[December 11, 2018] On this date, December 11, 1917, thirteen Buffalo Soldiers of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment were hanged for participation in a Houston, Texas riot, mutiny, and murder spree. There are lessons here for leaders and for also a lesson for those who are now attempting to have these men pardoned on the grounds that their arrest and trials were unjust.1
In 1917, 118 black soldiers were charged with murder, mutiny, aggravated assault, and disobeying orders after a race riot in Houston. Nineteen of the soldiers were eventually hanged, 13 on today’s date.
If there is one thing I’ve learned about opening old investigations in the U.S. military, it’s that no amount of due-diligence can compensate for failures of the past; perceived or actual failures. Anyone who would today want to overturn the judgment of those over 100 years ago are doing it for personal reasons having little to do with what actually occurred.
There is little doubt that racism was rampant in 1917 and that bias and prejudice influenced what happened at the time. From my understanding, a racial incident occurred that sparked the riot and murder spree by a number of black soldiers from the 24th Infantry. Yet murder and mutiny were and still are a crime and there is no justifications that can be offered to deny it.
What is at issue, I believe, is not that many of the Buffalo soldiers were truly guilty of rioting, murder, aggravated assault, and disobeying orders but that some who were innocent were caught up with the guilty. For example, soldiers who didn’t sign the duty roll, missed roll call, or were found to be off base during the night of the riots were presumed to be rioting and summarily arrested, according to Graham and other historians.
This is a legitimate charge to make. The problem, however, is that there is no way to determine the strength of the argument; one way or another. Yet to make a sweeping decision, especially such an important one, based on an incident 101 years ago and pardon all involved because a few might be innocent is not a proper path to justice.
To pardon all the Buffalo soldiers would send the signal that the murders and other crimes were insufficiently important and justice is weighed more heavily based on the color of their skin.