WWI Centennial: Race Riot In Houston
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 286th installment in the series.
AUGUST 23, 1917: RACE RIOT IN HOUSTON
The upheaval of the First World War was associated with a rise in racial tensions across the U.S., resulting from unprecedented population movements and changing social dynamics. Beginning in 1915, the surge in factory employment for wartime production saw hundreds of thousands (eventually millions) of poor African-American migrants leave the South to find work in Northern and Midwestern industrial cities – where they mixed uneasily with native whites and large European immigrant populations.
Down South, the new economic opportunities available to African-Americans in the North caused some white Southerners to fear the loss of cheap agricultural labor as well as blacks becoming more assertive about their civil rights, leading to the establishment of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The huge popularity of the movie “Birth of a Nation” was also testament to enduring racial hostility across the U.S. – not just in the South.
As 350,000 African-American men volunteered or were drafted in 1917-1918, one of the most volatile combinations occurred when black soldiers - many from outside the South - were sent to Southern training camps, where they were exposed to the humiliating Jim Crow regime in addition to serving in segregated units (an Army-wide policy). On August 23, 1917, this resulted in one of the worst race riots in American history, at a training camp in Houston, Texas.
The Houston race riot and mutiny was the climax of months of mounting tension between the African-American recruits of the all-black Twenty-fourth U.S. Infantry Regiment –part of the legendary “Buffalo Soldiers,” originally formed to fight Native American tribesmen– and the local white authorities in Houston, Texas. The regiment had been deployed to guard the construction of Camp Logan, Texas (duties typical of the rear-area and supply roles commonly assigned to these segregated black units).
On the hot, sunny afternoon of August 23, 1917, two white policemen broke up a craps game in the San Felipe section of Houston and then, while in pursuit of the suspects, broke into the house of a local woman, Sara Travers, whom they dragged outside in her torn nightgown. One passing soldier, Private Alonzo Edwards, was bold enough to approach the officer who was holding Travers with an offer to take custody of the distraught woman, possibly intending to return her to her home and de-escalate the situation – but instead Edwards was pistol-whipped for his presumption for speaking to a white police officer. Later that afternoon the same white officer clubbed another black soldier, Corporal Charles Baltimore, who asked after Travers; anger among the regiment’s Third Battalion, to which Baltimore belonged, reached a fever pitch with untrue rumors that he had been shot and died from the wound.
That night 156 black soldiers from the Third Battalion – apparently under the mistaken impression that a white lynch mob was about to attack the camp – armed themselves and marched from Camp Logan towards town, killing anyone they came across, for about two hours before the authorities surrounded and disarmed the mutineers. Altogether the mutineers killed nine white civilians and five white policemen, while four black soldiers were also killed by authorities – marking this as the only race riot in American history with more white than black fatalities.
Unsurprisingly, the official response to the Camp Logan riot and mutiny was draconian: around 100 members of the Third Battalion were tried collectively for murder in several court martials – making it one of the biggest murder cases in American history, measured by number of defendants – and 95 were convicted (top, a photo of the trial proceedings). Of these, 28 mutineers received death sentences and dozens of others were imprisoned.
The U.S. Army executed 13 soldiers almost immediately, all by hanging, and another six soldiers were hung at Camp Travis, Texas in September 1918. But the evidence for the involvement of many convicted soldiers in the mutiny and murders was often sketchy, based in many cases on contradictory eyewitness testimony, and protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civic groups prompted Woodrow Wilson commute ten of the remaining death sentences. The last mutineer was finally released from prison in 1938.
OPPORTUNITY AND THE OUTSIDE WORLD
The Houston race riot and mutiny weren’t representative of the experience of all African-American soldiers during this period. For one thing, tens of thousands of young African-American men joined up voluntarily, usually for the same reasons as their peers: the Army held out the promise of regular pay and adventure, and with it a ticket out of sleepy small town or rural life. Former Illinois state representative Corneal Davis recalled trying to join the army in rural Mississippi, where there were no future prospects besides sharecropping:
I went into the army in 1917 when I was seventeen years old, and I enlisted down there at Beachwood, and the man they had down there, he says to me, “You ain’t nothing but seventeen years old, and you got to be at least eighteen to join this army! So why don’ you just go home and wait a little bit longer.” Well, that’s the way the law was, and so now what am I going to do? But then this same guy, he says, “Do you really want to go?” And so I say, “Hell, yeah, I want to go because I need to go somewhere where I can make some money, and I can’t make nothing down here...”
Possession of some education, even short of a high school degree, could provide a big leg up. Davis recalled,
… they put me in the medical corps because a lot of those black men that they was drafting, they couldn’t read or write, and they had to be trained how to use a stretcher or even put on a bandage and things like that, and so they put me in there because at least I had gone into my last year of high school, and I had a little education, and so they thought that I could train them, and I did.
Of course, once in Europe Davis still had to deal with the same endemic racist attitudes he faced at home, even on the battlefield, where his unit served as stretcher bearers:
… and that was a hard and dangerous job for us to do, and what made it even harder was that some of those soldiers – especially those white guys who were Marines – they didn’t even want black people like us to come anywhere near them, but we were the ones who still had to go out there when they got shot and bring them back off the battlefield!
For all this, traveling to Europe – and especially immersion in France’s relatively egalitarian society – was clearly an eye-opening experience for many African-American soldiers, as noted by both black and white observers. Davis noted that his unit’s true opportunity to shine only came under French commanders, who were already used to the idea of using black and white troops together thanks to units from Senegal and other colonial possessions: “That’s right, and here we were supposed to be fighting for this country and making it safe for democracy and all of that, but they had to take a French general and put him in charge of all the black soldiers before they would let us chase them Germans out of Belgium, and that’s just what we did.”
However it should be noted that French enthusiasm for black troops wasn’t exactly altruistic, as the French used their own colonial troops in the front lines in order to spare the lives of white Frenchmen. In fact the French premier Georges Clemenceau, stated on February 18, 1918: “Although I have infinite respect for these brave blacks, I would much prefer to have ten blacks killed than a single Frenchman, because I think that enough Frenchmen have been killed and that it is necessary to sacrifice them as little as possible.”
African-American soldiers also had to deal with racial dynamics from home. Interactions with the opposite gender were especially fraught, at least in the eyes of Americans, where there had long been a taboo against African-American men sleeping with white women. Avery Royce Wolfe, a white American soldier volunteering with the French Army, noted the friction in a mixed-race camp near Verdun in September 1917, as well as his own racist attitudes, entirely typical for the era:
It is strange to see how the colored troops are received in France. There seems to be absolutely no race question, such as exists in America. The negro is accepted everywhere on the same basis as white men. Even the French girls seem to prefer colored soldiers to white soldiers. I must admit that this is rather repulsive to me, even if I do not have the same prejudice towards the colored people that prevails in our southern states.
Although the Frenchwomen might not have a problem socializing with black soldiers, white Southern soldiers certainly took exception to these relationships, importing Jim Crow laws to France, according to Royce:
The other night there was quite a serious riot between some Americans and the French Colonials who are stationed in this town. These Colonials are colored troops that the French recruit from their foreign provinces. Unlike Americans, the French do not draw a color line, and so these colored troops are accepted by the French girls on the same basis as any other man. This gets under the Americans’ skin, so much in fact that there is always trouble whenever the two mix.
Still, service in Europe inevitably created expectations of – or at least aspirations to – greater equality in America, someday. The white newspaper correspondent Will Irwin described meeting a young black American soldier who had volunteered with the French Army: “War and heroism had given him that straight air of authority common to all soldiers at the line. He looked you in the eye, and answered you with replies which carried their own conviction of truth. The democracy of the French army had brushed off on to him; he had grown accustomed to look on white men as equals…”
"I HAD TO BRING THEM AWAY"
Racism was obviously inescapable, even in Europe, but the fact remained that conditions back home in the United States were much worse – especially down South, prompting millions more African-Americans to leave the Jim Crow states for new homes in the North, Midwest, and West over the First Great Migration, from 1915-1940 (when the Second Great Migration was trigged by the Second World War, lasting until 1970).
There is no question that blacks living in the South during the height of white supremacy were routinely terrorized, including the ever-present fear of lynching. One elderly African-American woman who had moved to Newark told an oral historian about conditions in rural Georgia in this period:
I didn’t have no contact with white folks when I was comin’ up. The people all around me, the people in the neighborhood, had ‘em. But I was scared. You know how come? We couldn’t live in the house. We had to go out and stand in a pond of water up to our waist all night to keep away from the white folks. They would go to our house and bust in. And we had to run away to protect ourselves. We couldn’t come out of the water till the next day… The reason I hurt so bad when my husband died ‘cause I had nobody to help me with the children. I had to bring them away ‘cause them white folks would kill ‘em.
Similarly, when he returned to the United States after the war, Davis found all his relatives had left Vicksburg, Mississippi for other cities, including Chicago, because of racial violence during the war:
When I came out of the army, all of my people, they had already left Mississippi because, just before then there was a boy in Vicksburg that I used to play with who was named Hamilton, and one day they picked him up because some white woman said she had been raped or something, and they took that boy who was completely innocent, and they hung him up on a tree, and that’s when the black people all started leaving Vicksburg because there wasn’t ever hanging black people like that in Vicksburg before then, and so my mother, she sent me this newspaper with the article in it about this boy that had been hanged, and she knew I knew him, and so in her letter to me she said, “Son, we are leaving.”
Beyond the unending terror of “lynch law,” opportunities for education and social mobility in the old South were almost nonexistent for African-Americans (and severely limited for poor whites). One elderly African-American migrant, interviewed anonymously, remembered that because her mother was unable to pay school fees, her education ended in the third grade:
When school time come she had to borrow books and we paid thirty-five cents a month… And all right, maybe you just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. If she didn’t give me the money, I couldn’t go to school. The teachers wouldn’t allow her to send us to school ‘cause she didn’t have the thirty-five cents. So I didn’t have much schoolin’. My mother wasn’t able to pay thirty-five cents for all of us to go to school. I can spell my name and know a little readin’. When she could get that money she send me, and that’s what I did to the third grade. That’s as far as I got.
Another elderly African-American interviewee described primitive conditions in the small rural school she attended:
We had the school in one room with a little potbelly stove sitting right in the middle of it. And the children was all ‘round the walls of the school. This set would come up and get warm and they would move back, the other would come. That’s how we kept warm. The girls had to bring the wood for the stove. The boys would go out and cut the trees down and chop them up to fit in the stove. We girls had to bring it and put it in the schoolroom.
Those who could attend school at all were lucky, as children regularly engaged in strenuous manual labor, usually on a family farm or share-cropping, or for white landowners. One elderly African-American preacher whose family moved North recalled picking cotton in his youth: “Most of the time we get on our knees. I have picked up as high as 230 pounds of cotton a day. I remember kids, they talk about three hundred pound pickers. But every day I picked over 200 pounds…”
Not all sharecroppers and their children were poorly educated, and the blight of illiteracy was also widespread among Southern whites – meaning in some cases black tenant farmers were better educated than their white landlords. Maggie Comer, an African-American woman who migrated from Woodland, Mississippi, to Memphis and then East Chicago, Indiana, in 1920, proudly recalled:
My father was sharecropping. He had more education than the white man he was working for. My father did all his weighing of the cotton and taking care of his business because that white man could not read or write. There were about thirteen or fourteen boys in his family and some few of them got to go to school a bit. My father was one that did get to go to school.
However education carried its own dangers. Indeed, some of the persecution had an economic motive behind it, as whites feared any black attempts to organize or pool financial resources, and any black farmer with education posed a threat in this regrd. Lillie Lodge Brantley, whose family left Midville, Georgia for Chicago in the mid-1920s, recalled the circumstances that forced her father to leave town:
Well, down south my father said the white people controlled everything. When he and the other farmers had their crops all in and they took them to town to sell in order to get nails or grains for the next year or something like that, the white people would them how many bushels they would net from their acres and that would determine just how much credit they would get. But, because my father could read and write and count, he would go around and let the other farmers know how much they were really supposed to get. Naturally, the white people resented that, and so he knew that in due time would have to leave. That’s when he made up his mind to come north.
At the same time, factory work up North held out the enticement of a regular wage with guaranteed payment – something still largely lacking in the informal Southern economy. One anonymous elderly African-American interviewed by oral historians, who moved from North Carolina to Newark in 1915, described the important difference in labor and compensation between agricultural work down South, with its many uncertainties, and industrial work up North:
People were workin’ sometimes, makin’ 50 cents a day. Sometimes they wasn’t. Some would work ten hours for that 50 cents. From sunup to sundown. Then you don’t know whether you going to get that money or not, ‘cause if the guy goes to town to sell and he don’t sell, you ain’t getting’ paid. But up here it was a little bit different. At least here you’ make five or six dollars.
Accommodations for the first wave of black migrants reaching Northern towns were often extremely primitive. Comer recounted her husband’s description of the makeshift encampment where he arrived near East Chicago, as well as the classic “chain” model by which the first migrants brought up their family members one at a time (resembling Irish and Italian immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries): “He stayed at this place where this fellow had a tent, where they just sleep men mostly. There was no black women, or not any up to any good. They slept in tents until they made a few paydays and then they rented rooms or a house. He rented a house and kept a few renters, and then he sent back for a couple of his relatives…”
TOLERANCE AND TENSION
The Great Migration produced a kaleidoscopic array of social interactions, as native whites and European immigrants reacted to their newly arrived neighbors – sometimes with tolerance, other times with suspicion, fear and disdain. In addition to their own cultural differences and prejudices, the simple fact was African-American migrants represented economic competition for working class whites in Northern cities. But despite this obvious source of tension, harmony seems to have prevailed in most cases.
African-American migrants to Newark, NJ were mostly accepted by the white population, which included a large number of European immigrants, as long as they observed certain social barriers, according to one elderly interviewee: “But most of the time we got along, ‘cause here in Newark, whites used to stay upstairs and colored downstairs, and they all got along like two peas in a pod. Never had any problems… I was in a Jewish section, and with Italians too, all mixed up racial.”
Thomas Ellis, who was born in Chicago in 1914, told oral historian Timuel Black that African-American migrants mostly got along with their neighbors, including Jews and European immigrants who lived in their own ethnic enclaves – sometimes even attending their religious observances:
My auntie was the next black person to move into the neighborhood when she moved in on Aberdeen. That was a Jewish section. See, there was a lot of those little “sections” around there. There were Jews out there, there were Swedes out there, and there were Irish. We used to go to that Jewish church up on the corner near Sixty-first and May on Saturdays. It’s not a Jewish church now, but when we were just kids, we used to make fires for Jewish people, who couldn’t do anything like that on Saturdays. And then up on the corner of Sixty-first and May there was a Swedish church were we went sometimes with the fellow who lived next door.
One African-American migrant, Alonzo Parham, recalled benefiting from a supportive Irish immigrant teacher and befriending white students in Chicago in the 1920s:
The teacher was Irish: “And don’t you forget it.” Her last name was O’Donoghue, and her face was like a lemon, but she gave me a chance to shine in that class… In Foster School at the time, most of the fellows in my class were white. The Negro boys were all from the sixth grade down, but they were kind of cool toward me because I ran with these white boys… So when I went outside, the white kids would play with me, but those black kids kind of ignored me.
But there were definite social barriers to interaction, although the extent and intensity of these social prohibitions varied from place to place and over time. Ellis noted “we weren’t too well liked when we went over to Ogden Park. Wouldn’t go into the swimming pool.” Etta Moten Barnett, a stage and film vocalist, recalled petty snubs by a white teacher in Los Angeles:
At that time, in my class at the junior high school, there were only two of us who were not white, and our teacher, he spoke to our class about the fact that not everybody kept their yards and clean and looking nice because it was becoming a mixed neighborhood, and, well, I didn’t think that our teacher should have said something like that to our class, especially because it wasn’t even true!
No surprise, many Southern blacks, having spent their whole lives on farms, also found it difficult to adjust to life in the North and Midwest, according to Comer: “They didn’t like the weather. It was so different to their way of life at home. It was hard for people raised in the South to adjust to the city type life. This was almost like being in a jail for them, living in apartment houses with a postage-stamp lawn.”
Another common complaint among migrants was the alleged untrustworthiness of some Northern whites, who might take pains to appear friendly but in reality harbored sentiments just as racist as their Southern counterparts. An elderly African-American woman who moved to Newark in her youth opined:
Down there they’ll let you know where you at in the first place, in the beginning. You know how far to go with them down there. But up here! Humph! They’re just as bad! They’re just like a snake in the grass. If there’s a snake in the grass and you step in that grass and you don’t know what snake is in there, it’s going to bit you. That’s what it’s like with the white up here. You don’t know where you stand with them… Up here they’re two-faced, they’re hypocritic and nasty.
Some of the tension resulted from the fact that in many cases, black migrants were recruited and brought North specifically to serve as strikebreakers, amid a growing wave of industrial unrest caused by inflation and stagnant wages. While these labor conflicts obviously presented an economic opportunity for low-skilled manual laborers from the South, the circumstances naturally put the African-American “scabs” at odds with the strikers. Wayman Hancock, whose family moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Chicago in 1920 (and who happened to be the father of famed musician Herbie Hancock) recalled that his father was lured by the promise of jobs during a stockyard strike:
See, before then, not many blacks were working in the stockyards, not until they had a strike in the stockyards – that is what my grandfather told me about it. All the companies – Armour, Wilson, Swift… Cudahy – that’s right. They all went south and started to recruit blacks, and some of us came up here in freight cars, and some didn’t even have a place to stay and so they stayed out in the freight cars out in the yard…
Meanwhile whites also reacted to the new migrants with a wave of informal and covert segregation, including “redlining” real estate to keep African-American buyers out, and de facto segregation of public schools. Comer, who arrived in East Chicago in 1920, would later remember:
When I first came into East Chicago there wasn’t much segregation. As I said, there were only two nationalities of people, Polish and blacks. We didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak ours. But you could live on any street in East Chicago, even Grand Boulevard… Fifteen years later, it had become one of the finest streets in town – and white only.
In his memoir Horace R. Cayton, whose childhood was spent in the small pre-war black community in Seattle, recalled his family’s reaction to the sudden influx of African-American migrants during the war: “Our feeling about this was mixed. It was good to see Negroes leaving the South and coming to the relative freedom of the Northwest, but would it not upset our amicable relations with whites if too many came?” Later Cayton’s father, who was born into slavery but later became a successful newspaper publisher, warned him after a local Seattle movie theater introduced unofficial segregation for audiences: “Things are changing here and not for the better. I can remember when it didn’t matter what color you were. You could go any place and work most any place. But it’s different now.”
Tragically, the experience of the next few years would bear this out, including race riots in which white mobs attacked black migrants, and vice versa, in East St. Louis (1917); Chester, Pennsylvania (1917); Philadelphia (1917); Washington D.C. (1919); Chicago (1919); and Omaha (1919), among others.