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  • Writer's pictureRachel Hilliard

US army overturns 1917 convictions of 110 Black soldiers charged with mutiny Officials announced

Officials announced ceremony honoring the Buffalo Soldiers, 19 of whom were executed, to atone for Jim Crow-era racism

George Ruth Jr, talks to Buffalo Soldiers before an event recognizing the legacy of the soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment on Monday. Photograph: Elizabeth Conley/AP

The US army is overturning the convictions of 110 Black soldiers – 19 of whom were executed – for a mutiny at a Houston military camp a century ago, an effort to atone for imposing harsh punishments linked to Jim Crow-era racism.

US army officials announced the historic reversal on Monday during a ceremony posthumously honoring the regiment known as the Buffalo Soldiers, who had been sent to Houston in 1917, during the first world war, to guard a military training facility. Clashes arose between the regiment and white police officers and civilians and 19 people were killed.

“We cannot change the past; however, this decision provides the Army and the American people an opportunity to learn from this difficult moment in our history,” Gabe Camarillo, the under secretary of the army, said in a statement.

The South Texas College of Law first requested the army look into the cases in October 2020 and again in December 2021. The army then received clemency petitions from retired general officers on behalf of the 110 soldiers.

At the secretary of the army’s petition, the army board for correction of military records reviewed records of the cases and found that “significant deficiencies permeated the cases”. The proceedings were found to be “fundamentally unfair”, according to the army’s statement. The board members unanimously recommended all convictions be set aside and the military service of the soldiers to be characterized as “honorable”.

Christine Wormuth, the secretary of the army, said in the statement that the move marked the army’s acknowledgment of past mistakes and sets the record straight.

“After a thorough review, the board has found that these soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials,” Wormuth said.

Military records will be corrected to the extent possible to recognize service as honorable and their families might be eligible for compensation, according to the army.

In August 1917, four months after the US entered the first world war, soldiers of the all-Black Third Battalion of the US army’s 24th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, marched into Houston where clashes erupted following racial provocations.

The regiment had been sent to Houston to guard Camp Logan, which was under construction for the training of white soldiers who would be sent to France during the first world war. The city was then governed by Jim Crow laws and tensions boiled over.

Law enforcement officials at the time described the events as a deadly and premeditated assault by the soldiers on a white population. Historians and advocates say the soldiers responded to what was thought to be a white mob heading for them.

Out of 118 soldiers, 110 were found guilty in the largest murder trial in US history. Nineteen of them were hanged.

According to the army’s statement, the first executions happened secretly a day after sentencing. It led to immediate regulatory changes prohibiting future executions without review by the war department and the president.

Families of the soldiers may be entitled to benefits and can apply through a US army board for correction of military records.

“Today is a day I believed would happen,” Jason Holt, a descendant in attendance at the ceremony, said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “I always did.”

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