U. S. Army overturns Buffalo Soldiers convictions

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Descendants of the Black Buffalo Soldiers who were dishonorably discharged have had their convictions overturned and may be entitled to receive compensation.

110 Black soldiers in the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, were convicted by a military courts-martial in 1917. Now, approximately one hundred years later, their convictions were set aside by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records (ABCMR) at the behest of the Secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth, who made the announcement on November 13, 2023.

The incident that evoked the court-martial of the 110 Buffalo Soldiers took place on August 23, 1917 after their arrival (July 27, 1917) in Houston, Texas, to guard the construction of the Camp Logan training base.  Due to the city being under Jim Crow law rules, they were met with resistance because of their race.  A violent clash ensued as tensions boiled over between the soldiers and white police and other civilians; it left more than a dozen dead. 

Afterwards, 58 of the Buffalo Soldiers were convicted and thirteen were hanged in less than 24 hours by orders of a military court that deliberated for only two days.  In the next year, 52 more soldiers were convicted and six additional were executed. The execution of these Buffalo Soldiers precipitated the banning of future executions without review by the War Department and the president of the United States.   

At the time, law enforcement said the soldiers staged a deadly and premeditated assault on Houston’s white population.  Historians and advocates say the soldiers responded to what was thought to be a white mob heading for them. Indeed, since their arrival in Houston, the soldiers had been subjected to racial slurs and insults from white workers, police, and soldiers. They were also arrested and beaten if they attempted to stand up to the police, according to the Houston Chronicle.

In an article written by Teresa Nowakowski (Smithsonian Magazine/Smart News), the Army’s announcement followed a petition written by historian John Haymond and lawyer, Dru Brenner-Beck where Haymond said, “No case this large or this serious with this many death penalties has ever been completely overturned by the Army on review.”

In October 2020 and December 2021, the South Texas College of Law petitioned the Army requesting a review of the court-martial. Shortly after, the Army received petitions from retired general officers requesting clemency for all 110 soldiers. The Secretary of the Army asked the ABCMR to review records pertaining to court-martial cases and to provide recommendations about the appropriateness of each individual conviction.   After careful review, board members deliberated over each case and found that significant deficiencies permeated the cases. The deficiencies led the ABCMR to acknowledge that the proceedings were fundamentally unfair.  

The board members unanimously recommended all convictions be set aside and that, to the extent possible, the soldiers’ military service be characterized as “honorable.” “With the support of our experts, our dedicated board members looked at each record carefully and came up with our best advice to Army leaders to correct a miscarriage of justice,” said Michael Mahoney, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army Review Boards. “We are proud of the hard work we did to make things right in this case.” 

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been deeply involved as this case has unfolded and is prepared to assist any family members upon receipt of the corrected records.

Relatives of the soldiers may be entitled to benefits. Instructions for applying to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records can be found at https://arba.army.pentagon.mil/abcmr-app.html. Family members may apply online at https://arba.army.pentagon.mil/online-application.html or submit a DD Form 149, Application for Correction of Military Record by mail to: Army Review Boards Agency (ARBA), 251 18th Street South, Suite 385, Arlington, VA 22202-3531. Applications should include documentation to prove a relationship to one of the 110 formerly convicted soldiers.

Family members or other interested parties may request a copy of the corrected records from the National Archives and Records Administration, in accordance with NARA Archival Records Request procedures found at: https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records.

For more information about these corrections, please contact the Army Review Board Agency at: army.arbainquiry@army.mil.

Some of the information in this article was provided by U.S. Army Public Affairs  Office upon request.

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U. S. Army overturns Buffalo Soldiers convictions

By Brinda Fuller Willis
November 27, 2023