The Brownsville Raid of 1906


I had listened to just four discs of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, about the relationship between Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft, when I thought I’d had enough. I don’t know whether it was the writing or the narration by Edward Herreman. I felt that the descriptions of their early lives and friendship were overwrought, but that may have been because of the treacly manner of Mr. Herreman’s reading.

However, I had just recently listened to 60 discs of Shelby Foote’s Narrative of the Civil War (30 more to go!), and didn’t have anything else on tap. So I continued and along about disc 19, my ears really perked up. A description of Roosevelt’s Presidential reaction to the Brownsville Raid of 1906 was being given. I listened intently to see whether it accorded with what I knew about Brownsville, mostly because of Christopher Waldrep’s book Racial Violence on Trial.

It did and it didn’t. The incident showed Roosevelt in a very bad light, and perhaps Ms. Kearns Goodwin didn’t want to besmirch him further. However, she didn’t tell the whole story, and that is an injustice to the black soldiers involved. I went online to see whether I could find material that supported what I remembered of Mr. Waldrep’s telling of the story, and I did. Here is a fuller story than Ms. Kearns Goodwin apparently thought was fit to tell, gleaned in part from Racial Violence on Trial and an article by Garna L. Christian:

A battalion of black soldiers from the 25th US Infantry who had been serving in the Philippines and at a Nebraska fort were moved to Fort Brown in Texas In July 1906. They were greeted with verbal and physical abuse not only from residents of the town, but also from federal officials.

On August 12, an attack on a white woman was reported, and of course black soldiers were scapegoated as the culprits. (Whether an attack actually happened was never clarified.) Nevertheless, Major Charles W. Penrose of Fort Brown and Mayor Frederick Combe of Brownsville ordered an early curfew the next day.

Around midnight on August 13, a gang shot up the town, killing a bartender and disabling a policeman. Witnesses claimed to have seen black soldiers running through the town. Their guilt was presumed, though they denied any involvement with the shooting. Twelve men were arrested on the say-so of a Texas Ranger who claimed they were part of a conspiracy. A county grand jury did not return any indictments.

As the black soldiers continued to hold silence, Roosevelt ordered all 167 of them dishonorably discharged. This meant, of course, that the soldiers now had no jobs and no pensions for time served and would leave carrying the stigma of being considered guilty while never having been given due process.

According to Kearns Goodwin, Secretary of War Taft was very unhappy with the decision. Either because he was the presumed heir apparent to the Presidency or because of his adoration of Roosevelt, his objections were mild and quickly overridden.

Because Roosevelt was thought to have been a “friend” to the black man, the incident became national. There were many blacks in the larger community who thought the soldiers were guilty and applauded them for taking action. Black leaders, though, were outraged by Roosevelt’s decision to discharge the men except for one, Booker T. Washington. A man of great achievement, Washington was nonetheless seen by many other black leaders, such as W.E.B. DuBois, as a dupe of white politicians. Roosevelt’s influence on Washington was such that he publicly stood by the President and eventually the outrage died down.

Except for that of the man who had been Taft’s mentor and would be his rival in the Republican primaries of 1910, Senator John Foraker of Ohio. He had no illusions about Roosevelt, and Kearns Goodwin infers that this was the only reason he took up the case. She ends the story implying Foraker’s low motivations and goes on to write about the Presidential primaries in which he was defeated by Taft for the nomination.

Before 1910, he had influence, however, and as a member of the Senate Military Affairs committee, was able to institute hearings. The majority report of 1908 upheld Roosevelt’s decision to discharge the black soldiers dishonorably. The minority opinion claimed the soldiers were innocent and that the raid was carried out by others to frame the soldiers.

Foraker continued to pressure the administration on the case and a Court of Military Inquiry allowed 14 of the soldiers to reenlist. This is where Kearns Goodwin ends the story.

However, in 1972, Representative Augustus Hawkins (D-California), who had seen recent research on the Brownsville Raid, was responsible for President Nixon’s awarding honorable discharges without back pay to the soldiers. The only surviving soldier, Dorsie Willis, who had maintained the

Dorsie Willis

battalion’s innocence all through the intervening years, received a $25,000 pension. He died a year after receiving it.

What was the evidence that convinced (or upheld prejudices) of so many officials? The strongest, according to Waldrep, was army rifle shell casings along the route of the rampage. Foraker’s minority report, however, pointed out that the shell casings could have come from the firing range on the base and been collected by the scapegoats.

The shells in question were examined and, because of double indentations, found to have been fired twice. Misfiring the first time, they would have been ejected when a soldier drew back the bolt before firing again. The shells, therefore, could have been collected and fired again. Would the soldiers have collected them and used them in a raid when they knew the army-issue shells would be left behind? Waldrep concludes that the answer to this question proves the soldiers’ innocence.

You can read another account of this incident at the African-American Registry link



The Moral Universe – It’s All in the Name


It was great to see this week’s headline: “In Landmark Decision, U.S. Patent Office Cancels Trademark For Redskins Football Team.”

The Patent and Trademark Office canceled six registrations for the name because it is “ ‘disparaging to Native Americans’ and thus cannot be trademarked under federal law that prohibits the protection of offensive or disparaging language.”

This battle has been going on for a long time. It doesn’t mean the team’s owner has to change its name, but it does mean that the Washington franchise can’t sell anything with the name on it. I would imagine that will hurt the owner financially. Too bad!

I knew that the name was offensive to Native Americans, but I didn’t know just how offensive until a related story came out. If Native Americans objected to “redskins,” that was good enough for me. But after reading Baxter Holmes’ article in Esquire, I’m even more outraged that the name existed for a national sports team for as long as it did.

Mr. Holmes, who is of Cherokee (as in the Trail of Tears) and Choctaw heritage, writes about the stories that Native Americans pass on from one generation to the next. He particularly describes the derivation of “redskins” meaning the scalps of slaughtered Native Americans, red being the color of blood.

The Phips Proclamation“The story in my family goes that the term dates back to the institutionalized genocide of Native Americans, most notably when the Massachusetts colonial government placed a bounty on their heads. The grisly particulars of that genocide are listed in a 1755 document called the Phips Proclamation, which zeroed in on the Penobscot Indians, a tribe today based in Maine.

“Spencer Phips, a British politician and then Lieutenant Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Province, issued the call, ordering on behalf of British King George II for, “His Majesty’s subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” They paid well – 50 pounds for adult male scalps; 25 for adult female scalps; and 20 for scalps of boys and girls under age 12.

“These bloody scalps were known as ‘redskins.’ ”

The older I get, the more ashamed I am of the paucity of my education in the history of my country. The only good thing is that I still want to learn, and learn the truth. Well, I suppose another good thing is that I was born into the era when a lot of the historical bunkum is being exposed.

Amanda Blackhorse, plaintiff in the Patent and Trademark case, said in part after the ruling, “I am extremely happy that the [Board] ruled in our favor. It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans.”

She’s absolutely right. Every step away from our racist past is good for all Americans. Many will not agree with that, and many don’t understand what the fuss is all about. Their history education was even worse than mine, I guess.

The Moral Universe – Slavery and Faith


Eternal Spirit,




Source of all that is and is to be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Heavenly God, in whom is Heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the Universe!

Your way of justice be followed by all the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love.

From The New Zealand (Anglican) Prayer Book

The New Zealand Prayer Book was rewritten in the early 1990s in order to be inclusive and use language that would be relevant to the native Maori population. In the service material in the prayer book, English is on one page and the Maori language on the other. This version of The Lord’s Prayer speaks to me in a way that few other formal prayers do. I say it every day and, as I was mulling over my next posting, the sentence “Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!” shouted in my ear.

I knew I wanted to address the deep Christian faith of so many parts of the African-American community and how wondrous it is to me that people whose forebears suffered so much in this country, and who themselves must certainly know the pain of discrimination or worse, could be such faithful people. How could an enslaved people have set down the beginnings of some of the most beautiful church music ever written, as well as several types of popular music that have proven to be enduring? Since Emancipation, the black church has been known for its vibrancy and its very real authenticity in its relation to God.

And I thought, perhaps it is the idea of a commonwealth (ie a place where the common good is practiced) that has sustained their hope. We know it sustained Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was his dream, peace and freedom, and he gave his life trying to bring it to earth.

And I wondered, how did slaves become Christians? Who, on a plantation where life was as grim as it could be, would dare to tell people of the unconditional, eternal love of Jesus Christ? And how could slaves have believed it?

I pulled out The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois to see whether he wrote on this subject. And he did, in the chapter “Of Faith and the Fathers.”

AfricaWriting in the first years of the 20th century, DuBois reminds us that “the social history of the Negro did not start in America.” Africans who were brought here in chains had been part of complex societies that were ruled by the chief and the priest.

“His religion was nature-worship, with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences, good and bad, and his worship was through incantation and sacrifice.” Though the new rule of life in plantations saw ties of kinship disappear, a depth of learning from the old stories stayed within slaves and, DuBois says, someone would rise up as a priest or medicine-man within the slave community. Perhaps because families were torn apart, with a mother sent in one direction, father in another, and perhaps children in a third, it became even more important to depend upon the faith of the fathers to get one through the day.

“Thus, within the narrow limits allowed by the slave system, rose the Negro preacher, and under him the first Afro-American institution, the Negro church,” wrote DuBois.

It wasn’t a Christian church at first, but the rites and rituals were familiar and certainly paved the way for those who yearned for the transcendent to be absorbed into Christianity. If plantation owners gave any kind of Christian education to their slaves, it was as a way of keeping them passive and easier to control. As DuBois says, “The long system of repression and degradation of the Negro tended to emphasize the elements in his character which made him a valuable chattel: courtesy became humility, moral strength degenerated into submission, and the exquisite native appreciation of the beautiful became an infinite capacity for dumb suffering.”

With the rising abolition movement and then Emancipation, DuBois says, it must have seemed to the freedman as if the day of the Lord had come. However, when Jim Crow came instead, many, many freedmen continued to look to the Lord for deliverance and created a liberation theology. The faith of the fathers did not die, but brought an oppressed people into the 20th and now 21st centuries.

Falling Upward

Franciscan Richard Rohr, who has written many books about the deepest forms of spiritual practice, says in Falling Upward that, in effect, the truest, most mature faith comes out of having known suffering. Moving through pain brings us to a level of development where we are more readily able to commune with the divine inside and outside of us. A lot of traditional Negro Spirituals reflect this philosophy, and those spirituals influenced the poetry of the great black poets such as Langston Hughes.

There is a scene in the movie Amistad that, aside from the horrific scenes of the kidnapping of the Africans, has stuck with me over many years. Yumba has been given a Bible and sits in the courtroom day after day looking at the pictures. Cinque, the leader of the revolt, scoffs at him. But Yumba explains what he has learned from the pictures. When Cinque sees the picture of Jesus with His crown of thorns, he says, “Well, he must have committed some crime!” Yumba answers him, “Why? What did we do?” Then he looks back at a picture of the Ascension and talks about dying. All the fear has drained from his face and he smiles. By looking at the pictures over and over again, he has learned the very essence of Jesus’ message: Death has no victory over you. Live a righteous life and be not afraid.

This is not to romanticize suffering for suffering’s sake. Much personal suffering comes from not being able to move past a coping mechanism that was useful at one time but is no longer needed. Suffering that comes from outside one, though, that is inflicted by other human beings in an institutional way, is grotesque and obscene. Which makes it all the more miraculous that Emancipation was not followed by a bloodbath of revenge on the part of the freed slaves, but by yearning for education and land in order to sustain themselves. Faith must have played a very large part in encouraging freed men and women to persist in the fight for civil rights that still to this day have not been fully granted.

The Moral Universe – Slavery and the Second Amendment


So what does the Second Amendment, which gun rights advocates claim enforces their right to carry their guns, have to do with slavery?

It starts with New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, a passionate advocate of sensible gun laws. Mr. Nocera keeps a weekly tally of shooting incidents on a blog, and the numbers are mind-boggling.

His op-ed column last week was about a new book by Michael Waldman called The Second Amendment: A Biography. The book came out, with horrible irony, three days before Elliot Rodger went on his killing spree in California.

From what Mr. Nocera writes, Mr. Waldman set out to discern how an Amendment that for 200 years was taken to refer to militias has been subverted to refer to an individual’s gun rights since the 1970s. The book pretty much underscores what many gun-control advocates have been saying for years: that the Second Amendment does not have anything to do with private rights to own and carry, openly or otherwise, guns of any kind.

Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun? – Joe Nocera

The amendment, according to Waldman, is strictly about the duty of a state to have “a well-regulated militia” and to be ready to serve when necessary. That was how the Amendment was read until the 1970s when, Waldman claims, the National Rifle Association was taken over by what he calls “Second Amendment fundamentalists.” Mr. Nocera points out that in 1972 the Republican Party favored gun control laws, but that by 1980 the NRA was endorsing Ronald Reagan for President (the first time it had endorsed a Presidential candidate), and the Republican platform was opposed to gun registration laws.

“A surprising discovery that Waldman found and points out in his book is that there was less debate on the Second Amendment by the framers of the Bill of Rights than any other amendment in it. In the little debate that there was, there was no mention of a citizen’s right to keep guns for any reason whatsoever, and the Amendment passed easily,” writes Mr. Nocera.

Here is where slavery comes in, according to a blogger who calls himself Mike the Mad Biologist. The blogger asserts that the Second Amendment arose directly out of the need to maintain slavery.

Mike argues that the Southern delegates were terrified that the new Constitution would do away with slave patrols. Patrick Henry, a Virginian, he says, argued that if there were a slave insurrection, the Southern states would have to go to Congress for permission to put it down. Heretofore those states had all had their own militias organized to keep an eye out for any kind of slave revolt. If the states had no say in the matter, their hands would be tied by free states who wanted to see an end to slavery.

 …slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias. – Mike the Mad Biologist

The reason for so little debate on the Amendment, Mike says in effect, was that without Virginia’s delegates, the Amendment would not have been ratified at all. This is why, he says, it refers to state militias rather than a federal militia. “The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote,” he writes.

Does it have the ring of truth? I think it does, but one can’t help but wonder why Mr. Waldman’s research did not go into this aspect. He is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which implies pretty good credentials.

Whichever way it goes, the argument that has been stated outright by gun rights advocates that their right to guns outweighs a community’s right to not be shot down is tantamount to the South’s argument that its right to own slaves trumps the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal.”

It is no coincidence that many of the gun rights folks that have been in the news call themselves militia and believe themselves not to be governed by the laws of the land. It is also no coincidence, to me, that most of the Internet postings I see about gun rights are written by members of the Tea Party, which have blatantly shown their racism since the creation of that party after President Obama’s election.

And finally, it is no coincidence that it is the extreme right justices of the Supreme Court who have been disabling gun control as well as voter rights, which hurts minorities most of all, since at least 2008 (hmm, why is that year significant?) in Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in the court’s decision to strike down gun control laws in the District of Columbia.

That’s the bottom line for me. What’s yours?

You can read both Joe Nocera’s column and Mike the Mad Biologist’s blog at these links: