Lt. Colonel William Baker, a soldier of honor and distinction

Herb Boyd | 10/25/2018, 12:14 p.m.
I am deeply indebted to publications that have the interest and wherewithal to help us remember those often forgotten individuals ...
Lt. Colonel William Baker

I am deeply indebted to publications that have the interest and wherewithal to help us remember those often forgotten individuals in our history, and in this regard a special salute is extended to The New York Times and Sam Roberts, who has been tireless in his determination to keep us informed of the passing of many notables.

A few weeks ago, he authored an extremely rewarding obituary of William Baker. Although I had never heard of Baker, I did know of the case of racial injustice that his grandfather related to him when he was a child. The story involved Black soldiers in the 25th Infantry Regiment, an all-Black unit stationed at Fort Brown near Brownsville, Texas. In 1906, approximately 20 of them were accused and arrested after a shooting incident that left one white man dead and a white police officer wounded.

The soldiers insisted they had nothing to do with the shooting and said they were asleep in the barracks when it occurred. Their white commanding officer agreed, indicating that their rifles had not been fired.

Even so, the overwhelming outrage from the white community, a few of them testifying to the Army investigator that they witnessed Black soldiers firing their guns, sealed the soldiers’ fate. All 167 of them, refusing to confess to the crime, were discharged by President Theodore Roosevelt. They were charged with a “conspiracy of silence” for refusing to incriminate their fellow soldiers.

This case is often cited as one of the most outrageously unfair military incidents in the nation’s history. Baker was in the Army when Rep. Augustus Hawkins, the first African-American member of Congress from California, inspired by John Weaver’s book “The Brownsville Raid,” reopened the case. Then a lieutenant colonel and assigned to the Pentagon’s Equal Opportunity Program, Baker asked to be included in the case because he still retained vivid impressions from what his grandfather had told him years ago.

When the documents crossed his desk and he learned that the original decision of 1906 would be reaffirmed, he was successful in convincing the Army that the men were innocent and in fact were in their barracks when the incident happened.

In 1972, Roosevelt’s ruling was reversed and all 167 soldiers were granted honorable discharges. The charges against them, the Army decided, had been a “gross injustice.” Two years later, President Nixon signed legislation granting compensation to the soldiers’ widows and survivors.

Dorsie Willis, 87, was the only one of the 167 soldiers still alive when the order was reversed. (Willis was featured in this column two years ago and it was noted then of his membership in the unit and the valor they displayed during the Spanish American War and the racist reception they received when they arrived in Brownsville.) Working in a Minneapolis barber shop where he swept the floor and shined shoes, Willis told the press that the discharge had severely hampered his possibilities of a good life, but “God knows what it did the others.” He received a certificate of honorable discharge, an apology from the Army and a $25,000 check. He was grateful for the check but noted that it had come far too late.