Houston's Lost History: Camp Logan Race Riots

The early fall of 1917 was one of the darkest times in Houston's history. World War One was raging in Europe and the United States was beginning to ship thousands of soldiers overseas. Our governor, James “Pa” Ferguson had just been removed from office for embezzlement. The city was reeling from the sudden death of our first Hispanic mayor Joseph Pastoriza. Pastoriza had been in office less than three months before suddenly dying of a heart attack. His successor, Joseph Hutcheson, had been in office barely two months when the bloodiest day in Houston's history occurred, the Camp Logan race riots. There aren't many good guys in this bit of history.

Camp Logan was set up where Memorial Park now sits as a staging area for troops bound for the trenches of France. The city had lobbied hard for the military camp, as it brought with it a lot of jobs and soldiers with money to spend. When fully built the camp housed some 60,000 soldiers. One of the first units assigned to Camp Logan was the all black 24th Infantry Regiment. The city's attitude towards blacks in the day was one of extreme racism, and the sudden influx of black men in positions of authority did not sit well with the white population.

The 24th was a decorated combat unit. They had seen action in the Philippines, Cuba and Mexico. The majority of the soldiers were seasoned combat veterans. They had a history of being a bit rowdy, but no more so than white units at the time. They came to Houston from Del Rio to get ready for deployment in Europe. Unfortunately the city didn't want them. The idea of armed black men rankled quite a few in Houston, to the point of the hired handymen that were building Camp Logan refused to work next to armed black men, even if they were military police. The situation quickly reached a boiling point.

The Houston Police Department a century ago had a long history of violence and hostility towards the black population. The department was a fraction what it was today, but it was entirely white and male. Many of the officers had the reputation of being little more than thugs with badges, and were greatly feared by the minority population. Two of them in particular personified this image when they responded to a call of an illegal dice game on August 23, 1917.

Officers Rufus Daniels and Lee Sparks broke up the dice game but one of the suspects ran into the house of a Mrs. Travers. Travers, a black woman, was startled when one of the men from the game burst into her house to hide. She ran outside in her lingerie, which was not done in the puritanical days of that era. Officers Daniels and Sparks confronted her for being under dressed in public, despite the logical reason for it. The discussion got loud and violent and a soldier from the 24th, Private Alonzo Edwards, intervened to protect Mrs. Travers. The officers responded by beating Edwards down with their nightclubs.

With Edwards overdue to return to base, Military Police Officer Corporal Charles Baltimore was dispatched to find him. Baltimore quickly found Edwards who was being set upon by the Houston Police. Baltimore demanded immediately to know what was going on. He was tasked with returning Edwards and ordered the beating to stop. Daniels took offense at Baltimore talking to the police as an equal and starting assaulting Baltimore. When the MP turned and fled from the scene, the officers opened fire on him. Baltimore took shelter in a nearby house, but Daniels and Sparks drug him out of the house and proceeded to beat him without mercy for daring to talk back to them.

Word of the assault trickled back to Camp Logan. With each telling the fate of Cpl. Baltimore became more exaggerated. Baltimore, though badly beaten, was still alive. But to hear the gossip around the camp, Baltimore had been tortured and lynched, or shot on sight. Rumors of mutiny began to swirl around the camp. The commanding officer, Major Snow, tried ineffectively to calm down the angered black soldiers. One of the soldiers, Sgt. Vida Henry, riled up the men until mutiny was certain. Henry took over 150 soldiers into Houston seeking vengeance for Baltimore. The Houston Police Department only had 120 men at this point. Sergeant Butler James, another black soldier, was able to calm down the bulk of the battalion and kept the majority of soldiers on base. Baltimore, though injured, joined with the mutineers. They were met at San Felipe Street by several police officers and an armed mob of white citizens. The civilians never stood a chance as the soldiers fired into the crowd. The Camp Logan Riots had started.

The soldiers were looking for blood, and more specifically were targeting police officers. Tired of being second class citizens and being ignored by the very people they were protecting the 24th had finally had enough. They found Officer Daniels in a car with an army officer, Captain Mattes. The officers confused Mattes for a police officer due to similar uniforms and killed him alongside Daniels. For two hours the soldiers rampaged, shooting down another four officers, seventeen civilians and even three of their own. One of the victims was a nine year old child struck by a stray round. The rioters didn't use just rifles, many of the dead were bayoneted as well.

The riot began to quell when Henry urged the mutineers to lay siege on the police department, but the soldiers decided against it. The army was slow to respond at first, but finally dispatched a thousand troops from an Illinois unit to put down the riot, as well as keep white militias that had organized from making the situation even worse. Martial law was quickly declared and not lifted until a day later. As the mutineers began to return to base or were rounded by the Illinois troops, a despondent Henry, realizing what fate was awaiting him, committed suicide rather than return to face trial.

The army response to the riot was swift. All the mutineers were placed under arrest and the entire battalion was transferred out of Houston. Justice was swift, to the point of any chance of a fair trial was lost as the defendants were given almost no time to prepare a case. The first trial had 63 defendants all represented by a single attorney, who was given only two weeks to prepare his case. After a whirlwind trial with the prosecution presenting questionable testimony, all but five were convicted. Sgt. James was set to appear to testify on the incompetence of the white officers, but he died under mysterious circumstance before the start of the trial. Thirteen men were condemned to die. Before their appeals could be heard the army executed all of them, in the largest mass execution in the nation's history. Corporal Baltimore was one of the men executed.

President Wilson was livid at this breach in civil rights. All thirteen men had been denied the right to appeal, and there were lingering questions about the army's conduct at the trial. When the army tried another fifteen soldiers over the riot and condemned ten of them, Wilson commuted the sentences and made changes to military code of justice prohibiting executions until all possible appeals are finished. A third trial was held for forty more mutineers, and six were condemned to hang for doing most of the killing. After several appeals, the convictions were upheld and the men were executed.

The aftermath of the riots lingered for years. Not a single white officer was tried for their loss of control of their unit. One of them, Captain L. M. Sylvester went on to become a full general. The 24th was transferred to the Philippines after the trials, and was the only infantry battalion not deployed in Europe for World War One. Blacks fled the city en masse, fearful of their own police department. Officer Sparks, despite multiple people blaming him for starting the entire incident with his brutality, was not only cleared of all charges but openly lauded by the findings. The city of Houston did little to discourage the black population from fleeing the city. It wasn't till years later that the city was even able to discuss its largest race riot openly.

Today certain people are trying to bring the controversy of the riots to light. While the mutineers did kill over a dozen, the speed of the trial and sheer kangaroo nature of the proceedings have some demanded belated justice for the soldiers whose punishment was questionably harsh. The Houston Buffalo Soldier Museum at 3816 Caroline has a full display dedicated to the executed soldiers. Angela Holder, great niece of the executed Corporal Jesse Moore, is still fighting for justice for her great uncle nearly a century after his death. The actions of the mutineers, though provoked, were still murderous. However the undue speed and questionable testimony of the trial kept people from finding out who was actually responsible. That was just one of the many wounds the Camp Logan riots left in our city for decades to come.

 
 

 

 
     
 

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