Book Details Long Delayed Justice for Soldiers of the "Brownsville Incident"

President Richard Nixon signs the Veterans Pension Act, December 6, 1972, granting $25,000 to surviving Brownsville Incident veterans and $10,000 to any unremarried widows. Lt. Col. William Baker (far right), looks on.
President Richard Nixon signs the Veterans Pension Act, December 6, 1972, granting $25,000 to surviving Brownsville Incident veterans and $10,000 to any unremarried widows. Lt. Col. William Baker (far right), looks on. Official photo by the White House Communications Agency
The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906: The True and Tragic Story of a Black Battalion’s Wrongful Disgrace and Ultimate Redemption
By Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) William Baker
481 pp.
Red Engine Press

It was one of the most famous (and infamous) incidents in the racial and military history of Texas. Around midnight on August 13, 1906, scores of gunshots rang out on a street in Brownsville, Texas, coming from an unidentified group of men who fired indiscriminately into businesses and homes. And when the noise stopped just ten minutes later with an estimated 300-500 rounds of ammunition spent, a bartender lay dead and a police officer so badly wounded that he had to have his arm amputated.

Red Engine Press book cover
Citizens of Brownsville and their victims were white, and suspicion immediately fell upon the black soldiers of the U.S. Army, First Battalion, 25th Infantry, stationed at the nearby Fort Brown.

The decision to ship the Negro soldiers there was not a popular one among many locals and elected officials, steeped in the racism of the times, and tensions were already taut. It didn't matter that a number of the black soldiers had served in Cuba with Theodore Roosevelt, now President of the United States.

Brownsville’s mayor accused about 20 soldiers of perpetrating the rampage, after numerous eyewitnesses insisted they saw “black soldiers” pulling the triggers as whispers and rumors ran rampant.

That was puzzling to  their white commander, who said all of his men were accounted for all night, and none of the battalion’s rifles had been fired – even though some townspeople had proffered spent rifle cartridge shells and military caps as evidence of the soldiers’ guilt. Twelve of those soldiers were then arrested.

Despite intense questioning from local lawmen and Texas Rangers, the soldiers all professed their innocence. Still, they and their families were soon shipped out of town. When no confession came forth from anyone (what their detractors called “a conspiracy of silence”) and bowing to political pressure, President Roosevelt dishonorably discharged all 167 soldiers without due process or a trial.

This meant their military careers were over and they and their families would never receive benefits. There were some inquiries and testimonies in the coming years, but the decision was not overturned. Contemporary historians and Roosevelt scholars like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Edmund White have called it a glaring stain on his legacy.

Lt. Col. William Baker was working at the Pentagon in 1972 when he was asked to re-investigate the case, and he began poring through court transcripts, eyewitness accounts, contemporary news clippings, and military records both official and off the books. He also checked over testimony and ballistics tests, and even tried some recreations.

click to enlarge "I'm going to use this flag to put on my coffin." Dorsie Willis said on February 2, 1973. - OFFICIAL PHOTO BY THE U.S. ARMY SIGNAL CORPS
"I'm going to use this flag to put on my coffin." Dorsie Willis said on February 2, 1973.
Official photo by the U.S. Army Signal Corps
He also discovered that locals, businessmen, military officers, politicians, and lawmen sometimes had conflicting agenda in the matter back in the early part of the century.

And when he began turning over the massive amount of paper rocks as he’d been directed to, he writes that some in the 1970s military leadership didn’t exactly want to see him succeed in clearing the names of the Brownsville soldiers or cast doubt on the decisions of the U.S. Army or President Roosevelt. Regardless of the time that had passed or what evidence he could turn up for the soldiers’ innocence.

After his exhaustive look into it and his final report was submitted, the Secretary of the Army reversed the dismissals of all men to “honorable,” and President Richard Nixon signed the proclamation. Lt. Col. Baker died in 2018 at the age of 86, and this posthumously-published narrative is the culmination of his life’s work.

The book is divided into the parts: Events before, during, and just after the incident take up the bulk, then Baker’s original investigation, and finally its subsequent legacy. That includes the location of the last remaining Brownsville soldier then alive, Dorsie Willis, whom Lt. Col. Baker would get to meet and then fight to secure some financial compensation for.

The book has an easy narrative style, but with one weakness. In the first part, Baker recreates a sizable amount lot of dialogue in direct quotes among people. Even if some of them were based on transcripts, much of the quoted words could not be wholly authentic or even known. And much of it is written in an overly theatrical style, even if it does serve the narrative.

It ends, of course, with a pertinent question. Since the soldiers were proven innocent…who were the gun blasting raiders that night…and why did they do what they did? Lt. Col. Baker is not able to provide a definitive answer, and that truth may never come to light. But in this book, he does bring some additional belated justice to 167 men who chose to serve their country, even if they didn’t choose the color of their skin.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero