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Brownsville, Texas 1906

by Janilyn Kocher – ©2016

     
Eliza Jane Wilder Thayer married Max Gordon in 1904. The couple relocated to Brownsville, Texas, at the southern tip of the state, right across the Rio Grande from Mexico. The Thayers ran a fruit stand that often had local soldiers, stationed at nearby Fort Brown, as customers. Two pictures exist of their enterprise: one is published in William Anderson’s booklet A Wilder in the West, first published in 1985. A second, similar photograph was recently shared on social media by Eliza Jane’s great-great grandson, Jason Wilder and his wife, Paula. Check out their Raising Wilder Facebook page and learn more about the Wilder family and their efforts to help raise awareness of – and a continued love – of all things “Wilder” HERE. Both pictures show the fruit stand with soldiers in front standing with Eliza Jane’s son, Wilder Thayer.

Thayers’ fruit stand was a microcosm in a larger picture of an ugly event that occurred in mid- August 1906. It involved African-American soldiers and the local townspeople, leaving an indelible stain on the soldiers’ records and was reflective of the pervasive discriminatory attitude in early 19th century America. Consequently, it led to one of the most sweeping dismissals of Army soldiers in U.S. history. [1]

African-American soldiers in the military date back to the Revolutionary War. Almost 200,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army during the Civil War, comprising ten percent of the US Army. The recent Spanish-American War of 1898 had witnessed even more black soldiers, many who were veterans and were affected by the 1906 Brownsville incident. Native Americans called black soldiers “buffalo soldiers” because their hair looked like the buffalo coats. After the Civil War many black regiments were sent out west.

Three companies: B, C, and D, of the 25th Infantry were relocated from Fort Niobrara, Nebraska to Fort Brown in late July 1906. Brownsville residents – a little burg of fewer than 10,000 – were upset at the arrival of the all black regiment, who were replacing a white regiment, the 26th Infantry. Acrimony between white residents and the black soldiers had been evident in El Paso, Laredo, and Rio Grande City in previous years. [2]

Around the entire country, especially the south, Jim Crow segregation was the reality. The name “Jim Crow” was derived from a minstrel show where the character, Jim Crow, was fallible and weak. Two types of segregation existed: de jure and de facto. De facto segregation was habitual and customary such as African-Americans addressing whites as “sir” or “ma’am”, but whites referred to blacks in very derogatory ways. De jure segregation was legal as decreed in the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson. The decision stated that as long as facilities were equal, racial separation was legal, the separate but equal doctrine. This ruling led to separate travel accommodations, schools, and seating sections in theaters and restaurants. It also led to a continued outpouring of hatred and violence. The Ku Klux Klan was a very prominent enforcement of brutality against African-Americans. The number of lynchings spiked during the 1890s. There were an average of 187 lynchings annually and 80% occurred in the south with the majority of victims being African-Americans.

The events of August 12-14, 1906 were called The Brownsville Raid, Brownsville Massacre, and the Brownsville Incident. [3] Many historians consider it to be one of the most detrimental acts performed by Theodore Roosevelt during his two administrations. [4] The events also damaged race relations for decades and hastened the establishment of the NAACP in 1909, which rapidly grew to numerous chapters with over 5,000 members by 1914. Tensions were high in Brownsville by Aug. 12, due to an alleged assault on Mrs. Lon Evans by a black soldier. [5] Mayor Frederick Coombe consulted with Major Charles Penrose, Fort Brown post commander, and the two agreed in order to calm the community an 8 pm curfew would be enforced for the soldiers. [6] Around midnight on August 13, a group, between 15-20 unknown men, went on a shooting spree. For ten minutes the rampage targeted civilian homes and businesses. Reports ranged wildly from 100 rounds to several hundred rounds fired. [7] The only victim killed was Frank Natus who was shot in the head. The second victim was Brownsville policeman Lt. Ygnacio M. Dominguez. He was riding on his horse toward the fracas and reported he saw eight soldiers heading back to the fort. The group shot at him, felling his mount. In the midst of his horse buckling underneath him, Dominguez shattered his left arm, which had to be amputated. A third victim, Paulino Preciado, a local bookbinder, was grazed by a bullet. [8]

White residents were outraged and immediately blamed the 25th Infantry soldiers. Eyewitnesses claimed the group were black soldiers, although it was virtually impossible to identify anyone at night. [9] They also produced shells and casings they claimed were from the shooting. All the soldiers denied any involvement and their commanders confirmed that all soldiers had been in their barracks that night for curfew and another check had been made shortly after the shootings and all were accounted. [10] Other officers and a local clergyman also defended the men to no avail. All troops were present at roll call and no shells, spent cartridges were found in the vicinity of the fort and there was no evidence that any of the soldiers’ weapons had been fired. [11] Both a local and federal investigation ensued. The regiment was quickly removed to Fort Reno Oklahoma and Fort Brown was closed in October. [12] Assistant inspector-general Major Augustus Blocksom of the SouthWest division, assigned by President Roosevelt to investigate the situation, found the soldiers uncooperative. None of the soldiers admitted to participating in the rampage. [13] Based on the sketchy, dubious, and circumstantial evidence twelve soldiers were arrested. But a grand jury did not hand down any indictments. The accused soldiers were not allowed to know their accusers’ identities nor ask any of their own questions. [14]

Roosevelt made his decision. On November 5, he effectively dishonorably discharged 167 members of the 25th Infantry for their “conspiracy of silence.” [15] Fifty percent of those soldiers had five years or more in the army; one had almost thirty years of service. Ten had served for more than fifteen years. [16] Six had been awarded the Medal of Honor from the Spanish-American War and thirteen had been given bravery citations. [17] They were disgraced, stripped of their pensions, and ineligible for civil service employment. Despite Secretary of War Howard Taft urging Roosevelt to reconsider and the cry of outrage from the African-American community, Roosevelt refused to budge. [18] A Senate Committee conducted an investigation from 1907-1910 and affirmed Roosevelt’s condemnation of the soldiers. [19] However, the War Department did allow fourteen of the soldiers to re-enlist in 1910, never revealing the criteria that made that possible. [20]

John Weaver, a journalist, launched his own inquiry into the Brownsville case, carefully examining the evidence and interviewing a few of the survivors. [21] He was thoroughly convinced the soldiers had been wrongfully vilified and punished based largely upon racial prejudice. He published The Brownsville Incident in 1970 that prompted Congress to conduct a new investigation. Consequently, Congress vacated the original verdict of Roosevelt. In 1972, President Richard Nixon dispensed honorable discharges for 153 men, granted $10,000 pensions to the ten surviving widows, and $25,000 pensions to the soldiers. [22] Only two of the affected soldiers were still alive, 82 year old Edward Warfield, who had been one of the fourteen allowed to re-enlist, and Dorsie Willis of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Warfield died in November 1973 so Willis was the lone recipient of the pension. [23] He had enlisted in 1904, originally from Meridian, Mississippi and the oldest of nine children. [24] Willis commented “I’m very grateful for the check… but it comes too many years late.” [25] Willis passed away on August 24, 1977. One of his final comments about the Brownsville affair was “That dishonorable discharge kept me from earning” a decent living. [26]

     


     

     
Sources Cited.

1. Chandler, D.L. “Texas ‘Brownsville Raid’ Began On This Day In 1906,” NewsOne, 2013, Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://newsone.com/2674947/brownsville-raid/

2. Christian, Garna L. (2009) “The Brownsville, Texas, Disturbance of 1906 and the Politics of Justice,” Trotter Review, Vol. 18, Issue 1, Article 4, p. 23. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1022&context=trotter_review

3. Shay, Alison. “Remembering the Brownsville Affair,” This Day In Civil Rights History, August 12, 2012. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/blog/index.php/2012/08/13/remembering-the-brownsville-affair/

4. “Brownsville Incident,” Dickinson State University. n.d. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016 http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/Race-Ethnicity-and-Gender/The-Brownsville-Incident.aspx

5. Christian, Garna L. (2009) “The Brownsville, Texas, Disturbance of 1906 and the Politics of Justice,” Trotter Review, Vol. 18, Issue 1, Article 4, p. 24. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1022&context=trotter_review

6. Ibid.

7. “Brownsville Affair,” Dictionary of American History, 2003. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Brownsville.aspx, “Brownsville Affray, 1906,” BlackPast. Org. Online Reference to African American History, n.d. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016.
http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/brownsville-affray-1906

8. Christian, Garna L. (2009) “The Brownsville, Texas, Disturbance of 1906 and the Politics of Justice,” Trotter Review, Vol. 18, Issue 1, Article 4, p.24. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016 http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1022&context=trotter_review , “Race Relations Under Theodore Roosevelt,” n.p., n.d., Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h943.html

9. Shay, Alison. “Remembering the Brownsville Affair,” This Day In Civil Rights History, August 12, 2012. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/blog/index.php/2012/08/13/remembering-the-brownsville-affair/

10. Christian, Garna L. (2009) “The Brownsville, Texas, Disturbance of 1906 and the Politics of Justice,” Trotter Review, Vol. 18, Issue 1, Article 4, p. 24. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1022&context=trotter_review

11. “Brownsville Affair,” Dictionary of American History, 2003. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Brownsville.aspx.

12. “Brownsville Affair,” Dictionary of American History, 2003. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Brownsville.aspx.

13. Christian, Garna L. (2009) “The Brownsville, Texas, Disturbance of 1906 and the Politics of Justice,” Trotter Review, Vol. 18, Issue 1, Article 4, p. 25. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1022&context=trotter_review

14. Shay, Alison. “Remembering the Brownsville Affair,” This Day In Civil Rights History, August 12, 2012. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/blog/index.php/2012/08/13/remembering-the-brownsville-affair/

15. “Race Relations Under Theodore Roosevelt,” n.p., n.d., Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h943.html; / Garna L. Christian, “Brownsville Raid of 1906,” Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed July 24 2016. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/pkb06.

16. “Dorsie Willis, A Brownsville Survivor,” African American Registry, n.d. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/dorsie-willis-brownsville-survivor

17. Ibid.

18. Garna L. Christian, “Brownsville Raid of 1906,” Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed July 24 2016. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/pkb06

19. “Brownsville Affray, 1906,” BlackPast. Org: Online Reference to African American History, n.d. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/brownsville-affray-1906

20. Christian, Garna L. (2009) “The Brownsville, Texas, Disturbance of 1906 and the Politics of Justice,” Trotter Review, Vol. 18, Issue 1, Article 4, p. 27. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1022&context=trotter_review

21. “Brownsville Incident,” Dickinson State University. n.d Web. Accessed 23 July 2016 http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/Race-Ethnicity-and-Gender/The-Brownsville-Incident.aspx

22. Shay, Alison. “Remembering the Brownsville Affair,” This Day In Civil Rights History, August 12, 2012. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/blog/index.php/2012/08/13/remembering-the-brownsville-affair/

23. Ibid.

24. “Dorsie Willis, A Brownsville Survivor,” African American Registry, n.d. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/dorsie-willis-brownsville-survivor

25. Ibid.

26. Shay, Alison. “Remembering the Brownsville Affair,” This Day In Civil Rights History, August 12, 2012. Web. Accessed 23 July 2016. https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/blog/index.php/2012/08/13/remembering-the-brownsville-affair/

     
Other sources.

Christian, Garna L. Black Soldiers in Jim Crow Texas, 1899-1917. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.

Weaver, John D. The Brownsville Raid. New York, NY: WW. Norton and Company, 1970.

—. The Senator and the Sharecropper’s Son: Exoneration of the Brownsville Soldiers. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.

Malbrew, Ricardo. “Brownsville Revisited.” Master’s Thesis, Louisiana State University, 2007.

http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-03112007-200919/unrestricted/Finale.pdf

     

Brownsville 1906, see also Eliza Jane Wilder