Houston Riots Timeline: History of African-American Servicemen

Since Crispus Attucks took the first lethal bullet during the Boston Massacre, African Americans have been eager to display their patriotism and have served, in many cases, honorably for United States military units – even though, for many conflicts, their enthusiastic desire to serve was at first denied. Here’s a look at some of the key moments in American military history involving black servicemen, including comments about their use and fighting ability, all leading to the Houston mutiny and its aftermath.

  • March 5, 1770 -- Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave and seaman, is among a crowd of Bostonites who confront a group of British soldiers and becomes the first casualty of the 
    American Revolution when he is fatally shot during what would become known as the Boston Massacre.
  • January 1776 – Alexander Hamilton, then a 22-year-old aide to Gen. George Washington, in a dispatch lobbying slave owners in South Carolina and Georgia to loan their black men to the Revolution’s cause: “I hear it frequently objected to the scheme of embodying negroes, that they are too stupid to make soldiers. This is so far from appearing to me a valid objection, that I think their want of cultivation (for their natural faculties are probably as good as ours), joined to that habit of subordination, which they acquire from a life of servitude, will make them sooner become soldiers than our white inhabitants…The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind, will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability, or pernicious tendency, of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice.”
  • January 1776 – As the tide turns towards the British army, Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress allow the enlistment of blacks to the Continental Army. At the war’s outset, neither the future president nor the Congress had any desire to integrate blacks into the army. An estimated 10,000 blacks respond and when Washington makes his famed crossing of the Delaware black soldiers are with him. Through service for the Army or the British forces, 50,000 slaves would earn their freedom.
  • September 10, 1813 – During the Battle of Lake Erie (in the War of 1812), the U.S. Navy
    defeats the British Royal Navy. Going into the skirmish, Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry had
    complained about having black sailors helping to man his ship. However, after their gallant performance he writes to the Secretary of the Navy lauding their courage: “I have yet to learn that the color of a man’s skin can affect a man’s qualifications or usefulness.”
  • July 17, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln authorizes enlistment of blacks for the Union Army through passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, the first time the federal government officially sanctions the employment of blacks. The act frees slaves whose masters are fighting for the Confederacy. However, Lincoln doesn’t approve the participation of blacks in the war until January 1, 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation takes effect – only in the Confederate states (slavery would not be officially outlawed in all states for another two years with the 13th Amendment). However, blacks were recruited to “garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service. Collectively, they were officially known as the United States Colored Troops.
  • September 1862 – Black volunteers in Cincinnati sought to join the Union Army during the Civil War through the formation of local units called “Home Guards.” They were soundly rejected by the city’s police chief: “We want you damn niggers to keep out of this; this is a white man’s war!” If the chief’s statement was in any way unclear, Ohio Governor David Tod later amplified: “Do you know that this is a white man’s government, that the white men are able to defend and protect it, and that to enlist a Negro soldier would be to drive every white man out of the service?” However, over 700 black men would come together under the command of Judge (Col.) William Dickson to form the Cincinnati Black Brigade. Though their duties are primarily as construction labor, they are essentially war’s first black military unit.
  • May 1863 – Establishment of the Bureau of Colored Troops to coordinate and organize
    regiments from all parts of the country. The bureau was responsible for handling "all matters relating to the organization of Colored Troops."
  • July 18, 1863 – During the second battle at Fort Wagner, the famed 54th Massachusetts, the first major military unit of all black soldiers, sacrifices most of its 600 men in the unsuccessful attack in South Carolina. “Well, I guess we’ll let (Gen. George C.) Strong lead and put those damn niggers from Massachusetts in the advance; we might as well get rid of them one time or another,” Union commander Gen. Truman Seymour had said before the battle. Despite Seymour’s death wish for the regiment and the mission’s failure and carnage – 272 dead, wounded or captured – the unit’s gallantry and courage is praised. A post-war New York Times piece underscored the importance of the 54th’s performance: “It made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety-two years to the white Yankees.” For his heroic deeds during the fight, Sgt. William Carney of the 54th became the first black to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
  • March 1865 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis approves the enlistment of 300,000 slaves for his army, promising the men their freedom over widespread objections from others in the Confederacy, including General Clement H. Stevens: “I do not want independence if it is to be won by the help of the Negro…The justification of slavery in the South is the inferiority of the Negro. If we make him a soldier we concede the whole question.”
  • August 20, 1866 – More than a year after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender (April 9, 1865) at Appomattox, President Andrew Johnson formally declares the end of the Civil War. For their part, 16 black soldiers would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor as almost 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served, another 19,000 served in the Navy. The war would claim the lives of 40,000 black soldiers. With the war’s end, black units were maintained through the creation of the 9th and 10th Cavalries, and the 24th and 25th Infantries, who will patrol the Western frontier and fight in the Spanish-American War, and become known as the "Buffalo Soldiers."
  • December 26, 1872 – Seaman Joseph B. Noil’s rescue of a shipmate who had fallen overboard earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was one of only six black sailors so honored for similar acts of bravery.
  • June 25, 1876 – At least one African American, Isaiah Dorman, a black interpreter with the 7th Cavalry, was reported killed during the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Dorman had lived with the Lakota Sioux, who called him "Black White Man."
  • June 15, 1877 – Henry O. Flipper, born into slavery in Georgia, became the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After joining the 10th Cavalry, 2nd Lieutenant Flipper served as the Army’s only black officer until 1882 when he was court-martialed for embezzling funds from the Fort Davis, Texas commissary. Although acquitted, the Army still discharged him for "conduct unbecoming an officer." Almost 100 years later, his innocence was substantiated during an official records review, which cleared Flipper’s name and changed his dismissal to an honorable discharge.
  • February, 1881 – After a local rancher kills a member of the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers), stationed at Fort Concho, the Texas Rangers are called in to quell the ensuing riot. Members of the 10th as well as some white soldiers storm the town and fire numerous bullets into the Nimitz Hotel, where they believed the shooter was being held.
  • October 22, 1896 – The 24th Infantry Regiment arrives at Fort Douglas near Salt Lake City, Utah. White townspeople responded by sending a delegation to Washington, D.C. to protest. However, the professionalism shown by the black troops later prompted a public apology in the newspaper for the town’s earlier action. Well-wishers gave the unit a rousing send-off on April 19, 1898, when the 24th was ordered to Tampa, Florida, to embark for Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
  • June 6, 1898 – Members of the 24th and 25th Infantries attacked white soldiers and segregated businesses in Tampa, Florida, after hearing that drunken Ohio volunteers had used a black child for target practice. Members of both groups were seriously injured during the melee.
  • July 1, 1898 – Approximately two dozen members of the 10th Cavalry charged up San Juan Hill to assist Lt. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” during the Battle of San Juan Ridge, the only full-scale infantry engagement in Cuba during the Spanish American War. The 10th advanced under heavy fire, and according to a reporter, "firing as they marched, their aim was splendid. Their coolness was superb and their courage aroused the admiration of their comrades." It was this action that led a grateful Rough Rider corporal to proclaim, “If  it hadn't been for the black cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated." Edward Baker, Jr., won the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving a wounded comrade while under fire and became one of five black soldiers awarded the medal for bravery in the war.
  • 1898-1917 – Both federal and several state governments restrict black access to the military. Southern National Guard units prohibit blacks from enlisting, the U.S. Navy limits them to mess duties and the U.S. Army limits their roles, as well (no artillery duty). The official excuse was blacks’ supposed lack of mechanical skills and general intelligence for the more technologically advanced assignments.
  • 1901 -- As on-board racial tensions escalate, decreasing opportunities for promotion, mounting restrictions on assigned duties, and increasing racial bias in recruiting practices, the Navy no longer solicits black recruits.
  • 1902 – After the Militia Act limited federal jurisdiction over the National Guard, only six states (none in the Deep South) and the District of Columbia allowed blacks to continue to serve in what had once been the state militias.
  • 1906 – A U.S. Army War College study recommends blacks continue to be denied admission into the artillery branch because of their supposed inferior intelligence and inability to master the required technical skills.
  • 1906 – Beginning this year and continuing every year for the next decade, various congressmen introduced bills attempting to prevent blacks from serving in the U.S. armed forces. The War Department’s opposition to this legislation helped to prevent any of the bills from being voted on, but it was becoming more and more apparent that the military was no longer an option for black men.
  • August 13-14, 1906 – Stationed at Fort Brown, in Brownsville, Texas, members of the 25th Infantry supposedly raided the town, killing a bartender and wounding a policeman, both white, the night after a white woman had reportedly been attacked. The men of the 25th denied any knowledge of the shooting. However, while evidence and testimony from Brownsville citizens was dubious, at best, President Theodore Roosevelt presumed the mens’ guilt and issued the largest summary dismissal in U.S. Army history as three companies (167 men) were dishonorably discharged. However, in 1972, U.S. Congressman Augustus Hawkins (D-CA) successfully had the discharges reversed to “honorable.”
  • March 1916 – Members of the 10th Cavalry are with Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing during his unsuccessful two-year pursuit of Mexican rebel and bandit Francisco Pancho Villa along the border and into Mexico.
  • April 6, 1917 – America enters World War I during which three black regiments will receive highest honors (the Croix de Guerre) from the French Army, with who the segregated U.S. Army assigns most black troops to fight. Black soldiers receive numerous individual decorations, in general, for their courage. Encouraging blacks to serve during the war, a Howard Universityfaculty and student group theorizes: “If we fail, our enemies will dub us cowards for all time; and we can never win our rightful place. But if we succeed, then eternal success.”  
  • May 18, 1917 – Congress passes the Selective Service Act. Prior to the war, there were only 75,000 men in the American army, 20,000 of whom were soldiers in the 4 all-black regiments — the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. The act requires the registration of all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 31 and blacks will comprise almost 10 of all registrants. About 700,000 black men volunteered for the draft on the first day, while over 2 million ultimately registered. Despite African-American support for the war effort, some Army leaders had doubts about enlisting large numbers of blacks because senior officers either feared the negative response of southern politicians, believed blacks could not fight, or were concerned about possible subversion by an "oppressed minority." Because of the large number of blacks seeking to enlist, the War Department ordered that African- Americans not be recruited.
  • June 18, 1917 – First all-black officer training school opens in Des Moines, Iowa with 1,250 aspiring candidates.
  • July 1-3 – East St. Louis, Illinois is the site for one of the bloodiest race riots in the nation's history. A Congressional committee reported that 40 to 200 people were killed, including one black child who is allegedly shot and then burned, hundreds more injured, and 6,000 driven from their homes. The riots stem from white resentment over the employment of blacks in a local factory.
  • July 24, 1917 – In Houston, construction begin on Camp Logan, a training facility for National Guard units.
  • July 29, 1917 – At Camp MacArthur, in Waco, Texas, black soldiers become involved in a
    shoot-out with local police.
  • July 28, 1917 – In response to the East St. Louis riot, 10,000 African Americans march silently down New York’s 5th Avenue in protest of black oppression, lynchings, race riots, and the denial of rights.
  • August 18, 1917 – Company G of the Eighth Illinois National Guard Regiment departs Chicago for Camp Logan to prepare the camp for the rest of the regiment’s arrival. The Eighth Illinois will become the 370th U.S. Infantry and the only regiment in the U.S. Army called into service with almost a complete complement of black officers, including regiment commander Col. Franklin A. Denison. The unit serves with distinction in Europe and are hailed by the Germans as the “Black Devils” because of their fighting spirit. Though they are at Camp Logan during the riots, none of the Eighth Illinois men will be involved in the incident. That was due primarily to their discipline and behavior. They viewed their placement in southern cantonments as an opportunity to allay whites’ concerns by conducting themselves honorably. Such an attitude is exemplified by an officer of the 370th Infantry, who, upon his arrival at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas remarked: “Hardly had we arrived at our Training Camp before we were impressed with the fact that it was up to us to make good by converting the whites of Houston
    from hate to love, to make a people who regarded the regiment as a bunch of lawless men, to realize that we would wade through the fires of Hell to gain and hold for our race a large place in the sun.”
  • August 23, 1917 – The Houston Riots take place.
  • October 15, 1917 –  Six hundred and thirty-nine members of the first, and only, class of black officer candidates at Fort Des Moines receive their commissions as either Captain or First and Second Lieutenant and are assigned to infantry, engineer, and artillery units with the 92nd Division.
  • December 11, 1917 -- Thirteen black soldiers are hanged for their alleged participation in the Houston riot.
  • December 12, 1917 – The first African American combat troops to arrive in France are the 369th Infantry of the 93rd Division, "The Harlem Hellfighters."
  • September 3, 1918 – Five more soldiers are hanged for alleged participation in the Houston riot.
  • 1917 -- The American Red Cross rejected the applications of qualified African-American nurses on the grounds that the U.S. Army did not accept black women.
  • September 29, 1918, -- Five more soldiers from the Houston riots are hung. One week later, a sixth is also hung.