In 1906, the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Regiment – comprised entirely of African-American soldiers – was stationed at Fort Brown. Not long after the soldiers’ arrival in Texas, three whole companies, 167 men, were dishonorably discharged. It was the largest summary dismissal in the history of the U.S. Army – and it was for a crime that the soldiers did not commit.
“The events that occurred that very hot August night in 1906 are still in question. What witnesses described at the time were that there were men, that they could not quite make out, running through the streets, shooting up the town. The commander at the time did say later that the men that were accused … were in their barracks,” Putegnat says.
One person died that night, and the case became controversial. But it was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.
“Because it was a U.S. military post, the accused … had to be investigated through a military court,” Putegnat says.
But she says the case eventually landed on the desk of President Theodore Roosevelt who dishonorably discharged all of the men in the battalion.
Putegnat says the men weren’t welcomed in the town to begin with. She says some theorize that the incident was a setup by local townspeople to “get them out.”
“There are accounts that when they arrived at the train station that they were booed and jeered at by the locals in Brownsville,” Putegnat says.
In another incident, three or four days before the raid, one of the black soldiers allegedly hit a townsperson in the face. But Putegnat says that was never proven.
“It wasn’t until the book by John Weaver came out in 1970 that this was sort of brought back to life. People looked at the case in a different way. It took years, decades, for that to happen though,” Putegnat says.
The book was written at the end of the height of the civil rights movement in America.
“The Nixon administration ended up pardoning the troops or giving them an honorable discharge,” Putegnat says. “At that time, there was only one survivor left.”
The Brownsville Heritage Museum’s exhibit runs until the end of March.
“I don’t think it’s something that Brownsvillians are proud of, but it did happen and it’s important to tell it as best we can,” Putegnat says.
Written by Brooke Reaves.
Note: A previous version of this post referred to the 25th Infantry Division. The discharged men were in fact members of the Army’s 25th Infantry Regiment.