US army overturns Buffalo Soldiers convictions

The US army is overturning the convictions of 110 Black soldiers – 19 of whom were executed – for a mutiny at a Houston military camp a century ago, an effort to atone for imposing harsh punishments linked to Jim Crow-era racism.

Buffalo Soldiers in Italy – 1945

Army officials announced the historic reversal on Monday during a ceremony posthumously honoring the regiment known as the Buffalo Soldiers, who had been sent to Houston in 1917, during the first world war, to guard a military training facility. Clashes arose between the regiment and white police officers and civilians and 19 people were killed.

The South Texas College of Law first requested the army look into the cases in October 2020 and again in December 2021. The army then received clemency petitions from retired general officers on behalf of the 110 soldiers.

At the secretary of the army’s petition, the army board for correction of military records reviewed records of the cases and found that “significant deficiencies permeated the cases”. The proceedings were found to be “fundamentally unfair”, according to the army’s statement. The board members unanimously recommended all convictions be set aside and the military service of the soldiers to be characterized as “honorable”.

Christine Wormuth, the secretary of the army, said in the statement that the move marked the army’s acknowledgment of past mistakes and sets the record straight.

Military records will be corrected to the extent possible to recognize service as honorable and their families might be eligible for compensation, according to the army.

In August 1917, four months after the US entered the first world war, soldiers of the all-Black Third Battalion of the US army’s 24th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, marched into Houston where clashes erupted following racial provocations.

The regiment had been sent to Houston to guard Camp Logan, which was under construction for the training of white soldiers who would be sent to France during the first world war. The city was then governed by Jim Crow laws and tensions boiled over.

Law enforcement officials at the time described the events as a deadly and premeditated assault by the soldiers on a white population. Historians and advocates say the soldiers responded to what was thought to be a white mob heading for them.

Out of 118 soldiers, 110 were found guilty in the largest murder trial in US history. Nineteen of them were hanged.

According to the army’s statement, the first executions happened secretly a day after sentencing. It led to immediate regulatory changes prohibiting future executions without review by the war department and the president.

Families of the soldiers may be entitled to benefits and can apply through a US army board for correction of military records.

“Today is a day I believed would happen,” Jason Holt, a descendant in attendance at the ceremony, said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “I always did.”

Who were the Buffalo Soldiers

Originally part of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment, the Buffalo Soldiers became a separate group on September 21, 1866.

There are differing theories regarding the origin of the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers.” According to the  National Museum of African American History and Culture, “one is that the Plains Indians who fought the Buffalo Soldiers thought that their dark, curly hair resembled the fur of the buffalo. Another is that their bravery and ferocity in battle reminded the Indians of the way buffalo fought.”

In time all U.S. regiments formed of African American soldiers during that time became known as Buffalo Soldiers, which included the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry, Regiments. The Buffalo Soldiers were active between 1866 and 1951.

The United States Congress declared the Buffalo Soldiers as peacetime regiments consisting of African Americans only and being part of the regular U.S. Army. Six regiments were authorized to be manned by black soldiers but by 1869, there was a downsizing of all troops and the black regiments were cut down to two Infantry regiments and two cavalry regiments.

The Civil War

Buffalo Soldiers were instrumental in the American Civil War. They were mostly stationed at posts within the Great Plains as well as the Southwestern regions of the nation. These soldiers fought bravely against the Indians and a total of eighteen Medals of Honor were earned by them. Some of the battles of the buffalo Soldiers and their predecessors included the fight at Cabin Creek and at Honey Springs in the summer of 1863/64 and the Red River War in 1875.

Part of the duties of Buffalo soldiers, aside from engaging in battle, was protecting the civilized Indian tribes on the reservations. They also were keepers of law and order in general and they were active in building roads and military structures.

The oldest Buffalo Soldier, Mark Matthews, died on September 6, 2005. He was 111 years old.