SAN ANTONIO, Texas –
After 105 years, Soldiers of the 24th Infantry Regiment, who were involved in the Houston Riot of 1917, were recognized with an interpretative marker during an unveiling ceremony held at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio, Texas, Feb. 22, 2022.
In 1917, the Army charged 118 African American Soldiers with murder and mutiny. Over the course of three courts-martial, the Soldiers were tried, sentenced to life in prison, and in some instances, executed. Of those, 13 were executed immediately, and six more were sentenced to death. Only seven were found innocent.
“Today we are here to memorialize 17 of [the Soldiers], whose stories must be told. The Soldiers were not shielded by their uniform from the slights and slurs and brutal violence of Jim Crow,” said Matt Quinn, the Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Memorial Affairs. “They fought back to defend themselves and to strike back at those who oppose them and who oppress them. For defending themselves, they were quickly put on trial in the largest mass courts-martial in U.S. Army history.”
Initially, the Soldiers were placed in a mass grave with notes in glass bottles on each body to distinguish identities among them. In 1937, 17 Soldiers were exhumed and reburied at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
“As was the practice at the time, the information inscribed on their headstones was minimal, and does not acknowledge their military service,” explained Quinn during the ceremony.
The details of the mass courts-martial wielded many questions and speculations within the public and the Soldiers’ deaths would invoke extensive changes for the Army and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in the years to come.
“The faults that were identified in that system that were used to try these 17 men and their fellow defendants brought about a real turning point in the path of military justice reform,” said Hon. Gabe Camarillo, Undersecretary of the Army. “These executions resulted in a congressional inquiry and substantial reform to the Articles of War, including a comprehensive review of the courts-martial, which resulted in a watershed moment of change in the history of military justice.”
It took 23 years for the changes to be fully integrated into the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“This development laid the foundation for what would become a formalized and comprehensive trial, post-trial, and importantly, an appellate review process,” Camarillo said.
Recently, the Department of the Army received a request from a variety of stakeholders, from retired general officers to descendants, to review the cases to determine if any relief or changes to past charges may be appropriate as part of that review.
“Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth signed a directive in January that directed the review, which was sent to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records,” Camarillo said. “I’m pleased to report that review is underway … so that process will continue to play out. At the conclusion of that process, the board for correction of military records will make recommendations to the secretary of the Army for any relief that would be appropriate.”
During the ceremony, Camarillo acknowledged the history and sacrifice of the Soldiers from the 24th Infantry Regiment and emphasized the marker unveiling is meant to create a broader understanding of what took place in 1917.
“This wayside marker enriches our understanding of our past and highlights a significant chapter in the history of the U.S. Army and our nation,” Camarillo said. “We can't change the past. But this wayside marker provides the Army, this community, and the American public an opportunity to reflect and consider on the truth in this important moment of history.”