The injustice perpetrated against the all-black 25th Infantry of the United States Army by no less a person than President Theodore Roosevelt underlines the view held by some that biases against blacks run through to the highest office.
In what became known as the Brownsville Affair, a group of fifteen to twenty anonymous armed men ran throughout the commercial and business areas of Brownsville firing at civilians, residences, and businesses on the night of August 13, 1906.
The shooting rampage throughout the town of Brownsville, Texas left a white bartender dead and a police officer wounded.
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Because there had been hostilities between black soldiers and white civilians prior to the shootings, local authorities assumed the collective guilt of black soldiers. This incident also feeds into the long history of conflict between black soldiers and white civilians in the American South.
“Without an adequate investigation or a full hearing, President Roosevelt bowed to public pressure and issued dishonorable discharges to all members of the 25th who were stationed in Brownsville,” according to reports.
The impact of the dishonorable discharge of the 167 black infantrymen also known as Buffalo Soldiers from the United States Army in December 1906 led to civilians refusing them jobs due to their military status.
The great injustice against the 167 members of Companies B, C, and D is that they were discharged without being given a hearing nor did they have an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges.
Even worse, white commanders at Fort Brown where the black infantrymen were stationed stated all the black soldiers were in their barracks at the time of the shooting yet “the city’s mayor and other whites asserted that they had seen black soldiers on the street firing indiscriminately, and they produced spent shells from army rifles to support their statements.”
Even when it was clear the shells had been planted as part of a frame-up, investigators believed the mayor and the white citizens.
For President Roosevelt, the black soldiers’ insistence that they had no knowledge of the shooting was a ‘conspiracy of silence.’
The dishonorable discharge caused tension between blacks and whites. A U.S. Senate committee investigated the case in 1907–08 but upheld Roosevelt’s action.
The injustice run deep for some of the men dismissed who had over twenty years of service and were only a short time away from retirement with pensions. Six of the Buffalo Soldiers had also been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor yet Roosevelt would not budge when impressed upon to reverse his order.
The issue was so serious that W.E.B. Dubois, a civil rights activist and NAACP co-founder, urged African Americans to register to vote and remember Roosevelt and the Republicans during the next election.
The matter won’t go away, embarrassing the army and after the publication in 1970 of John D. Weaver’s The Brownsville Raid, which argued that the discharged soldiers had been innocent, the army conducted a new investigation. In 1972, the order of 1906 was reversed.
Fourteen of the soldiers received honorable discharges in 1910, and the remainder of the men received honorable discharges in 1972 but without back pay.
By the 70s however, most of the soldiers had died although two survivors received a small cash settlement and a pension.
The Brownsville affair is a scar on the conscience of America and it is only fair that for justice to be served, restitution on behalf of the discharged soldiers and their families be made.