‘The 24th’ Tells the Overlooked Story of a Texas Race Riot That Led to the Largest Murder Trial in U.S. Military History (2023)

There’s a scene near the end of The 24th, Kevin Willmott’s new film on the Houston riot of 1917, that plays like a fever dream. The camera cuts between locations as an Army officer reports, through voice-over, “the men identified as the ringleaders of the mutiny …” Then we’re met with a pregnant pause. Marie Downing (Aja Naomi King) is the sweetheart of one of those ringleaders. She sways back and forth on a swing set, with a smile on her face. Cicadas, birds, and crickets sing; dawn glistens through trees as an ominous shot of the swingset’s rope foreshadows what’s to come. The handsome face of Downing’s beau, Corporal William Boston (Trai Byers), fills the screen. They probably would’ve married if he hadn’t been martyred with his brothers of the 24th Infantry, following a mutiny that they undertook on August 23, 1917.

The officer finishes his sentence: “… were hung this morning shortly after five-thirty. May God have mercy on their souls.”

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The screen fades to black and we hear a clink. A thud. A jolt. A rope tightening and swaying back and forth.

The 24th, a fictionalized account of the Houston riot of 1917, is a deeply resonant and perceptive window into American humanity. Directed by Willmott, whose screenwriting credits include Da 5 Bloods and BlacKkKlansman, the film was originally set to premiere at South by Southwest before the pandemic led to the festival’s cancellation; the movie is now streaming on Amazon Prime. The 24th sheds light on an important and long-overlooked moment in Texas history. But, at times, it also feels threadbare. The film is safe, a little heavy-handed, and not nearly as dangerous or radical as the men who inspired it.

The events dramatized in the film are these: In July 1917, three months after the U.S. entered World War I, the Army sent an all-Black unit from Columbus, New Mexico, to Houston. The members of the 24th Infantry’s third battalion were among more than 350,000 Black soldiers who served in segregated units during the war. The unit’s task was to guard the construction of the new Camp Logan training site (located in what is today Memorial Park). The soldiers endured severe, nonstop racist harassment from civilians, police, and fellow members of the military. After a Black soldier was beaten and arrested for intervening in police mistreatment of a Black woman, tensions boiled over and the soldiers mutinied. The resulting gunfire left sixteen white locals and five Black soldiers dead. In what remains the largest murder trial in U.S. military history, nineteen members of the 24th Infantry were sentenced to death.

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Those are the facts. What The 24th powerfully conveys are the emotions. The film begins shortly after the troops’ arrival at Camp Logan, and we watch as the soldiers face abhorrent discrimination and harassment. One soldier is urinated on at the construction site. We feel their shame and their rage as they’re spat on—thick, phlegmy, tobacco-tinted spit. A soldier is brutalized by police for refusing to sit in the back of a streetcar as members of the regiment look on in horror. Soldiers in the unit get held at gunpoint and pistol-whipped by Houston police. Two soldiers are beaten with a sack of grapefruit by Captain Abner Lockhart (Jim Klock). Are they not brothers in arms? Colonel Norton (played by Texas native Thomas Haden Church), the most senior officer at Camp Logan, seems to be the only decent white man in the entire film. Eventually, Norton accepts a promotion and goes off to fight overseas, leaving the soldiers under Lockhart’s command. He is decidedly less kind.

Willmott uses Boston, played by his co-screenwriter Byers, as the film’s protagonist and guiding light. Loosely based on the real-life soldier Charles Baltimore, Boston is an eloquent, Sorbonne-educated man from Atlanta—a model soldier full of patriotism. One scene finds him reading Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery in the evening by lantern light. Washington famously argued against desegregation and civil rights activism, for which he has been met with mountains of critique. Instead, he believed Black Americans would eventually achieve equality by improving themselves through respectable work, selflessness, and usefulness to the community. Though viewers see what book Boston is reading only for a split second, Willmott and Byers make it abundantly clear that not only does Boston subscribe to this philosophy—it’s what drives his life.

Boston arrests one of the town’s more virulent racist civilians, Tommy Lee (Tony Demil), for stabbing a Black civilian to death and receives a hero’s welcome at Camp Logan. Norton informs Boston that he’s the first Black man in Houston to arrest a white man for taking a Black person’s life. Lee is eventually released by a judge, with no charges filed. All of Boston’s peers love him, except Private Walker (Mo McRae) and Sergeant Hayes (Mykelti Williamson). Boston’s light skin and his genteel nature lead Walker and Hayes to believe that he thinks he’s better than the rest of his regiment, chiefly concerned with his personal advancement. Eventually, through his actions and telling the true story of his roots—his parents were born into slavery and died in the Atlanta massacre of 1906—he earns their respect. So much so that Boston’s eventual arrest, which leads to a false rumor around camp that he’s dead, is the catalyst for the riots.

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Boston returns to camp after rumors of his death, and of a white mob making its way to camp, metastasize. His face has been bloodied by police, and shots can be heard ringing out near the camp. So a handful of Black troops take up arms and storm through Houston, killing white civilians, vigilantes, police officers, and a car full of National Guardsmen whom they mistake for Houston cops. In reality, only one guardsman (Captain Joseph Mattes) was killed by the 24th Infantry Regiment. The fictionalized account makes the events that transpired that fateful night on August 23 seem inevitable (police and soldiers both wore khaki uniforms), with this one grave mistake serving as a bitter climax to their violent promenade. This version of the story feels far too neat and tidy.

In reality, these impassioned men exacted vengeance and reigned chaos. The film gives the impression that only a few dozen soldiers participated in the mutiny, but every historical account claims there were upwards of one hundred. Willmott’s picture does not show a riot on screen, mostly an insurrection, but hundreds of white men looted hardware stores and pawn shops for firearms that night. The police illegally terrorized Black residents and searched their homes for Black soldiers. Roughly a thousand white militiamen found themselves at a police station, with officers handing out firearms to anyone who’d take one. Mattes wasn’t the only casualty of friendly fire; two Black soldiers were killed by stray bullets from their own regiment. To this day, the Houston riot of 1917 remains the only race riot in American history in which more white Americans died than Black Americans. That is, if you don’t include the nineteen soldiers who were sentenced to death by hanging as a result. Sixty-three Black soldiers received life sentences. No white military officers, police officers, or civilians received any jail time.

It’s mind-boggling that this story has stayed largely under the radar for more than a century. What makes this deserving of little to no real estate in your average textbook? What does it say about racial terror in this country that a group of brave men who took an oath to protect Americans instead opened fire on anyone they saw, including teenagers? Could you imagine how furious and hopeless you would have to be to go down that road? How long would you let your humanity be attacked before you combust?

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The 24th is a serviceable film. But, unlike Willmott’s excellent collaborations with Spike Lee, The 24th doesn’t do much to elevate itself beyond cinematic paleontology. This is bewildering because none of the principal characters carry the names of the real men involved in the Houston Riot. They’re inspired by them, but ultimately play as tropes and avatars, not real people. Willmott and Byers create Marie Downing as Boston’s romantic interest, but since the woman is given very little agency, the romance seems extraneous. The town racists are borderline cartoon villains. None of the characters feel fully imagined. We don’t know much about them, they aren’t dynamic or interesting beyond what is being done to them or what they do in a compressed time frame. The lack of depth is a missed opportunity. But despite this, the actors give great performances—Mykelti Williamson in particular.

In a documentary about the Houston riot, a descendent of Ira Rainey, one of the white police officers killed that night, asserts that Rainey’s death unleashed trauma and poverty that his family is still dealing with generations later. This is tragic, but if one man’s death can weaken a family for a century, how do we even begin to quantify the generational trauma of slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and police brutality since 1619? That The 24th was released two days before Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, might be seen as prescient. But movies like this always seem prescient. Da 5 Bloods was prescient. BlacKkKlansman was prescient. Crash and The Help (not very good movies) were prescient. A Soldier’s Story was prescient. In the Heat of the Night was prescient. The question is: when will such movies stop being prescient?

FAQs

How a race riot involving an army unit led to the largest murder trial in US history? ›

The soldiers could not have fully imagined what awaited them. Their assignment to guard Camp Logan was scheduled to last seven weeks. It barely lasted a month, cut short by a race riot that resulted in 20 deaths and three courts-martial. Nineteen soldiers were executed, and 63 were given life sentences.

What is the story behind the 24th? ›

Plot. The 24th is based on the true story of the Houston riot of 1917. The film features an African-American military regiment that is called the 24th in Houston, Texas.

What happened to the men of the 24th? ›

The 24th Infantry was sent to Houston to guard Camp Logan in 1917. For months they encountered racism from civilians and local police, which sparked the Houston Riot of 1917. Of the 64 soldiers tried for mutiny, 19 men were hanged at Ft. Sam after being found guilty.

What caused the 24th Infantry's Third Battalion to riot in Houston in 1917? ›

Following an incident where police officers arrested and assaulted some black soldiers, many of their comrades mutinied and marched to Houston, where they opened fire and killed eleven civilians and five policemen. Five soldiers themselves were also killed as a result of the riot.

What was the outcome of the race riots? ›

The riots not only destroyed many homes and businesses, resulting in about $50 million in property damage in Detroit alone, but far more significantly, they also depressed inner-city incomes and property values for decades.

What is the Houston riot of 1917 and why is it important? ›

The Houston Riot was started after a case of police brutality, as described by the Paris, Texas NAACP here: At noon [on August 23, 1917], police dragged an African American woman from her home and arrested her for public drunkenness. A soldier from the camp asked what was going on, and was beaten and arrested as well.

What happened on August 23 1917? ›

Around 100 members of the Third Battalion were tried collectively for murder in several courts martial – making it one of the biggest murder cases in American history, measured by number of defendants.

Where is The 24th Infantry Division located? ›

24th Infantry Regiment (United States)
24th Infantry Regiment
Part of1
Garrison/HQFort Wainwright, Alaska
Nickname(s)"Deuce Four" (special designation)
Motto(s)Semper Paratus (Always Prepared)
12 more rows

Where was The 24th buried? ›

Thirteen Black soldiers were found guilty and sentenced to death. The soldiers were hanged near Salado Creek and buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

What happened June 24th 1917? ›

June 24, 1917

American combat forces arrive in France.

What happened to The 24th in Houston Texas? ›

The resulting gunfire left sixteen white locals and five Black soldiers dead. In what remains the largest murder trial in U.S. military history, nineteen members of the 24th Infantry were sentenced to death.

Who was The 24th Infantry and why were they in Houston? ›

In July 1917, the all-Black 3rd Battalion of the 24th United States Infantry Regiment was stationed at Camp Logan, near Houston, Texas, to guard white soldiers preparing for deployment to Europe.

Why are the 24th Infantry important? ›

The 24th Infantry Division was among the first US Army divisions to see combat in World War II and among the last to stop fighting.

Where did the largest riot of the time take place and what was the cause of this riot? ›

1967 Detroit riot
The Detroit Riot of 1967
LocationDetroit, Michigan, U.S. 42°22′35″N 83°05′58″W
Caused byPolice raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar.
MethodsRioting, protests, looting, arson, murder, assault
Resulted inSee Effects
8 more rows

Is the movie The 24th based on true events? ›

The 24th, written and directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Willmott, is based on the true story of the all-black 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment in 1917 Houston, Texas.

What caused the race riots in the 1940s quizlet? ›

What caused the race riots in the 1940's? The migration of African-Americans into already overcrowded cities caused tensions to rise.

Which was a main cause of race riots in American cities? ›

By the 1960s, decades of racial, economic, and political forces, which generated inner city poverty, resulted in race riots within minority areas in cities across the United States. The beating and rumored death of cab driver John Smith by police, sparked the 1967 Newark riots.

What caused the race riots in 1968? ›

In addition the Dr. King's assassination in 1968, the issues of civil rights, employment discrimination, poverty, racial profiling and police brutality lay at the center of both riots.

What is true regarding the 1917 Houston riot? ›

On 23 August 1917, four months after the US entered the first world war, the regiment mutinied in Houston. It resulted in the largest murder trial in US history, in which 110 out of 118 soldiers were found guilty. Nineteen were hanged.

Why is Houston important to history? ›

The City of Houston was founded in 1837 after Augustus and John Allen had acquired land to establish a new town at the junction of Buffalo and White Oak bayous in 1836. Houston served as the temporary capital of the Republic of Texas. Meanwhile, the town developed as a regional transportation and commercial hub.

What important event happened in the U.S. on April 6 1917? ›

National Museum of the U.S. Navy

On April 6, 1917, Congress passed the Declaration of War. Not unlike the War of 1812, the U.S. went into war to protect shipping and the freedeom of trade while in international waters. Since the beginning of that year, 19 U.S. merchant vessels were sunk by German U-boats.

How accurate is the 24th? ›

It's based on true events that transpired in Houston, Texas during the summer of 1917 when the all-Black 24th Infantry, part of the famed Buffalo Soldiers, mutinied on August 23. In the end, 11 civilians, five cops, and four soldiers died.

Why is August 23 important? ›

International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Join us and this movement against the slave trade to make the world a better place.

What happened on August 23rd 1944? ›

August 23, 1944 (Wednesday)

The Battle of Audierne Bay was fought between German and Allied naval flotillas. The result was an Allied victory as eight German ships were sunk.

What were the duties of the 24th and 25th infantry? ›

The role of the 24th and the other three infantry regiments was to provide security for the base camps of the expedition, and to secure the lines of supply from New Mexico. The campaign consisted of a series of minor engagements between US forces and both Mexican Army and Villa's guerrilla forces.

Where did the 24th Battalion fight? ›

The battalion was formed during the first week of May 1915, and sailed from Melbourne at the end of that week. Training shortfalls were made up in Egypt in July and August, and on 4 September 1915 the Battalion went ashore at Gallipoli.

What is the insignia for the United States Army 24th Infantry Division? ›

The 24th Infantry Division shoulder sleeve insignia is a green taro leaf bordered in yellow, superimposed on a red circle that is bordered in black. It symbolizes the Division's heritage in the Hawaiian Division.

When was the last unknown soldier buried? ›

Many years later, in 1984, the final unknown soldier from the Vietnam War was laid to rest; however, because of advances in genetic science and DNA technology, the body was exhumed in 1998 and tested.

Who is the unknown soldier buried? ›

The Meaning

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier serves as a symbolic grave for all war dead whose remains have not been found or identified. The Tomb began with one unknown service member from World War I, and today is the grave of three unidentified service members.

Where were black soldiers buried? ›

Over sixteen-thousand Civil War soldiers are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Among these are many U.S. Colored Troops (the U.S. government designation for African-Americans who served in segregated U.S. Army regiments during the war) buried in sections 27 and 23.

Why is June 24th important? ›

The traditional feast day of the Nativity — or birth — of St. John the Baptist, is honored.

What happened June 24th 1942? ›

June 24, 1942 (Wednesday)

German and Italian forces crossed the border from Libya into Egypt.

What happened on November 24th 1944? ›

November 24, 1944 (Friday)

The Battle of Guilin–Liuzhou during the Second Sino-Japanese War ended in Japanese victory.

What was the deadliest riot in American history? ›

1967 Detroit riot
The Detroit Riot of 1967
Destroyed buildings in Detroit, July 24, 1967.
DateJuly 23–28, 1967
LocationDetroit, Michigan, U.S. 42°22′35″N 83°05′58″W
Caused byPolice raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar.
8 more rows

Where did the worst riot of the 1960s occur and what were some results? ›

Terms in this set (5) Where did the worst riot of the 1960's occur, and what were some of its results? Detroit, 43 deaths and 1,000 wounded, 4,000 fires destroyed 1,300 buildings and 250 million in property loss.

What were some of the outcomes of the race riots of 1919? ›

Because of the rioting, 38 people died (23 African American and 15 white), and another 537 were injured, two-thirds of them African American; African-American Patrolman John W. Simpson was the only policeman killed in the riot. Approximately 1,000 residents were left homeless after the fires.

What was the major cause causes of the Detroit Race Riot of 1943? ›

The riot escalated in the city after a false rumor spread that a mob of whites had thrown a black mother and her baby into the Detroit River. Blacks looted and destroyed white property as retaliation.

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