SAN ANTONIO – Some descendants of 13 buffalo soldiers who were executed by the military exactly 100 years ago, are now fighting for rights that they say the men were never given.
The buffalo soldiers were found guilty of mutiny, a crime that some of them may not have even committed.
But a century later, perhaps some of their sentences could be overturned.
The buffalo soldiers from World War I left an incomparable legacy.
"They built camps, forts, railroads, delivered the mail, strung telegraph wires (and) chased down outlaws,” said Capt. Paul Matthews, the founder and curator at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum.
Even though they were not allowed to fight overseas, as their white counterparts were, they served with pride and dignity.
"Without the buffalo soldiers, the western movement would've been delayed some 50 years,” Matthews said.
In 1917, the 3rd Batallion 24th Infantry Regiment was responsible for guarding Camp Logan in Houston.
"Now that was a tragedy waiting to happen, because you brought these black soldiers to a southern town with strictly enforced Jim Crow laws,” Matthews said.
One of the soldiers interfered with a white officer arresting a black woman, so he was thrown in jail. A corporal from the regiment who went to investigate the incident ended up beaten, shot and jailed.
"This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, according to one of the soldiers,” Matthews said.
The soldiers started to riot. They went on to kill more than a dozen white people, including five police officers, an Army captain and a young girl.
"As a result of that, they put them on a train, brought them to New Mexico and 63 of them to Fort Sam Houston, where they had a court-martial,” Matthews said.
It was the biggest military trial in U.S. history.
"At the end of the court-martial, they hanged 13 of them,” Matthews said. “Then, six months later, they hanged six more.”
The 13 black buffalo soldiers who were hanged at what is now a golf course at Fort Sam Houston, never received the chance to appeal their sentences. The hanging took place before dawn on the chilly morning of Dec. 11, 1917.
"Even if the military were going to execute the men, at least go through the motions of having an appeal,” said Angela Holder, the great-niece of Jesse Moore, a hanged corporal. “They took them out in secret.”
Holder, who is an American history professor at Houston Community College, is fighting for the soldiers’ rights.
"I'm trying to get them memorialized by getting them a posthumous pardon,” Holder said.
After initially being buried in a grassy area near Salado Creek, the bodies of many of the soldiers were exhumed in 1937 and reburied at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. But their tombstones, unlike the others in the cemetery, were only inscribed with their names and dates of death.
"If there is a way to get a commemorative plaque put on the marble to let people know that these men did serve -- (and) they served admirably before they came to Houston,” Holder said. “If they could have on there their branch of service, their rank, (that would be ideal).”
Holder said she and a few other buffalo soldier descendants tried to get posthumous pardons for the 13 soldiers, under the Obama administration. But they were unsuccessful. The group plans to try again when the time is right.