Correcting a Century-Old Injustice: VA Dedicates New Headstones for 17 Black World War I Soldiers

Department of Veterans AffairsImage via Department of Veterans Affairs

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration (NCA) has taken a significant step toward addressing a long-standing racial injustice. In a February 22nd ceremony at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, the NCA dedicated new headstones for 17 Black World War I soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment. This act symbolically rights a wrong dating back to the racially charged court-martials following the 1917 Houston Riots.

The Houston Riots of 1917 marked one of the darkest periods in U.S. military history. A total of 110 Black soldiers were charged with murder and mutiny. The trials were swift, and the punishment was severe. Seventeen of these soldiers were executed. In accordance with the standard procedure of that era for soldiers sentenced to death in a court-martial, their graves were marked with simple headstones bearing only their names and year of death.

In 2023, the Army reviewed these cases and concluded that the trials were unfair, stating that the soldiers were unjustly treated because of their race. The Secretary of the Army set aside all convictions and directed that the soldiers’ records reflect honorable discharges.

Now, more than a century later, the NCA has provided these soldiers with new headstones that fully honor their service. These include not just their names, but also their state, rank, unit, and date of death. An updated interpretive sign also shares their story, educating the public about the soldiers’ unjust treatment and providing closure for their descendants.

“Today, we right the wrongs of the past and honor the service of these soldiers – who served our country with honor,” said VA Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Matthew Quinn. “We are proud to dedicate new engraved headstones that include these Army soldiers’ ranks, regimental unit, and home states, demonstrating our full commitment to helping correct the injustice of that era.”

This move is part of the VA’s comprehensive work to deliver for all veterans, irrespective of age, race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or geographic location. The VA recently announced its Agency Equity Action Plan, which aims to improve outcomes and eliminate disparities in veteran benefits and health care. The plan also seeks to increase access to VA services, enhance the economic security of all veterans, including historically underserved veteran communities, and learn from veteran communities.

The VA operates 155 national cemeteries and 34 soldiers’ lots and monument sites across the nation. More than five million Americans, including veterans of every war and conflict, are buried in VA cemeteries.

The dedication of new headstones for these Black World War I soldiers is not just a symbolic act. It marks a significant step towards addressing past racial injustices and honoring the sacrifices made by all soldiers, regardless of their race. It serves as a powerful reminder of the need for fairness and justice in all aspects of society, particularly in how we remember and honor those who have served our country.

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