Brownsville, Texas, Incident
Brownsville, Texas, Incident
On the night of August 13, 1906, some 250 rounds of ammunition were fired into several buildings in Brownsville, Texas. One man was killed and two others were wounded. The townspeople's suspicions immediately fell upon the members of Companies B, C, and D of the First Battalion of the United States 25th Infantry, Colored. The African-American soldiers had arrived sixteen days before the shooting and were stationed at Fort Brown, just outside of town and near the site of the incident. Tensions between the black troops and some openly racist Brownsville residents flared. Although the soldiers and their white commander consistently denied any knowledge of the "raid," as it came to be called, subsequent investigations sustained the townspeople's opinion of their guilt.
President Theodore Roosevelt appointed an assistant inspector general to investigate. Two weeks later the inspector reported that it "can not be doubted" that the soldiers were guilty but that their white officers were not responsible. He recommended that "all enlisted men" be discharged from service because some of the soldiers "must have some knowledge of the guilty parties." Roosevelt then appointed Gen. E. A. Garlington inspector general to discover the guilty soldiers; all continued to proclaim their innocence. In his report Garlington referred to "the secretive nature of the race, where crimes charged to members of their color are made." By the end of November all soldiers in the battalion were discharged without honor from the U.S. Army because no one would point a finger at the supposed guilty parties. Those who were able to prove their innocence of participation in the raid were allowed to reenlist, and fourteen did so.
However, when an interracial civil rights organization, the Constitution League, reported to Congress that the evidence demonstrated the innocence of the soldiers, Senate hearings were held and Brownsville became a national issue. In March 1910 a Senate committee issued a majority report concluding that the shooting was done by some of the soldiers, who could not be identified, and upheld the blanket discharge of the battalion. Two minority reports were also issued. The first asserted that there was no evidence to indict any particular soldier, and that therefore there was no justification for discharging the entire battalion. The second minority report argued that the weight of the testimony showed that none of the soldiers participated in the shooting. Military courts-martial of two white officers found them not guilty of responsibility for the affray.
The incident had assumed national importance largely because Sen. Joseph Benson Foraker of Ohio charged that Theodore Roosevelt had allowed a decision based on flimsy evidence to stand. Thus, the Brownsville affray became an issue in Foraker's lengthy but ultimately unsuccessful campaign against Roosevelt for the 1908 presidential nomination.
The Brownsville incident also divided the African-American community. A split in 1905 that had resulted in the establishment of a group opposed to Booker T. Washington, the Niagara Movement, forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), sharpened appreciably. Washington's unwillingness to criticize Roosevelt publicly—although privately he tried to dissuade the president from discharging the soldiers—induced many of his previous supporters to desert him. On the Brownsville issue, the division soon became those committed to the Republican Party versus everyone else.
It is possible that some of the soldiers of the 25th Infantry were guilty of the attack; it is also possible they were not. What is clear is that the soldiers were not proved guilty. When the incident was over, Roosevelt and Washington, if not unscathed, at least survived. Foraker risked his career on a bid for the presidency and lost. The black community lapsed into political silence. The soldiers of the 25th remained penalized until 1973, when they were granted honorary discharges. Only one soldier was still alive.
Lane, Ann J. The Brownsville Affair: National Crisis and Black Reaction. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971.
Tinsley, James A. "Roosevelt, Foraker and the Brownsville Affray." Journal of Negro History 41 (January 1956): 43–65.
ann j. lane (1996)