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The US Army overturned the convictions of black soldiers who were accused of mutiny in 1917 and hanged after admitting racial discrimination tainted their trials.
Thirteen Buffalo Soldiers were hanged on Dec. 11, 1917, in what would be the largest mass execution of American soldiers by the Army just one day after being convicted of mutiny for the Houston riots.
By Sept. 1918, six more would be executed for their involvement in the riots.
The Army Board for Correction of Military Records overturned a total of 110 convictions Monday, saying the soldiers were denied fair trials due to racism.
The soldiers had been assigned to guard a training camp construction for white soldiers in Houston and white residents threw racial slurs at them and incited violence.
Two black soldiers were assaulted and arrested and more than 100 other soldiers seized weapons and marched into the city, where 19 would die, including four black soldiers.
They were convicted of mutiny and other crimes after only 29 days in session and the military court only deliberated for two hours before convicting the first 58 soldiers, The New York Times reported.
The exoneration will clear the soldier’s records and conclude they left the military honorably and their descendants will become eligible for military benefits, the Army said. They will also be given proper gravestones.
“After a thorough review, the Board found that these Soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said in a statement. “By setting aside their convictions and granting honorable discharges, the Army is acknowledging past mistakes and setting the record straight.”
At a ceremony, Jason Holt — a nephew of one of the men who was executed — read the names of the 13 men who were hanged. He read them in the order they stood in the gallows, according to The New York Times.
Private Hawkins, Holt’s uncle, wrote a letter to his parents before his death, where he insisted on his innocence and allowed God’s will to take place, writing: “It’s God’s will that I go now and in this way.”
Holt said he was happy to hear the Army’s “acknowledgment that this was a miscarriage of justice and granting him an honorable discharge is as close to justice as we’re going to get.”
“And I hope his soul is at peace,” he said, according to The Times.
Fatimah Gilliam, whose uncle was also executed, told CNN she was “very glad” to hear about the overturned conviction.
“I’m glad that my uncle is being honored in a way for his service,” she told CNN.
The Army convictions arose out of the Houston Riots of Aug. 23, 1917, an outbreak of violence that followed months of racist taunts against Black soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment – also known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Black soldiers were guarding a military property and were subjected to racist slurs and physical attacks, the Army said.
About 100 fellow black soldiers came to their aid and marched into the city, where ensuing violence killed 19 people, the Army said.
Dozens of soldiers were eventually convicted and 19 received the death penalty.
The soldiers were all represented by one officer, who had some law training but no degree. Those who were executed were put to death before Washington DC was even notified of the decision, leaving no room for an appeal by the soldiers.
Their deaths prompted an immediate change that banned future executions without review from the War Department and the president.
The Army began the process of exonerating these soldiers after it received a clemency petition from historian John Haymond and lawyer Dru Breener-Beck, who cited trial transcriptions and records to prove the men were not given a fair trial, The Times reported.
“It is a long time coming, but it is justice that is finally achieved,” Mr. Haymond said on Monday.
With Post wires.