Their First 100 Years

Will the Chronicle's celebration turn up the headlines of August 24, 1917?

Not a lot of people know about Camp Logan. It was first a national guard camp and then an emergency training center for soldiers during the First World War, situated on a chunk of land largely overlapping property that was later deeded to the city as Memorial Park.

Construction of the camp began in July 1917. To guard the project, according to the University of Texas's Handbook of Texas Online, the army moved a black infantry battalion from Columbus, New Mexico, to a very segregated Houston. "From the outset, the black contingent faced racial discrimination when they received passes to go into the city," per the handbook. The blacks, as soldiers, felt they should receive equal -- or at least equal-er -- treatment. On August 23, 1917, two Houston policemen arrested a black soldier for "interfering with their arrest" of a black woman in the Fourth Ward. Later that day, Corporal Charles Baltimore, a black military policeman, "inquired about the soldier's arrest" and was hit over the head by white police. They arrested Baltimore and later released him, but a rumor spread that he had been shot and killed, and that evening more than 100 black soldiers marched down San Felipe to exact justice. In the ensuing riot, 16 whites, including five policemen, were killed, and another 11 wounded. Four black soldiers died in the shooting. Sergeant Vida Henry, who'd led the march, shot himself in the head. Martial law was declared in Houston.

Court-martial followed. They convicted 110 battalion members for participating in the riot. Nineteen men were hanged, and 63 got life sentences in federal prison. Two white officers facing courts-martial were released. The Handbook of Texas judged the event "one of the saddest chapters in the history of American race relations."

A 1999 Houston Chronicle reader survey agreed, judging "Camp Logan riots and reprisals" No. 4 on its list of the century's worst crimes.

But don't expect to read about it in the centennial archives self-survey that is the Chronicle's running feature, "Our First 100 Years."

That daily bit of promotional self-congratulation has so far been dedicated to any number of topics, from the 1916 marriage of Mr. Hu T. Huffmaster, director of the Women's Choral Club of Houston, to Miss Nonie Elizabeth Thompson; to the 1905 disbanding of The Houston Club; to the 1991 shooting rampage that killed 24 people in a Killeen Luby's -- coverage that won the Chron a "Team Effort Award" from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors Association.

What the Chron has not so far proudly revisited is its coverage of the Camp Logan riots. It dominated the front page on Friday, August 24, 1917, when Houston's Leading Information Source ran 14 pages and cost two pennies "In the City" and three pennies "Outside."

The headlines: "17 Killed; 21 Are Injured in Wild Night," "Sunrise Shootings Next in Order," "War Secretary to Withdraw Negroes" and "Murderous Riot Replaces Negro Watermelon Party."

A sample of the Chronicle coverage:

Negro troopers of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry had planned a watermelon party last night, and arrangements had been made to send out to their camp street cars to take them to Emancipation Park.

The melons had been purchased by the war service commission of the Chamber of Commerce as part of the program of entertainment intended to make pleasant the stay of the troops in Houston

Instead of a melon festival, the negro soldiers staged a night of frightfulness such as could give the German kaiser cards and spades and then make him ashamed of ever having entered into a conspiracy of pure hellfired fiendishness.

The Chron really let its writers cut loose in the early part of those First 100 Years.

A page one editorial, titled "A Matter of Military Discipline," opined that the root of the riot lay not with the "negroes," but with a coddling army establishment.

"The negro temperament," an un-bylined Chronicler wrote, "is such as to require absolutism on the part of those who command."

And: "Their lenient treatment has led negro soldiers to believe that the government is in sympathy with their arrogance and impudence toward white people…"

"A COURT MARTIAL, A HOLLOW SQUARE AND A FIRING SQUAD WILL SETTLE THE MATTER FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL."

We don't know what the hollow square is for, but we're pretty sure it doesn't involve leniency.

"Had it not been for the members of the Illinois National Guard, notably Company E," the Chron sighed, "this mighty city, unarmed, would have been at the mercy of men armed with the guns and wearing the livery of the United States."

As for Sergeant Henry, who shot himself in the head, the Chron initially reported the theory that he had been gunned down while walking the Southern Pacific track back to camp.

"The track is some six or eight feet higher than the surrounding country," the Chron allowed, "and the negro would have made a good mark for a concealed watcher."

To its credit, the Chron recommended death not by mob law -- that would "spread prejudice and create trouble for the future" -- but by military discipline: "death of such a swift and implacable character as will make the negro soldier understand that the government will not shield him in any breach of his duty, will not sympathize with him when he assumes an impudent attitude."

All part and parcel, it's worth remembering, of our first 100 years.

 
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