The Brownsville Affair, also known as the Brownsville Raid, was a racially charged event in Texas that led to the largest dishonorable discharge in U.S. Army history. 167 soldiers were dismissed from their posts, many of whom gave several years of service and missed earning their pensions as a result.
On the night of August 13,1906, a shootout took place in the Texas town that ended in the death of a white bartender and a Hispanic police officer. Although there was no evidence that the crimes were connected to the 25th Infantry Regiment, a unit of the Buffalo Soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Brown, white citizens claimed the soldiers were to blame.
From the time they arrived at the base in July, the soldiers of the 25th endured a barrage of racist insults and abuse. One of the several incidents that occurred between soldiers and citizens was a fight between an infantryman and a store owner that lead to the soldiers being banned from coming into town.
On August 12, a rumor spread in Brownsville that a Black soldier attacked a white woman. An Army major who led the regiment suggested a curfew to Mayor Frederick Combe so that violence could be avoided. But shortly after midnight, gunfire erupted which left Frank Natus dead and M.Y. Dominguez reportedly losing an arm.
Though it was nighttime, enraged citizens claimed to have seen Black soldiers opening fire. Even when all-White commanders said that the infantrymen remained in their barracks after curfew the town refused to believe it. Mayor Combe sided with the townspeople and declared the soldiers guilty.
Initially, 12 soldiers were linked to the incident but none were indicted. However, once the case traveled all the way to the desk of President Theodore Roosevelt, it was decided that the 25th and their honor code of silence was grounds enough to have 167 soldiers dishonorably discharged.
Activist Booker T. Washington was angered by President Roosevelt’s decision, and tried to lobby on behalf of the 25th. Roosevelt’s decision was criticized by Blacks and whites nationwide. The NAACP and prominent civil rights figures like W.E.B. Du Bois used the Brownsville Affair as leverage among Black Republicans and urged them to consider where they placed their votes in the upcoming elections.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon granted the 25th honorable discharges, though many had already passed on. One soldier did re-enlist in 1910 and was able to retire with benefits. Dorsie Willis, the last surviving member of that troop, was granted a tax-free pension and $25,000.
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