The 17 black soldiers the Army recently determined were wrongfully executed for involvement in the 1917 Houston riots received new headstones on Thursday in a ceremony.

The Army overturned courts-martial convictions for 110 black soldiers — including 19 who received death sentences — on charges related to a 1917 mutiny and retroactively altered their service records to show that they received honorable discharges from the Army in November. Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DOD) officials pledged to “right the wrongs of the past,” officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs said at a ceremony at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas on Thursday.

“Equal justice belongs to all soldiers, today and every day,” VA Deputy Secretary Tanya Bradsher said at the ceremony, which was attended by civil rights activists and the soldiers’ descendants, according to Military Times. “This day, in some small way, reflects the progress we have made as a nation since these men were first buried here over a century ago.”

In 1937, the Army exhumed bodies of 17 of the executed soldiers from a mass grave, identified the remains and relocated them to Fort Sam Houston, Military Times reported. Until today, the headstones had just a name and year of death engraved on them.

The new markers list their names, states, ranks, units and dates of death, according to a VA press release.

Historians convinced the Army that racial prejudice interfered in the judicial proceedings for soldiers of all-black 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment — later to become known as the Buffalo Soldiers, following a storied march on the city that left 19 people dead, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“After a thorough review, the Board has found that these Soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials,” Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said in a November press release.

“It’s not political,” John Haymond, one of the historians who worked to have the courts-martial overturned, previously told the DCNF in an interview. Haymond said he was able to prove “the Army violated its own legal processes.”

Army Board for Correction of Military Records reviewed the convictions and recommended vacating them, according to the Army.

Drawing from police and Army records of the time, Haymond said he demonstrated that most soldiers believed they were following legal orders from the senior noncommissioned officer after commanders fled the camp. Once it became clear the formation was not defending against an angry mob, most turned back.

The Army made defendants prove they had never left the camp, reversing the burden of guilt on to the soldiers, Haymond explained.

Between November 1, 1917, and March 26, 1918, the Army held three separate courts-martial proceedings and found 110 soldiers guilty of participating in the riot, the TSHS wrote. Courts sentenced 19 of the soldiers to death by hanging and 63 to life in prison.

Micaela Burrow on February 22, 2024

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