History runs deep at Memorial Park
It is hard not to frolic in the weather we've had this week. And when I frolic, I go to one of the most popular green spaces in Houston — Memorial Park.
I'm not alone either. The Memorial Park Conservancy estimates that each day some 10,000 runners hit the park to jog around the three-mile loop. The track was developed in the late 1960s to accompany the “relatively new phenomenon” of recreational running. Over the years, the track around the park became even more runner-friendly when it added a “trail of pine bark and mulch” in 1978. Illuminated in 1984, the Seymour-Leiberman Exer-Trail attracts some four million people a year, making it one of Houston’s more popular attractions.
Memorial Park is a both a testament to forward-thinking city planning and a reaffirmation of the need for green spaces in bustling metropolitan areas like Houston.
Yet it is likewise an important historical marker for our city. On my run this past Sunday, it was tough to think of a more serene place in the city. It was hard to imagine, however, that this same sanctuary was once the scene of violence and turmoil.
Camp Logan circa 1917
On April 6, 1917, the United States officially entered World War I. As war preparations began, the U.S. War Department singled out a 7,600-acre tract “about five miles west of what was then Houston to establish a camp for troop training.” Camp Logan, with its entrance close to what is now the intersection at Washington and Westcott, would serve as the training ground for some 25,000 troops.
Assigned to Camp Logan, the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry, comprised of 654 African-American soldiers and eight white officers, arrived at the new fort in late July that year. According to former University of Houston professor Robert V. Haynes, author of A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917, the 3rd Battalion was an experienced unit that “fought in the Indian conflicts of the late 19th century as well as in the Spanish American War.” They likewise served in the Philippines, Alaska, and Mexico.
In 1917 Houston, and Texas for that matter, was “rigidly segregated” by Jim Crow laws. Racial tensions flared across Texas throughout the decade, resulting in brutal acts of violence in cities like Brownsville, Del Rio, Temple, and Waco. Thus as Haynes explained, the “prospect of service in Texas” for African-American troops was “grim and frightening.” As the 3rd Battalion arrived in July, there was great unease in both the ranks of the troops and in the city of Houston. Mayor Dan M. Moody of Houston recalled there was a “feeling that something was going to happen in the air.”
Soon after the arrival of the troops, a series of incidents between African-American soldiers and white Houston police officers over the enforcement of segregationist restrictions caused tempers to rise.
Many soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, after years of fighting for the United States, “expected to be accorded the same privileges and to be shown the same respect as other men in uniform.” They were “intent upon achieving those same rights at home that they were fighting to uphold in Europe.” When denied those rights, they fought back.
On Thursday, Aug. 23, another tense altercation between soldiers and the police spawned virulent rumors that a corporal in the 3rd Battalion, Charles Baltimore, was shot by the police. Upward of 100 soldiers took to streets of Houston that night to seek revenge, with some of the violence occurring at what is now the busy intersection of Shepherd Drive and Washington Avenue.
By the end of the evening, at least 20 people, four black and 16 white, lay dead. The 3rd Battalion was disarmed and transferred to New Mexico. In the aftermath of the violence, “the largest court-martial in American military history” proceeded, resulting in the hanging of 19 soldiers and life imprisonment for 63 others.
This grim chapter in Houston and America’s history received attention recently at the Museum of Fine Arts when it showcased the documentary “Buffalo Soldier Mutiny: Houston 1917.” The film
“Buffalo Soldier Mutiny” was largely informed by the play “Camp Logan,” reviewed here by the New York Times. Likewise, in 2006, KHOU broadcast a production titled Mutiny on the Bayou: The Camp Logan Story.
A Memorial Park
In 1923 Camp Logan closed. And according to the Memorial Park Conservancy, Catherine Mary Emmott advised “the city buy some of the land and turn it into a park in memory of the boys” before the land could be sold for development. The Hogg family followed the recommendation and promptly bought 1,500 acres that year. Two years later, the Hoggs, along with minority owner Henry Stude, sold the land to the city of Houston with the stipulation that it be used for “park purposes only.” This would be their memorial to those soldiers stationed at Camp Logan during World War I.
Over the years, “there were more than 100 attempts to take over portions” of the park area, including failed attempts to make it “a 50-acre fish hatchery, a site for a high school football stadium, a building for the Museum of Natural History, a site for the University of Houston, a 30-acre fishing lake, the Astrodome, and a site on which to drill for oil, to name but a few.”
it appears that just as the history of Memorial Park’s founding is moving, the efforts to keep the park pristine and green are inspiring.