Buffalo Bayou
An Echo of Houston's Wilderness Beginnings


Houston Riot of August, 1917
by
 Linda C. Gorski and Louis F. Aulbach

We received several messages about last month's article in the Waterline that highlighted Camp Logan, a World War I Army training camp built along Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. One was from Mark Andrus who commented: "I enjoyed the Camp Logan article … however, it seems incomplete not to mention the Camp Logan riots."

How many of you besides Mark realize that the peace and tranquility along the banks of Buffalo Bayou was shattered by a racial riot of historic proportions on the night of August 23, 1917?  

As we told you last month, construction work at Camp Logan began on July 24, 1917 on orders of the War Department to meet the growing need for trained men to fight in World War I. Camp Logan was a huge place … built on 3002 acres of  what is now Memorial Park, it held 1329 buildings and had a troop capacity of 44,899 men.

To guard the construction site while it was being prepared for the mostly white troops that would eventually train there, the Army ordered 645 black soldiers from the Third Battalion of the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry regiment from Columbus, New Mexico, to Houston. The soldiers were bivouacked away from the permanent Camp Logan site in an area immediately west of Reinerman Street and north of Washington Street.  

From the minute they arrived in Houston, the black soldiers of the Third Battalion faced racial discrimination.  Many of the men had been raised in the south and were familiar with segregation but they expected to be treated differently as Army servicemen. Local residents including members of the police department, public officials and even streetcar conductors viewed the presence of the black soldiers as a threat to the racial harmony that existed in Houston at that time. 

On August 23, 1917, around noon, police arrested a black soldier for interfering with the arrest of a black woman in the Fourth Ward.  A black military policeman, Corporal Charles Baltimore who was attached to the Third battalion inquired about the soldier's arrest. There was an argument and a Houston policeman hit Baltimore over the head. Baltimore and the other black enlisted men with him ran, with shots from the white policemen's guns ringing over their heads. They captured Baltimore nearby and took him to police headquarters where he was soon released. 

However, before Baltimore could return to camp, a rumor started that he had been shot and killed whereupon a group of black soldiers decided to march to the police station. Almost simultaneously, a rumor started that a white mob was approaching the camp. At that news, black soldiers rushed into supply tents, grabbed rifles and began firing wildly in the direction of the supposed mob. Over 100 armed soldiers marched down Washington Street, crossing to the south side of Buffalo Bayou on Shepherds Dam Road (now Shepherd Drive) turned up San Felipe Rd. (now West Dallas) and headed for town.

In their two-hour march on the city, the mutinous black soldiers are reported to have killed fifteen whites, including four policemen and seriously wounded twelve others. Four black soldiers were killed, two accidentally shot by their own men. Ironically, as Mark pointed out in his note, the outbreak occurred on the evening that the local Chamber of Commerce had prepared a watermelon feast and picnic for the Negro soldiers.

The next morning, August 24, a curfew was declared in Houston. According to stories from Mark's great-uncle and grandfather, all recruits in the Houston area waiting for transfer to units were restricted to City Auditorium. On August 25, the entire Third Battalion was sent by train back to New Mexico. By August 27, order and civil authority were restored at Camp Logan and in Houston.  

Punishment for the black soldiers was swift and harsh. Between November 1, 1917 and March 26, 1918, the army held three separate courts marshal at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for soldiers from the 24th Infantry, indicting 118 enlisted men for mutiny and riot and finding 110 guilty. Nineteen soldiers were hanged and sixty-three received life sentences in federal prison.  No white civilians were brought to trial.

Racial incidents occurred at virtually all camps in the south where black troops were stationed in World War I, but the incident at Camp Logan was by far the worst. Except for the racial incident involving the soldiers from the Third Battalion 24th Infantry, relations between the Army at Camp Logan and Houston's civilian community were good and remained so for the duration of the camp's existence.  

If you'd like to read more about this chapter in Houston's history check out A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917 by Robert V. Haynes. The book is well researched and contains numerous maps and diagrams of Camp Logan and the surrounding area. It is available at Houston Public Libraries.

All material printed on this page and this web site is copyrighted. All rights reserved.
Copyright by Louis F. Aulbach, 2002


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