The Brownsville Raid of 1906, also known as the “Brownsville Affair,” in Texas resulted in the largest U.S. Army dismissal in the history of the military branch. On the night of August 13th, a shooting spree took place in the town of Brownsville that claimed the life of a White bartender and wounded a Hispanic police officer. Without clear evidence about who was responsible for the shootings, the Whites in town blamed the 25th Infantry Regiment soldiers (pictured) based on earlier tensions.
The 25th Regiment, a unit of the Buffalo Soldiers, were stationed in nearby Fort Brown. The arrival of the 25th sparked division between the fighters and White residents who didn’t want them there. The state was legally segregated and the soldiers endured racist taunts, physical abuse, and insults since arriving at the end of July. A fight between a soldier and a Brownsville store owner occurred, which barred the Regiment fighters from ever setting foot in town again.
On August 12th, it was alleged that a soldier attacked a White woman, infuriating the town’s residents. Sensing trouble, Maj. Charles W. Penrose consulted with Mayor Frederick Combe and put a curfew in place to stave off retaliation. Around midnight, gunfire was heard, and bartender Frank Natus was found dead; town police lieutenant M. Y. Dominguez reportedly lost an arm during the fracas.
The townspeople immediately blamed the Black soldiers, claiming they could see them shooting although it was in the dark of the night.
The all-White commanders of the soldiers stated to the mayor and townspeople that the soldiers remained in their barracks, according to curfew rule.
Despite the commanders’ declaration, Mayor Combe was convinced that the soldiers were guilty and ordered an investigation. There was questionable evidence presented, with some historians claiming that the 25th soldiers were framed by the residents; bullet casing was said to have been placed around the town and tied to the Black soldiers’ rifles, although it was never officially proven.
Texas Rangers tried to tie the crime to the 12 soldiers but failed to land an indictment. The Black soldiers maintained their innocence despite growing opposition.
The matter reached the desk of President Theodore Roosevelt who decided that the 25th and their “conspiracy of silence” was enough to have 167 enlisted men dishonorably discharged. Some of the men discharged had been 20-year veterans and were close to receiving retirement pensions. Because of Roosevelt’s decision, they were denied such benefits.
The decision of dismissal enraged activist Booker T. Washington, who pleaded with the President to reverse his decision. Roosevelt kept his stance, which enraged Blacks and Whites nationwide.
In fact, it was said that the news of the discharges was kept a secret until after the 1906 Congressional elections so that the Black Republican voters would still support the ruling party at the time.
Several groups, such as the National Association of Colored Women and the Niagara Movement, all protested and staged demonstrations. In 1908, W.E.B. Du Bois reminded Black voters to remember how the Republicans treated them when registering and placing their decision.
Writer John D. Weaver published the book “The Brownsville Raid” and investigated the incident in depth. Los Angeles congressman Augustus F. Hawkins read the book, and was inspired by Weaver’s argument that the men were innocent and charged unjustly. Congressman Hawkins later introduced a bill to have the Defense Department reopen the case.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon pardoned the men and granted them honorable discharges, many of whom had passed on.
Of the two remaining survivors, one re-enlisted in 1910 and was able to gain benefits. Congressman Hawkins and Senator Hubert Humphrey worked to get the last survivor, Dorsie Willis, a tax-free pension and $25,000. Willis was also honored in Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.