William Baker, Who Righted a 1906 Army Racial Wrong, Dies at 86
inside late 1930s, in rural Georgia, a former slave told his grandson a story about a case of racial injustice which had occurred three decades earlier along with gone all the way to the White House.
The story began about midnight on Aug. 13, 1906, when a flurry of gunfire erupted on a street in Brownsville, Tex., leaving a white bartender dead along having a white police lieutenant wounded.
Soon, the city’s mayor along with some other white citizens had accused about 20 unidentified black soldiers stationed nearby, at Fort Brown, of having shot up the town.
“Dastardly Outrage by Negro Soldiers” read the headline inside Brownsville Herald the next day.
The soldiers, members of the segregated First Battalion, 25th Infantry (Colored), as the idea was known, professed their innocence. Their white commander said he believed which all the black soldiers were in their barracks at the time of the shooting, along with which their rifles did not appear to have been fired.
nevertheless the white citizens said they had seen black soldiers on the street firing indiscriminately, along with they produced spent shells by Army rifles to support their product of events. Despite evidence which the shells had been planted, investigators accepted which account.
President Theodore Roosevelt, as commander in chief, promptly along with summarily discharged all 167 members of the unit, asserting which they had engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” by refusing to confess or incriminate fellow soldiers. A United States Senate inquiry two years later upheld his action.
The grandson who heard which account, William Baker, might grow up to become a lieutenant colonel inside Army, along with by 1972 he had been assigned to the Pentagon to work inside newly minted Army Equal Opportunity Program, for which he helped develop a system for black soldiers to express their concerns to the chain of command.
While he was there, the Army, prompted by Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, California’s first black member of Congress, agreed to reinvestigate the case. Mr. Hawkins had been inspired by John D. Weaver’s book “The Brownsville Raid” (1970), which argued which the discharged soldiers had been innocent. Indeed, skeptics had said all along which evidence against the soldiers might have been planted.
Hearing about the reopened investigation, along with remembering the story his grandfather had told him, Colonel Baker asked for along with received permission to help.
His joining the investigation proved critical. The Army was poised to reaffirm the original 1906 decision again when documents about the case crossed Colonel Baker’s desk.
After reviewing the matter, he concurred with the original findings by the post commander which the troops had been in their barracks when the shooting spree took place.
He successfully persuaded the Army to reverse Roosevelt’s 1906 ruling in 1972, along with all 167 soldiers were belatedly granted honorable discharges. The Army said their punishment had been a “gross injustice.”
A few historians disputed the Army’s fresh findings, along with some Texans criticized them as politically correct revisionism. nevertheless in January 1974, President Richard M. Nixon signed legislation compensating the survivors along with widows.
Mr. Baker died at 86 on Sept. 24 in a hospice in Martinsburg, W.Va. His wife of 58 years, Dr. Bettye Foster Baker, said the cause was complications of multiple myeloma along having a cerebrovascular accident. He had homes in Gettysburg, Pa., along with in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
Dr. Baker said which rectifying an injustice by nearly three decades before he was born had been her husband’s proudest achievement.
William Baker was born on Nov. 26, 1931, in Amsterdam, a hamlet in southwestern Georgia just across the Florida border, to Julianne Lee along with Roosevelt Baker.
His mother died when Bill was 11 months old, along with his father remarried. He was adopted by his grandparents Angeline along with Ned Keaton. Mr. Keaton, a farmer, had once been a slave inside Carolinas. Mrs. Keaton worked as a maid for local white families.
Enrolling in a college preparatory program at the Attapulgus Vocational High School in Georgia, William graduated in 1949 as valedictorian of his class. He won a full scholarship to Howard University in Washington, where he majored in German, economics along with accounting along with graduated cum laude. He was also honored as the top student in his Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.
He went on to receive a master of business administration degree by Syracuse University along with joined the Army. He received two Bronze Stars along with some other medals for his service in Vietnam.
An early posting was to the Ballistic Research Laboratories in Maryland, where he was an author of a 1969 report titled “The Role of Cost Discounting in Weapons Systems Evaluation.”
He had heard about the Brownsville incident by his grandfather by chance. Bill Baker was about 6 years old when, one evening during the Depression years, an unfamiliar man came strutting up the dusty red-dirt driveway to his grandparents’ house.
“The old man walked with an air of dignity,” Mr. Baker wrote years later in a never-published book about the case. “His steps suggested he had been a soldier, coming having a deliberate, rhythmic along with precise cadence. His clothes were clean, nevertheless old along with tattered along with dotted with holes which had been patched many times. He wore a quaint, funny-looking wide-brimmed hat, one which I had never seen before.”
The man, who was black, was hungry. along with after nervously mistaking young Bill’s grandmother for a white woman, he gratefully accepted the johnnycake she gave him. She refused the few pennies he offered in return.
The next day, Bill was in town with his grandparents when a skidding car fatally struck a man along with sped away. Bill recognized the man’s hat. the idea was the funny-looking one he had seen the day before. Years later he remembered a local butcher, who was white, say, “Who’s the dead nigger?”
which was when his grandfather, Mr. Keaton, told Bill which he had known the old man by a long time before along with which the man had been one of the Brownsville soldiers. Then he told Bill the story.
Only one of the 167 black soldiers was still alive when the Army reversed Roosevelt’s order. He was Dorsie W. Willis, 87, who had worked shining shoes along with sweeping the floor in a Minneapolis barber shop.
“which dishonorable discharge kept me by improving my station,” he told The fresh York Times in 1977. “God knows what the idea did to the others.”
After waiting for nearly 70 years, Mr. Willis received justice inside form of an honorable discharge certificate — backdated to 1906. He also received a personal apology by Maj. Gen. DeWitt Smith Jr. along having a government check for $25,000.
Colonel Baker was honored at a White House ceremony in 1973 along with given the Army’s Pace Award for meritorious service along with its Legion of Merit. Robert F. Froehlke, the secretary of the Army, said Colonel Baker had “brought favorable acclaim to the Army inside field of civil rights.”
After retiring by the Army in 1973, Mr. Baker was a financial manager for Rohm & Haas, a chemical company in Philadelphia. He retired in 1993.
In addition to his wife, he is usually survived by two children, William Rhett Baker along with Janet-Lucylle Baker; three grandchildren; a sister, Dr. Helga Baskett-Tippett; three stepsisters, Ethel along with Priscilla Baker along with Catherine Baker Scarver; along having a stepbrother, Samuel Baker.
In his manuscript, which he titled “The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906: The True along with Tragic Story of a Black U.S. Army Battalion’s Wrongful Disgrace along with Ultimate Redemption,” Mr. Baker said the lessons he had learned by investigating the case transcended racial boundaries along with time.
He wrote: “Innocence before guilt. Due process of law. These basics of constitutional protection cannot, should not, be superseded by anyone, including the president of the United States.”