New headstones unveiled for wrongly executed Buffalo Soldiers

The Army wrongfully executed 19 Black Buffalo soldiers for their involvement in a mutiny during the race riots in Houston in 1917. 
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The Department of Veterans Affairs unveiled the new headstones at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery for the all-Black Buffalo soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment who were hanged by the U.S. military for their involvement in a mutiny during the race riots in Houston in 1917. Screenshot from Veterans Affairs video.

The graves of 17 Black soldiers who were hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. military history will now rest under new gravestones at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

The Department of Veterans Affairs unveiled new headstones Thursday for the all-Black Buffalo Soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment who were hanged by the Army for their involvement in a mutiny during race riots in Houston in 1917. 

“These headstones will not erase history, or right the wrongs of the past, but they will ensure that future generations can understand that history and remember their names,” said Tanya Bradsher, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The new graves at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery include the soldiers’ names, home state, rank, regimental unit, and date of death. The soldiers were originally placed in graves marked with headstones that reflected only their names and year of death, which was consistent with procedures at the time.

The cemetery also updated a sign that acknowledges the events that led up to the soldiers’ executions.

On Thursday, descendants of the Buffalo Soldiers attended a ceremony to dedicate the new headstones. They also received certificates of their ancestors’ updated service records, which purged their convictions.

Men in dressed in uniforms that matched those worn by Buffalo Soldiers unveiled the new headstones.

“Today we state unequivocally that equal justice belongs to all soldiers,” Bradsher said. “These headstones uphold the promise enshrined in the Constitution, that in the eyes of the law, all Americans have equal rights and equal worth.”

Righting a Wrong

In the summer of 1917, the 3rd Battalion was sent to Houston to guard a construction site that would later become a training camp known as Camp Logan. As racial tensions boiled up in Houston that summer, rumors and threats spurred a group of more than 100 Black soldiers to seize weapons and leave camp believing they were marching in their own self defense, historians say.

Of the 156 Black soldiers eventually convicted of mutiny, 19 were sentenced to hanging. The first set of executions took place in secrecy the day following the sentencing hearing.

Later investigations found that the courts martial of these soldiers were “hastily conducted and flawed by serious irregularities,” according to the Army. Ultimately, the Army put in place regulations that prohibited executions without review by the War Department and the president.

The remains of 17 executed soldiers were reburied at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in 1937 after being moved from the original graves at Salado Creek.

In 2023, the Army reviewed the cases and determined that the widespread racism and tension between the all-white Houston police department and Black civilians and soldiers which triggered the riot pervaded the trials. In November, the Army announced it would correct the military records of the 95 Black soldiers and set up a mechanism to deliver benefits to their descendants through the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

“The soldiers known as Buffalo Soldiers served our nation at a time when due to racial prejudices their service was neither appreciated nor respected. Today, the VA will forever honor their service,” said Matthew Quinn, undersecretary for memorial affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Yvette Bourcicot, deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, said the first time she heard about the soldiers was in this role because her office was processing the record changes. 

“I don’t want that to be the case for future generations of soldiers and service members,” she said.

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