A Night of Violence December 31 2018
Bad information leads to bad decisions and bad outcomes. Ask Vida Henry.
Back in 1917, what is now Memorial Park in Houston was a mix of pines and prairie being turned into a new Army training center called Camp Logan. Construction sites need to be guarded to prevent materials from evaporating, so the Army assigned the duty to the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry.
Apparently the Army brass didn't understand that Houston was very much a Southern city with a full set of Jim Crow laws on the books, or they never would have sent an all black battalion to do that job. Bad information.
Vida Henry was sergeant of I Company, and by all accounts a good soldier who went by the book. Strict but fair. He had cautioned the men in his charge about the dangers of going into town, but still issued passes. After being stationed in the wilderness of New Mexico, Houston with its thriving black community in the Fourth Ward was like finding an oasis in the desert.
Still, this was the Jim Crow South and the officers of the Houston police force didn't feel the black soldiers showed enough deference. There were dust-ups, a few arrests and a lot of mutual bad blood.
Everything came to a head on August 23. Corporal Charles Baltimore went into town to investigate the arrest of another soldier that afternoon. Things escalated and Baltimore was beaten, shot at, and arrested.
By the time the news reached Camp Logan, it was erroneously reported that Baltimore had been killed. Bad information. And the last straw.
Sgt. Henry and 155 men of the 3rd Battalion declared war on the Houston Police Department, seized weapons and marched out of camp.
They marched down Washington Avenue, turned right at Shepherd Drive, then left down what is now W. Dallas and into town.
A few citizens who went outside to see what was happening where bayonetted and shot. One man was shot fifty times when he refused to give up his car.
Police on horseback attempted to stop the advance, but to no avail. The soldiers continued on until they reached Valentine Street. It was now dark and the men were overcome by the futility of what they were doing.
Sgt. Henry advised them to put down their arms and surrender. He then walked off down the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. A short while later a shot was heard.
When the sun rose the next day Houston was under martial law. Five police officers, four soldiers and eight citizens were dead.
Military tribunals convicted 110 soldiers. Nineteen were hanged at Fort Sam Houston, sixty-three received life sentences and the remainder lesser terms. It was the largest court martial in US history.
"What you northerners never appreciate ... is that Texas is so big that you can live your life within its limits and never give a damn about what anyone in Boston or San Francisco thinks."
- James Michener