalized segregation.”

Mr. Camarillo said the decision to set aside the convictions, which was previously reported by The Houston Chronicle, “formally restored honor” to the soldiers.

Others said the decision, while welcome, stirred up difficult memories.

Angela Holder was 6 years old when she was shown a picture of her great-uncle, Cpl. Jesse Moore, who was one of the 13 soldiers hanged in 1917. She asked her great-aunt about him, and was told he had been “killed by the Army in Houston.” Ms. Holder wanted to know more.

She later researched his case, and obtained a copy of Corporal Moore’s record that said his service had been “terminated by death without honor.”

Now that record is “no more,” she said in a telephone interview on Monday, and Corporal Moore’s record will reflect that he “served honorably.”

“Justice has been served,” she said, adding: “Words cannot express the joy that those words are going to be off that former record.”

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