Black Americans in the US Military from the American Revolution
to the Korean War:
The Brownsville Incident and Teddy Roosevelt
The Brownsville Incident: A War at Home
At the second Niagra Conference in 1906, W.E.B. Du Bois, forerunner of the
NAACP, demanded full manhood rights. It was made clear that this message went
to all Americans, but it enraged the South nevertheless. Several race riots
broke out, the worst in Atlanta where 60 blacks were lynched.
It came to no surprise that more problems occurred when 170 Blacks from the
25th Infantry’s 1st Battalion were ordered to train alongside the Texas
National Guard at Fort Brown, in Brownsville, Texas. Upon their arrival, these
soldiers received a cold welcoming of signs barring Blacks from stores and parks.
The citizens of Brownsville quietly watched their arrival, showing no respect.
Shots were heard outside Fort Brown on the night of August 13th, arousing
the 25th. The soldiers noticed that someone had broken into the camp and unlocked
rifle racks. Within the town, unknown attackers killed one person and wounded
several others. Further investigation found Springfield rifle clips, and it
was immediately assumed that Black soldiers were at fault. Eight out of twenty-two
witnesses claimed that the attackers were Black.
The State Department demanded the three companies of the 25th name the gunmen
or face summary dismissal. Still, every soldier denied any knowledge of the
attackers. President Theodore Roosevelt accepted the recommendation of dismissal
for anyone who did not speak up, and one hundred and sixty seven soldiers were
slapped with dishonorable discharges. They would never again serve the government.
The soldiers also did not receive a trial. President Roosevelt added that some
of these soldiers were “Bloody Butchers” that should be “hung.”
A new investigation into the incident by Senator Joseph P. Foraker found that
the bullets recovered did not come from any of the weapons issued to the 25th.
The first attempt at reversing the dishonorable discharges failed because the
trial process assumed guilty until proven innocent. The successful attempt came
finally in 1971 when Augustus Hawkins, a Black Democratic Congressman, introduced
a bill to declare the discharges honorable. After an investigation into the
incident in 1972, President Nixon approved of honorable discharges, with no
other compensation. The only remaining member of the 25th Infantry at Brownsville,
Dorsie W. Willis, received $25,000 and medical treatment at the Veterans Administration
Theodore Roosevelt a Traitor
Theodore Roosevelt promised to recognize the gallantry of the soldiers who
in more than one instance bailed out his “Rough Riders” in Cuba.
Soldiers of the 9th and10th Cavalry had hoped that their efforts could be recognized.
Roosevelt wrote about his experiences in Alone in Cubia, and had little to say
of any Black accomplishments, yet alone the fact that the Black regiments were
responsible for saving the Rough Riders at Las Guásimas and San Juan
Hill. Anything the Black soldiers accomplished was due to White leadership,
according to Roosevelt. Amidst this backstabbing, Roosevelt went so low as to
claim that he encountered Black soldiers leaving the battlefield and had to
force them at gunpoint to join the front lines. According to Presley Holliday,
a former Sergeant in the 10th Cavalry, Roosevelt actually stopped four soldiers
on their way to pick up ammunition from a supply point.
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New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History
March 30, 2006