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The Brownsville Affair
The First Battalion of the 25th United States Infantry Regiment (above) was a Black unit under the command of white officers. They were usually referred to as Buffalo Soldiers (see below). After serving in The Philippines, the regiment was deployed to Fort Brown near Brownsville, Texas in July 1906.
The Texas State Historical Association notes that “The soldiers immediately confronted racial discrimination from some businesses and suffered several instances of physical abuse from federal customs collectors.” They were refused service in bars, subjected to racial slurs, and assaulted in the street by bigots who couldn’t abide their presence.
Tensions rose and on the evening of August 12 there was a report of an attack on a white woman, whose husband threatened any Black soldiers would be shot on sight if they turned up in Brownsville. Because of the charged atmosphere, battalion commander Major Charles W. Penrose thought it was prudent to order an early curfew for his soldiers.
Shootout in Brownsville
After midnight, on August 13, a shooting spree broke out in Brownsville. A bartender named Frank Natus was killed and the arm of police lieutenant M. Y. Dominguez was blown apart. Residents immediately blamed soldiers of the 25th regiment and claimed to have seen them running through town firing their weapons.
However, these allegations completely contradicted testimony from “white commanders at Fort Brown [who] affirmed that all Black soldiers were in their barracks at the time of the shooting …” (PBS, The Brownsville Affair, 1906). Major Penrose said all guns in the armoury were accounted for and an inspection showed that none had been fired recently.
Never mind that, newspapers such as The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, carried the story under a headline reading “NEGRO SOLDIERS ON A RAMPAGE” and a sub-head of “Brief Reign of Terror.”
The locals pointed to spent bullet casings from military weapons as proof that the Black soldiers were the culprits. Investigators accepted these claims at face value even though it was fairly clear the casings had been planted.
The Black soldiers were questioned and pressed to reveal who among them had done the shooting. When they said they had no knowledge of the incident, in the perverse way of such inquiries, this was taken as a conspiracy of silence and a bid to protect the guilty parties. Texas Ranger captain William Jesse McDonald persuaded a judge to issue an arrest warrant for a dozen men, but Maj. Penrose refused to hand them over. He feared they might be lynched. McDonald put his “evidence” to a grand jury but failed to get a single indictment. That didn’t seem to deter the authorities who, without the benefit of a hearing or trial, deemed the entire battalion was guilty.
The President Acts
Angered by the failure to charge the soldiers, local residents kept pressuring officials to take action. Eventually, the issue landed on the desk of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Following the advice of the Army’s Inspector General, the president ordered that all 167 Black soldiers in the unit be dishonourably discharged. Those kicked out were banned from ever holding a government job and they lost their pensions. Some of the men had as much as 20 years service.
Roosevelt’s hard line was not out of step with the wider society of time, but it was a break with Republican Party tradition as defender of the rights of African-Americans. Here’s how History.com describes Roosevelt’s attitude: “He referred to white Americans as the forward race, whose responsibility it was to raise the status of minorities through training the backward race[s] in industrial efficiency, political capacity, and domestic morality. Thus, he claimed whites bore the burden of preserving the high civilization wrought out by its forefathers.”
Black organizations lobbied to have the president’s decision reversed. It was pointed out that Buffalo Soldiers had fought beside Roosevelt in Cuba, even taking part in the famous charge up San Juan Hill. But the president stood firm and some historians point to the episode as the point at which the Black vote started to move to the Democrats.
A Senate committee examined the affair in 1907-08 and sided with the president. However, some Republican senators felt the discharge was unjust and Ohio Senator Joseph B. Foraker campaigned to allow the men to reenlist. Fourteen were given the opportunity and 11 rejoined.
“I have said that I do not believe that a man in that battalion had anything to do with the shooting up of Brownsville, but whether any one of them had, it was our duty to ourselves as a great, strong, and powerful nation to give every man a hearing, to deal fairly and squarely with every man; to see to it that justice was done to him; that he should be heard.”
Senator Joseph B. Foraker speaking at Washington’s Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopalian Church in 1909.
In the late 1960s, journalist John D. Weaver began digging into the story. The result of his investigations was the publication in 1970 of the book The Brownsville Raid. In it, Weaver tore apart the flimsy evidence against the soldiers and their unconstitutional punishment without due process.
Democratic Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins read the book and sponsored a bill to have the Department of Defense look into the matter. In 1972, the Army finally admitted the members of The First Battalion of the 25th United States Infantry Regiment were innocent and President Richard Nixon pardoned the men and gave them an honourable discharge. By then, of course, all but two had died. In 1973, the last survivor, Dorsie Willis was awarded a lump sum of $25,000.
The 25th Infantry Regiment soldiers, as with all Black units, were also known as the Buffalo Soldiers. It’s said that Black soldiers came by the nickname after a skirmish between a member of the 10th Cavalry, Private John Randall, and a group of about 70 Cheyenne warriors. Alone, Randall fought off the Indians, killing 13 of them. When his fellow troopers came to his rescue Randall had a bullet in his shoulder and 11 lance wounds. He survived and the Cheyenne talked about a Black soldier who fought like a cornered buffalo.
In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order that halted the segregation of the military.
“Brownsville Raid of 1906.” Garna L. Christian, Texas State Historical Association, undated.
“The Brownsville Affair, 1906.” Richard Wormser, PBS, undated.
“The Brownsville Raid.” John D. Weaver, Texas A&M University Press, republished 1992.
“Remembering the Brownsville Affair.” Alison Shay, Long Civil Rights Movement, August 13, 2012.