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A Century Later, 17 Wrongly Executed Black Soldiers Are Honored at Gravesites

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A Century Later, 17 Wrongly Executed Black Soldiers Are Honored at Gravesites

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More than a century ago, 110 Black soldiers were convicted of murder, mutiny and other crimes at three military trials held at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Nineteen were hanged, including 13 on a single day, Dec. 11, 1917, in the largest mass execution of American soldiers by the Army.

The soldiers’ families spent decades fighting to show that the men had been betrayed by the military. In November, they won a measure of justice when the Army secretary, Christine E. Wormuth, overturned the convictions and acknowledged that the soldiers “were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials.”

On Thursday, several descendants of the soldiers gathered at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery as the Department of Veterans Affairs dedicated new headstones for 17 of the executed servicemen.

The new headstones acknowledge each soldier’s rank, unit and home state — a simple honor accorded to every other veteran buried in the cemetery. They replaced the previous headstones that noted only their name and date of death.

(The families of the other two who were hanged reclaimed their remains for private burial.)

The headstones were unveiled after an honor guard fired a three-volley rifle salute, a bugler played “Taps” and officials presented the descendants with folded American flags and certificates declaring that the executed soldiers had been honorably discharged.

“Can you balance the scales by what we’re doing?” Jason Holt, whose uncle, Pfc. Thomas C. Hawkins, was among the first 13 soldiers hanged in 1917, said at the ceremony. “I don’t know. But it’s an attempt. It’s an attempt to make things right.”

The soldiers were members of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, an all-Black unit. They had been assigned to guard the construction of a training camp for white soldiers in Houston.

White residents called them racist slurs and physically harassed them. After two Black soldiers were beaten and violently arrested, a group of more than 100 Black soldiers, hearing rumors of additional threats, seized rifles and marched into Houston, where violent clashes broke out on Aug. 23, 1917.

Nineteen people were killed — among them, white police officers, soldiers and civilians and four Black soldiers.

At their trials, the members of the 24th Infantry Regiment were represented by a single officer who had some legal training but was not a lawyer. The court deliberated for only two days before convicting the first 58 soldiers.

Less than 24 hours later, with no chance for appeal, the first 13 soldiers were hanged on a hastily constructed gallows on the banks of Salado Creek, which runs through San Antonio. By September 1918, 52 additional soldiers had been convicted and six more had been hanged.

Angela Holder, whose great-uncle, Cpl. Jesse Moore, was among the 13 soldiers hanged on Dec. 11, 1917, said stories of his service told by her great-aunt prompted her to research his military career. She learned, she said, that he had served in the Philippines.

“He served proudly, and to now have the headstone redressed is an acknowledgment of who he was,” Ms. Holder said. “He was a very proud soldier.”

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