In the spring of 1917, as World War I was raging in Europe, the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry Regiment – comprised entirely of Black soldiers – arrived in Houston to guard an Army encampment that was under construction. For months, white locals and police harassed the soldiers until tensions escalated to a riot.
During the Houston riot on Aug. 23, 1917, over 100 Black soldiers took their weapons into town after hearing a rumor that a fellow soldier had been killed and that a mob of white Houstonians was coming to the camp. At the end of the resulting mêlée, 15 white Houstonians and four Black soldiers were dead.
A new film by director Kevin Wilmott, “The 24th,” tells the story of the all-Black regiment, and the violence on that summer night over 100 years ago. Wilmott is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker who’s written screenplays for “BlacKkKlansman,” “Da 5 Bloods” and “Chi-Raq.” He told Texas Standard that the idea for the movie came from a book he stumbled upon years ago called “The Black West.”
“In that book, there was a photograph of the trial of the 24th,” Willmott said. “The caption on the photograph said ‘The largest murder trial in American history,’ and I had never heard anything about this.”
On racial tensions in 1917:
The [Houston] police were notorious, kind of, bad group of folks. But you could say that about a lot of cities in America at that time. … This was a climate of horrible race crimes and riots going on all over the country during this period.
On the movie’s parallels with the present day:
[George Floyd’s] sacrifice has made people kind of finally realize, on a larger scale, that … police abuse is a horrible, terrible thing and its been affecting African Americans since policing was invented shortly after the Civil War.
On seeing the conflict from the soldiers’ perspective:
When you go through what they went through, and the buildup of the abuse and the injustices and all of the horrible kind of things that they endured, finally reached a breaking point, that’s something that I saw as a kid. I was in a riot in high school. I didn’t participate in the riot but I was in the middle of it; I saw it, and I saw friends of mine just flip and break and do things I would have never thought they would ever do. And the thing I really learned from that connects to that great definition of a riot by Dr. [Martin Luther] King, who said, a riot is the language of the unheard.
On the story of the 24th being more than a cautionary tale:
This is not Black history; it’s not the history of violence in the country. This is American history, and the more we see the events of things like the Houston riot of 1917 as American history … the more we embrace that, the more we will move forward as a nation in terms of race relations.