June 04, 2020


The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906: The True and Tragic Story of a Black Battalion’s Wrongful Disgrace and Ultimate Redemption. By Lt. Col. (Ret.) William Baker. Red Engine Press. $24.95.

     Nobody knows who killed Texas bartender Frank Natus on the night of August 13, 1906, and wounded police lieutenant M.Y. Dominguez so seriously that his arm had to be amputated. But for many decades, people thought they knew: the gunshots surely came from members of the 1st Battalion, 25th Infantry (Colored) – known as the Buffalo Soldiers – an all-black group stationed at Fort Brown, the encampment for which Brownsville, Texas, was named. It all happened after a report of an attack on a white woman during the night of August 12 – an incident that led the commanders of Fort Brown, who were white, to insist on an early curfew for their troops on the following night. But someone, or some group, did fire hundreds of rounds, apparently indiscriminately, in Brownsville overnight on August 13, and townspeople not only blamed the black soldiers but also produced spent shell casings to prove their guilt.

     The battalion’s commanders denied the townspeople’s claims, saying all the soldiers had been in the fort, under curfew. The soldiers themselves said they were innocent and had no idea who did the shooting. There were suggestions that the “found” shell casings had actually been planted. And so began an early-20th-century political hot potato that came to involve President Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of War (and soon to be President) William Howard Taft, and all the issues of legal segregation and Jim Crow laws that pervaded the United States at the time and were very prominent indeed in Texas. Urged by Taft and others, Roosevelt dishonorably discharged all 167 of the Buffalo Soldiers for participating in what came to be called the Brownsville Raid or Brownsville Incident. And so matters stood until 1972, when all but two of the discharged soldiers had died. But then, along came William Baker – and exoneration, almost entirely posthumous, for the Buffalo Soldiers.

     This is not exactly a new story. John D. Weaver (1912-2002) wrote about it in two books, The Brownsville Raid and The Senator and the Sharecropper’s Son. And James Leiker (born 1952) wrote about it in Racial Borders: Black Soldiers along the Rio Grande. But Baker (1931-2018) brings something special to the tale, since he spent decades of his life learning about the Brownsville Incident and was eventually empowered by the Pentagon to get to the truth of the matter. The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906 is his posthumous summation of what he learned and how his knowledge led President Nixon, in 1972, to reverse the dishonorable discharges of all the Buffalo Soldiers, pardoning them all and changing their discharge records to “honorable,” albeit without back pay or other benefits (although in 1973, by which time only one of the men was alive, Congress gave him a tax-free pension award).

     This is a book for lovers of American historical minutiae, for celebrants of wrongs being righted after lengthy time periods, and for anyone focused on civil rights and black-white relations in post-Civil-War times. Baker re-creates the night of August 13, 1906, with plenty of period detail and immersion in the social and racial attitudes of the time; and that reconstruction, even though it points no fingers at specific individuals, goes a long way toward explaining how and why the Brownsville Incident happened, and in what ways it quite clearly reflected the time period in which it occurred and the people and municipality involved.

     The more-significant part of the book, though, is the more-personal one, in which Baker details his painstaking exploration and analysis of records relating to the Brownsville Incident on behalf of the U.S. Defense Department – and how his research led to the soldiers’ exoneration. The personal element long predates Baker’s service at the Pentagon: in the late 1930s, Baker’s grandfather, a former slave, told Baker about what happened and how vast was the injustice of the case. This planted the seed that flowered more than three decades later when Baker’s work led to the pardoning of the Buffalo Soldiers.

     Not surprisingly, ironies abound in the story – notably the fact that a number of the Buffalo Soldiers had served honorably in Cuba with the same Theodore Roosevelt who, as president, condemned the battalion. And then there were the numerous eyewitnesses to the firing of hundreds of rounds of ammunition, who insisted they saw black soldiers shooting – even though the soldiers’ commander said none of the battalion’s rifles had been fired. But this is mostly the story of what Baker did when he had a chance to look deeply into the case by re-examining eyewitness accounts, reading contemporary news clippings, wading through court transcripts, checking ballistics tests, and carefully looking at military records (including some unofficial ones to which he gained access).

     Baker details his work on the decades-old case, explores the differing concerns and agendas of many people (emphatically including politicians) at the time of the Brownsville Incident, and finds himself coping in the 1970s with a certain amount of pushback from contemporary military leaders who did not want Baker’s findings to sully the pride of the Army or harm Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. Still, Baker persists – and it is important to realize that as dogged as his pursuit of the truth was, he does not seek praise or self-aggrandizement for what he did, clearly believing that his in-depth exploration speaks for itself and was intended entirely to uncover the truth of what happened long ago in Brownsville.

     Unfortunately – and this is a significant weakness of the book – he did not uncover what happened, only what did not happen. Baker could not find out just who did the shootings on August 13, 1906; and at this far-distant remove from the incident, information with that level of specificity may never be known. That is unfortunate. Some of the writing in the book is unfortunate as well: stylistically, it is easy to read, but the portion that re-creates the Brownsville Incident is filled with direct quotes that neither Baker nor anyone else could have known – an approach suitable to fiction or docudrama but not to a book whose entire purpose is to dig out facts and present truth. Nevertheless, despite its imperfections, The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906 is an impressively detailed and generally well-presented work from a man who not only succeeded in reversing a long-ago miscarriage of justice but also, in the process, created his own legacy as both a pursuer and a teller of truth.

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