African-Americans had distinguished themselves in battle both in the Civil War and in the Spanish American War. They were forced to fight in segregated units and their training was also done in segregated facilities. But many towns, particularly in the South, did not want those facilities in their communities. One of the complaining towns was Brownsville, TX. Secretary of War William Howard Taft rejected Brownsville’s request to have African-American soldiers of the First Battalion removed from Fort Brown. (Astor 79) Racist whites taunted the soldiers, most businesses refused to serve them, and city parks denied them entry. In August 6, 1906, following two racist incidents, a number of black soldiers -at least nine and as many as twenty - climbed over the walls of Fort Brown and began randomly firing into homes. A mounted police lieutenant confronted the men, who shot and killed his horse. Finally the men went to a saloon which had refused to serve them and shot and killed the barkeep. (Astor 81)
Although no one ever identified any of the men involved, the southwestern Texas commanding officer recommended dismissing all 167 men stationed at the fort. Six Medal of Honor winners were among those recommended for dismissal. Booker T. Washington and other leaders, both black and white, protested, but Taft backed the proposed punishment.. Taft, who later became President, noted that a dismissal was not the same as a dishonorable discharge and that the men could eventually apply for reinstatement. (Astor 83-84) President Theodore Roosevelt also defended the punishment. A number of white officers spoke up on behalf of the men, but to no avail. 14 of the 167 men eventually were reinstated. In 1972 the Nixon administration belatedly granted honorable discharges to all the men of the First Battalion. 86 year old Dorsie Willis, the only survivor, received a belated check for $25, 000.
An even more serious incident occurred in Houston eleven years later. Members of the 3rd Battalion of the all-black 24th Infantry experienced constant racial harassment. Many of their White officers routinely referred to the black soldiers as “niggers.” The men of the 3
Battalion ended up in a shoot-out with members of the all-White 19th Infantry Regiment sent in to restore order to the base. 16 white soldiers and 4 black soldiers were killed; many others were injured. 23 Black soldiers were eventually executed for this melee. Historian Gerald Astor concludes that the Brownsville and Houston incidents represented a great setback for African-Americans in the military. (106-107)