Thursday, August 13, 2020

Brownsville—The Shame of the City that Framed Buffalo Soldiers

The Black press supported the distinguished service of the 25th Infantry whose members were framed for the alleged Brownsville Raid.

On the dark, hot, and dusty late night of August 13, 1906 shots were fired on a Brownsville, Texas street leaving a bartender in a rowdy district dead and a police officer wounded.  Both of the victims were White. Mayor Frederick Combe was quick to charge that the crime was committed by members of the 25th United States Infantry Regiment, a Black unit stationed at adjacent Fort Brown.
The troops had arrived at the post on July 28, some from recent service in the Philippines and others reassigned from Fort Niobrara, Nebraska.  Local residents had long been opposed to the Army posting Black troops to the Fort.  The peace time Army, however was shorthanded and had traditionally posted Black troops, sometime still called Buffalo Soldiers to “hardship” posts in the West.
Newspaper accounts whipped up a frenzy against Black troops for an alleged assault on a white woman.
The soldiers found themselves harassed and even assaulted on the streets of the town. Tensions were running exceptionally high after a street fight between a soldier and a local citizen a few days earlier.  When a White woman claimed to be molested on August 12, the Mayor requested that the Army confine the men to the post.  Commanding officer Maj. Charles W. Penrose agreed and put the troops on early curfew.  When townspeople leveled charges against unnamed soldiers, after the August 13 shooting, Penrose and other White officers were able to produce bed check records showing all men were at the Fort at the time of the shooting. 
Despite this a citizen’s committee investigating the shooting found witnesses who claimed that they had seen soldiers running through the streets at some distance.  Spent .30 cartridges, supposedly from the troopers rifles were produced as evidence, although subsequent investigation showed that they were planted. 
At the insistence of the Mayor, the Army withdrew the unit from Ft. Brown but did not provide White replacements. 
Texas Ranger Captain William Jesse McDonald was called in to investigate.  He accepted all local white claims at face value and discounted Army evidence to the contrary, including sentry reports of hearing pistol fire from  beyond the reservation” at the time of the shooting.  He interviewed 125 men from the post and all steadfastly denied any knowledge of the shooting. 
Maj. Augustus P. Blockson of the Army’s Southwestern Division, deemed the soldiers uncooperative and urged their dismissal if they refused to “provide evidence.”  McDonald eventually brought 12 soldiers to the Cameron County Grand Jury as leaders of a “conspiracy.”  The Grand Jury, however, refused to issue indictments.  Despite this, Army Inspector General Ernest A. Garlington charged a “conspiracy of silence” against all of the Black enlisted men stationed at the Fort and recommended summery dismissal from the service.

Theodore Roosevelt, who largely owed his political career to the Buffalo Soldiers who served alongside the Rough Riders at the Battle of San Juan Hill and who did much of the hardest fighting that day, had been warmly supported by most Blacks.  That changed when he scapegoated the 25th Regiment to shore up white support.
On November 5 President Theodore Roosevelt discharged without honor” all 167 enlisted men previously garrisoning Fort Brown.  The men included distinguished soldiers with as many as 40 years of service including veterans of the Indian Wars, Spanish American War, and Philippine Insurrection.  The dismissal resulted in loss of pension and a permanent ban on future service in the armed forces or any Federal employment. 
The nation’s most highly regarded—by Whites—Black leader, educator Booker T. Washington, personally appealed to the President, with whom he had previously had warm relations, but was not only rebuffed, but publicly humiliated.  Despite this Washington refused to criticize Roosevelt, permanently damaging his reputation with other Black leaders. 
The case remained controversial and Senator Joseph B. Foraker (R-Ohio), a political rival of the President, continued to defend the troops and charged the President with caving to political pressure.  He held hearings in which the majority sided with the President, but Foraker and one other Senator issued a minority report alleging that the shooting had been staged by locals to force the removal of the troops. 

Roosevelt approved of slanderous attacks on Senator Joseph B. Forster for demanding justice for the  Ft. Brown troops like this racist cartoon.
When Foraker failed to be re-nominated for the Senate in 1808, Congressional pressure on the case evaporated.  Enough publicity had, however, been generated for William Howard Taft to appoint a board of retired Army officers to hear requests for re-instatement to the service on an individual basis.  After interviewing somewhat over half the applicants, the Court of Military Inquiry in 1910 approved only fourteen of the men for re-instatement before disbanding. 
That ended action until 1970 when John D. Weaver published The Brownsville Raid which investigated the affair in depth and presented evidence that all the accused members of the 25th Regiment were in fact innocent. As a result the Army conducted a new investigation on the affair and in 1972 found the men innocent. The Nixon Administration overturned all of the accused soldier's dishonorable discharges, but refused to grant their families the back pay in pensions.

A recent edition of the book by John D. Weaver that revived interest in justice for the  troops.
Dorsie Willis, the last surviving veteran did receive a meager $25,000 pension.  

Dorsey Willis finally got his pension.  Survivors of other victims did not.
To this day the City of Brownsville has refused to apologize to the families of ther acknowledged any wrong doing in the affair.  In fact some local historians continue to maintain that Black troopers were involved in the original shooting.

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