Death riot followed by 3 trials 110 convictions and 19

Death riot followed by 3 trials, 110 convictions and 19 executions

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SAN ANTONIO. Charles Anderson walked slowly up to the altar in the Chapel of Gifts at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston and stopped at a century-old grainy photograph of 63 black soldiers. He quickly noticed his distant relative, Sgt. William S. Nesbit and passed his hand over the stoic face of his relative.

The photo shows Sgt. Nesbit and 62 other members of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment at a court martial for their alleged role in the bloody 1917 Houston riots that killed 19 people. Mr. Anderson’s cousin and 12 others were later found guilty and hanged from a gallows near Salado Creek, which runs through San Antonio, in what military officials now call one of the most unfair military trials in the nation’s history.

Earlier this week, Mr. Anderson and two other descendants of executed soldiers took a grim tour of the site where their relatives spent their final hours. When Mr. Anderson entered the chapel, which was used as a courtroom for the detention of all 63 defendants, he shook his head and tried to imagine how his relative felt at that moment.

Sgt. Nesbit was part of the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment assigned to guard the construction of a training camp for white soldiers in Houston. The predominantly white population greeted them with racist epithets and physical violence. Tensions erupted into riots on August 23, 1917, said John A. Haymond, the military historian who led the tour. The uprising lasted more than two hours and claimed 19 lives – according to historical records, 15 white police officers, soldiers and civilians and four black soldiers.

“I’m standing here, where he sat,” said Mr. Anderson. “He must have been so scared. Some of them had hope until the very end.”

There was some hope Tuesday when military officials and members of the Buffalo Soldiers, a brotherhood of black soldiers, joined the descendants of the fallen in a ceremony to memorialize their victims. Officials set up a sign in the cemetery, a few steps from the burial site of the soldiers. Titled “Legacy of the Houston Rebels,” which includes a rare photograph of a military process and a heartbreaking headline from the San Antonio Express that read, “13 Negroes Executed.”

The court was later found to have deprived the soldiers of a fair trial. Their defense was handled by one officer who had some legal experience but was not a lawyer., and they were denied any opportunity to appeal their sentences. In total there were three trials, 110 sentences and 19 executions.

The Pentagon is considering a petition for clemency. Since then, the injustice has served as “a catalyst for change in our military justice system,” said Gabe Camarillo, Undersecretary of the Army.

Today, every soldier has the right to appeal a sentence, and every execution must be reviewed by a sitting US president, Mr. Camarillo said.

In 1937, the soldiers’ bodies were moved from unmarked graves to the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

“Today, they will finally begin to receive a small fraction of the dignity they have long deserved,” Donald Remy, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said of the memorial and sign.

However, even though more than 100 years have passed, the pain is fresh for the living relatives of those young soldiers.

As the tour group approached the building where the soldiers were being held before execution, Angela Holder, grandniece of Corporal Jesse Moore, took a deep breath and ran her hand over the red bricks, windows, and doors of the building that now serves as army offices.

“They’ve been taken away from here,” Miss Holder told Jason Holt, the nephew of another fallen soldier. “They were so young. They didn’t have a chance to live their own lives.”

Miss Holder bit her lip to keep from crying.

Inside this brick building Mr. Holt’s uncle, Pvt. Thomas Hawkins wrote his last letter to his parents on December 11, 1917, a few hours before his death.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Holt read excerpts from the letter at the event. “I am sentenced to hang for trouble in Houston,” Mr. Holt read aloud, pausing from time to time to regain his composure. “Although I am not guilty of the crime of which Mother accuses me, it is the will of God that I go now and in this way.”

Later, Mr. Haymond, the military historian who led the tour, led the family members to the site of the male execution, not far from where the base’s elementary school is today. He then led them to an area a few steps from Salado Creek, where the men had previously been buried, not with their dog tags, but with an empty soda bottle that had a piece of paper with his name on it.

Mr. Holt walked through the bushes and looked around the dry trees. “It doesn’t look big enough for 13,” he said mostly to himself.

Miss Holder held her breath and scanned the ground in disbelief. “My God,” she whispered. “That’s not the way to bury a man.”

She stepped out onto the main road and took one last look. Coming here, she said, was painful, but necessary.

“I’m glad it’s all coming out now,” she said, “so it doesn’t happen again.”