Revisiting Brownsville

New Book Shows It’s Never too late to Correct Injustice

A forgotten piece of American history is told in a new book by the late Lt. Col. (Ret.) William Baker G’64, himself part of the story for helping reverse a decades -old racial injustice.

The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906: The True and Tragic Story of a Black Battalion’s Wrongful Disgrace and Ultimate Redemption (Red Engine Press, 2020) tells the story of the 167 members of the segregated First Battalion, 25th Infantry (Colored), who were discharged without honor from U.S. Army by President Theodore Roosevelt following a shooting spree in the local town of Brownsville, Texas, and decades later, Baker’s investigation that led to a reversal of that decision.

At midnight on Aug. 13, 1906, a group of unidentified bandits set siege on Brownsville, with a 10-minute barrage of bullets that damaged storefronts and homes, killed a bartender and wounded a policeman. Widespread panic among the white townspeople led to a rush to judgment against the unit of black soldiers stationed nearby.

Army officials attested the soldiers were in their bunks at the time and that their weapons did not appear to have been fired. After none of the soldiers confessed or pointed to others as being involved, President Roosevelt, citing a “conspiracy of silence,” exercised his rights as commander in chief and discharged the entire unit without honor, trial or due process. The men were left without military benefits and little future opportunity.

Baker first heard about the Brownsville incident as a boy growing up in rural Georgia in the 1930s. One day, a man stopped by his grandparent’s country home looking for food. By chance, in town the next day, Baker saw the man killed in a hit and run car accident. Baker’s grandfather, himself a former slave, told his grandson that the man had once served in the U.S. Army but experienced a great injustice. He had been a member of the discharged infantry stationed at Brownsville.

Fast forward to 1972. Baker was now an Army lieutenant colonel assigned to the Pentagon’s newly formed Equal Opportunity Program. One day, documents crossed his desk regarding the Brownsville decision. It seemed California’s first Black member of Congress, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, asked the Army to reinvestigate the case; the Army was ready to reaffirm the original decision. Baker requested and received permission to investigate further.

Using original source materials from the National Archives, military records, and official government letters and memoranda, Baker concurred with investigations conducted but ignored in 1906 stating that the troops had been in their barracks when the shooting spree took place. He also found literal “smoking gun” evidence—a ballistics test showing that military shell casings from the scene were not fired in Brownsville but had been fired on the rifle range at Fort Niobrara, Nebraska.  With this evidence, he was able to persuade the Army to reverse Roosevelt’s 1906 ruling, and in 1972, all 167 soldiers were belatedly granted honorable discharges. Only one, Dorsie W. Willis, was still alive, at age 87.

In 1973, Baker was honored at a White House ceremony given the Army’s Pace Award for meritorious service and its Legion of Merit. Robert F. Froehlke, secretary of the Army, commended Baker for bringing “favorable acclaim to the Army in the field of civil rights.”

Baker retired from the military and spent the next 20 years forging a second career as financial manager for Rohm & Haas, a Philadelphia chemical company. But the Brownsville story never left him. While he considered his work leading to the reversal of their dishonorable discharge his proudest achievement, he felt their important story needed to be told. After retiring in 1993, Baker began researching and writing the book. He finished in 2018, days later dying of multiple myeloma at age 86. Although he had tried for years to find a publisher interested in the project, he had not been successful.

But his widow, Dr. Bettye F. Baker, would not be deterred and the book was published earlier this year. “I had lived with that story for 40 years as well,” she says. “It was a big part of our lives.” She is currently working to garnish interest in a film adaptation of the book.

Bettye vividly recalls that after the men were exonerated, her husband had to take the order to the National Archives to be registered. “It was a glorious moment when he put on his dress blues and drove across the 14th Street Bridge to register that order,” she says.

She believes that her husband’s upbringing in the Jim Crow South imprinted a sensibility about the importance of Black lives from injustices he witnessed and experienced himself. “He completed this investigation at the Pentagon in peril of his own career,” she says. “But he considered achieving justice for those 167 innocent men his life’s work and so that’s what he did.”

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Baker received a graduate degree from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School in 1964. His daughter, Janet Baker, G’91, is also an alumnus.

In January 1974, President Richard M. Nixon signed legislation compensating the survivors and widows. Baker is at far right.