The Brownsville Affair: Racial Transgressions & U.S. Military History
by Dawson Fagan, MSW
The Brownsville Affair was one of the most high-profile racial incidents in the U.S. military when it occurred, back in 1906, in Brownsville, Texas. The event involved the shooting of several civilians, but the gunmen were never identified. The townspeople, of course, blamed the all-black military brigade recently stationed in Brownsville, known as the buffalo soldiers.
The incident began on the night of August 13, 1906, when shots were fired in the town of Brownsville, killing one man and wounding others. Although there was no direct evidence linking the soldiers to the shooting, local officials and white residents of the town immediately blamed the black soldiers for the crime.
Investigators from the senate came to the town, and the accused group of soldiers were asked to perjure themselves. When they refused to do so, they were all dishonorably discharged by President Teddy Roosevelt from the army and sent back to their homes without any pension or benefits. This was and still is the largest military discharge ever in U.S. history—affecting 167 soldiers.
The incident sparked a national debate about the treatment of African American soldiers in the US military. The soldiers maintained their innocence and claimed that they had been falsely accused due to racial bias. Many prominent figures, including Theodore Roosevelt, were widely criticized for the decision. Despite efforts by several senators who had evidence that the 25th Infantry Regiment was framed by the townspeople in Brownsville, the decision was upheld by the military and the US government in 1908.
In 1970, the journalist John Weaver analyzed the evidence from the senators of the 1908 investigation, and after he interviewed the few people still alive related to the Brownsville affair, he found more, new evidence that the white accusers in Brownsville misrepresented the evidence they found and in some cases even planted evidence.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the discharges were reversed by an act of Congress, due to a second dual investigation by both the U.S. military and the Senate. The soldiers were finally given the recognition they deserved. Of note, they didn’t receive any of their benefits because most had died by 1972, and the benefits were not transferred to the families.
The Brownsville Affair remains one of many dark chapters in the history of the U.S. military, and it serves as a stark reminder of the racial injustices that have plagued the country’s military. It is a racial transgression that we should not forget, even though many have tried.