The Brownsville Raid of 1906

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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 http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/dorsie-willis-brownsville-survivor.

 

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