John D. Weaver discusses his book "The Brownsville Raid"
BROADCAST: Apr. 6, 1971 | DURATION: 00:51:31
Events not recorded in history books is what prompted John D. Weaver to write "The Brownsville Raid: The Story of America's Black Dreyfus Affair". Weaver had heard the story of Black Army soldiers causing a raucous, when they were actually set up. Without even being granted a trial, President Theodore Roosevelt, dismissed those soldiers from the United States Army, Weaver explained.
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Black Singer [content removed, see catalog record]
Studs Terkel I was thinking, listening to this phrase from this freedom song of the '60s, how applicable it is to an event of 1906 and the nature of history, of buried history. John D. Weaver is guest this morning, and you heard the very fragment of the song, Mr. Weaver. Mr. Weaver's book is called "The Brownsville Raid: The Story of America's Black Dreyfus Affair", published by Norton, and in hearing this song, that which you wrote about comes right into play, doesn't it? 1906.
John D. Weaver 1906. It sent shivers up my spine because the Zola of this Black Dreyfus case was a conservative senator from Ohio and in the peroration of his great speech in defense of these Black soldiers, he ended the speech with the words "They ask no favors because they are Negroes, but only for justice, because they are men."
Studs Terkel Before we go into the book itself, a matter of Senator Foraker, a very unusual man and the incredible, one of the incredible central figures of the piece, T.R., Teddy Roosevelt, and the nature of history's overwhelming kindness to him and the elimination of other facts. We've got to talk about this case, Brownsville Raid. It's an event that you heard about by accident. It was in 1906. Suppose we start in the beginning.
John D. Weaver With the event, or how I came to stumble onto
Studs Terkel Well, something happened.
John D. Weaver It something ha--it was a hot summer night in 1906 in a Mexican border town of Brownsville. There was an old Mexican war fort there; for two weeks three companies of Black soldiers had been stationed there over the opposition of the white townspeople on--their behavior had been exemplary. There had been no violence except for a couple of incidents where townspeople attacked soldiers. But then on a Sunday night, a woman yelled, a white woman yells "Rape!" Charges a Black man had attempted to attack her. The next night shots ring out at midnight. The soldiers assume that a mob of white people are attacking the fort. The townspeople assume that these Black soldiers have jumped the wall and are shooting up the town. And this little incident is like a pebble in a lake. From this circle, spraying larger and larger circles until it engulfed the entire nation, two presidents, the military bureaucracy and marked a watershed in the development of Black power.
Studs Terkel And this, of course, is not recorded at all in traditional history books, this is the part we don't know about this, we didn't know about it 'til Mr. Weaver's book, this book we're talking about, "The Brownsville Raid". How did you happen to find out about it?
John D. Weaver My mother--my father was a court reporter, and he covered many things. Buddy Mitchell's court martial and various things, and I grew up hearing Mother talk about a trip that she and Dad made to Brownsville, Texas when she was a bride. One day about three years ago she mentioned Brownsville, and I said, "By the way, Mother, what was it that took you to Brownsville?" "Oh," she said, "Some Black soldiers shot up the town and Teddy Roosevelt kicked them out of the army." So I said, "Well, did Dad go down to report their trial?" She said, "Oh, they didn't have any trial, he just kicked them out." I said, "Mother, not even the president can go around kicking people out of the army." She said, "Oh, Teddy Roosevelt did." Well, when I got home to Los Angeles, I went to the library, I found the official records of this affair, and discovered that Mother was quite right. He had indeed kicked them out without a trial of any kind.
Studs Terkel And so now we come to, this led then to your--
John D. Weaver I thought it'd be interesting to do a magazine article on what provoked these Black soldiers to violence. What never occurred to me was that men might have been framed. As I got into the records, I discovered that two generations of historians had let this incident lie. They had never gone back and really examined those records, because you couldn't spend two days with the records and not begin to suspect a frame-up. And then I spent two years with the records.
Studs Terkel So this is the story.
John D. Weaver This is the story.
Studs Terkel So what happened here, this is again, we speak of more and more, some young historians called revisionists, they want to revise it in the, on to the road of truth, of fact, you see. This is what Black people talk about, all sorts of [ignored?] people, the un--the buried history that now and then is someone's, old person tells someone else about it, but not in the books.
John D. Weaver Right.
Studs Terkel So schoolchildren don't know about this.
John D. Weaver Right. And, so, this material has been in every college library, in every major public library for 65 years. It sat there.
Studs Terkel Here is the event, the event, and you recount it. And by the way, the book is almost like a suspense story. It begins, you tell about the situation, the racism of the town, that Texas mystery that sprang out of the night and baffled the country for years, died unsolved, the trouble in Brownsville. You describe the soldiers, and now here's something funny. They are the opposite of Black militants. These were soldiers who wanted to serve the country and of course, to me their silence; you know, their obedience. It was absolutely incredible.
John D. Weaver And dignity. When these soldiers were summarily dismissed without any sort of hearing, what happened was Roosevelt sent a southern inspector general to try to prove that the soldiers did it. He asked the soldiers, he gave them a 24-hour ultimatum, either they produce the culprits or everyone would be kicked out of the army.
Studs Terkel Well, this inspector general was interesting
John D. Weaver He was an interesting cat because when he went down there, he was later asked, he said, "Did you take any steps to determine whether the soldiers might be innocent?" And he said, "The thought never crossed my mind." You
Studs Terkel His mind was made up and he's a southern gentleman.
John D. Weaver Right. But when the soldiers were booted out of the army, they had been moved to Oklahoma and they had been kept in a camp for weeks without any liberty, they had never been out of this compound and they were finally released from the army in dishonor, but with cash in their pockets, from $100 to $1500, $2000, they went into that town for the first time, and they are free now, and not one of them was arrested for drunkenness, for disorder, there was not one incident, they left in very quiet dignity.
Studs Terkel Well, the thing, dignity is the word, but some would say the incredible patience and acceptance, this is absolutely incre--so this is a question here. This is--it began. Obviously the town was anti the Black soldiers. They had served--by the way, we had a little background, some of them had served with the then President Teddy Roosevelt, we know what helped him be elected was his celebrated charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, and they--a certain number of them I understand served with him.
John D. Weaver Yes, as a matter of fact, that these, this Black regiment, the 25th Infantry, was the first outfit called up for the Spanish-American War. Now, this is, to me, is the classic example of Jim Crow history. Every child for two generations, Black and white, has grown up knowing about Teddy Roosevelt charging up that hill, but not about the Black soldiers that got him up to the top of the hill at the very bloody battle of El Caney.
Studs Terkel Because Chicago at that time had that marvelous columnist, Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley, and he did the satire, and now and then from someone like him a little truth, he's alone in Cuba, that is, T.R., bullyboy did it all by himself.
John D. Weaver Roosevelt wrote his own account of the Spanish-American War in which he was indeed the central figure in a book called "The Rough Riders", and in his review of it, Mr. Dooley said the book should have been called "Alone in Cuba".
Studs Terkel But before he, before Roosevelt enters this picture, Teddy Roosevelt and his incredible behavior, as well as this remarkable figure, a very conservative representing big companies, Senator Foraker of Ohio, the two central figures in the battle, in the country, yet the deep central figures were the Black soldiers and the white townspeople. Describe the town itself, this is interesting, Brownsville, Texas at that time.
John D. Weaver It was a grubby little border town, population six or eight thousand, mostly Mexican- Americans with a white Anglo power structure at the top. Very few Black families, possibly six or eight at the most. When the soldiers arrived, they were subjected to a Jim Crow society which was unusual to them, they had been up in Nebraska where there was no segregation. Two enterprising Black soldiers opened their own bar, and this drained the thirst from the town's saloons and I'm convinced that the raid was staged by saloon keepers because they had lost this trade. They had--
Studs Terkel A guy named Crixell.
John D. Weaver Joe
Studs Terkel Crixell.
John D. Weaver Crixell. And so when this white woman yelled "Rape," the townspeople, there was a lynch mood in the town, and the soldiers were brought into the fort with a curfew the following evening to protect them from the townspeople. Now when the shots occurred, the townspeople accused the soldiers of shooting up the town. A party of 10 or 15 raiders went through the town on a 10-minute shooting spree, killed one man, wounded a police officer, and when the townspeople made their accusation, the War Department went along with them. Every soldier signed an affidavit proclaiming his innocence, but the War Department sent a telegram to the commanding officer at Fort Brown saying, "Can you restrain your men from further violence?" The words "further violence" convicted the men immediately.
Studs Terkel "When did you last beat your wife?"
Studs Terkel "Further
John D. Weaver "Have you stopped beating your wife?"
Studs Terkel "Have you stopped beating your wife?" "Further violence," and it's rather interesting what the War Department--we think about cases today. Court-martial cases. There was nothing here. Their word was accepted. Now, you describe the various witnesses, by the way, you did, John Weaver, guest, and he did a marvelous job of investigative reporting here. Journalism. The various witnesses are incre--by the way, the Mexican, one of the sad aspects is the Mexican-Americans were anti-Black.
John D. Weaver They were. Prejudice feeds on prejudice, as you know. And what happened there was an interesting thing. This was a town where the leading townspeople as witnesses, they all come leaping out of those official records when you blow the dust off, they come out and you see them and you hear them. Here is their testimony. Now, one of the witnesses was a white government official who had pistol-whipped a Black soldier allegedly for jostling some white ladies. So, on a public street. So, this white man is asked why he took the law in his own hands. Said, "Do you have a police force in Brownsville?" He said, "Yes, we do." Then the question was put to him, "Is it a good police force?" He said, "I don't know. They're Mexican."
Studs Terkel So there's the prejudice toward the
John D. Weaver Right.
Studs Terkel And then as a result, this man, this Mexican policeman who was abused by the Anglos figures he can abuse the
John D. Weaver Right. Yes. That's exactly
Studs Terkel And so this is the town, the various testimony offered by the saloon keepers. The mayor didn't quite know--and also the ranger. John Wayne enters the picture. Captain Bill McDonald, the Texas Ranger.
John D. Weaver He was a great, great clown and became sort of a mythical figure in Texas, and so much of Texas history I have discovered my own research is done that should be labeled fiction, and he is a, I thought was a great, great clown.
Studs Terkel But, he was terrifying figure,
John D. Weaver A terrifying figure, yes, because he represented the cattlemen of Texas. This is what the Texas Rangers always was, it was a vigilante group to protect the interests of white cattlemen.
Studs Terkel He was for the shooting up of the--
John D. Weaver Oh, yes, he wanted to get those Black hellions and put them in jail,
Studs Terkel And yet we hear, on this, by the way, this book is to me revelatory in so many ways and it has implications for today, too, we hear talk about the press, liberal press in America today, and of course it becomes something of a joke, too, because you start thinking about the press in almost all these towns today, I think of "The Brownsville Herald" and the role it played.
John D. Weaver Oh, yes. Well, they were--their news stories were inflammatory, practically called for a lynching. They preached, advocated violence. And oddly enough, the so-called muckrakers of the period, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and so on, none of them ever bothered with the Brownsville
Studs Terkel That is amazing. Did they--
John D. Weaver It
Studs Terkel It would seem like someone like Lincoln Steffens with his, you know, glorious record, Ida Tarbell or Ray Stannard
John D. Weaver Yes, or Stef--they were all, they were all cronies of Teddy Roosevelt, and they just left this incident alone.
Studs Terkel By the way, we have to touch on this. This is interesting. Here's this paradox. Teddy Roosevelt built a reputation as a populist to some extent, the "bull moose" figure, fighting the trusts. And since these very excellent journalists were fighting the trusts, whether it's Ida Tarbell and Standard Oil and Lincoln Steffens and corruption in high places generally, they saw Roosevelt as an ally.
John D. Weaver Yes. Well, I think there was a very interesting historic confrontation between Roosevelt and Foraker, and we'd better get into, explain because on this business about the trusts because this came up at that famous Gridiron Club dinner. When Roosevelt dismissed these soldiers.
Studs Terkel We'd better just keep this straight all the way, it's Teddy Roosevelt we're
John D. Weaver Teddy Roosevelt, right. Nineteen
Studs Terkel Nineteen six is the year.
John D. Weaver Right. When Teddy Roosevelt in November of 1906 dismissed the soldiers, he did it under very cynical circumstances. He signed the dismissal order on Monday, November 5th. He held it on his desk for 24 hours because Tuesday, November 6th was Election Day, and his son-in-law, Nick Longworth, was running for reelection in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he had a very large Black constituency. If Roosevelt had released that order dismissing these three companies of Black soldiers, if there had been any serious defection of Black voters in his son-in-law's district, as indeed there would have been, his son-in-law would have been defeated. So Roosevelt cynically held that order on his desk for 24 hours to protect his son-in-law's seat in Congress. When the order came out, there was an uproar from the Black pulpits, the Black press, and someone said that Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, had done what no Black leader had ever been able to do, he had united the Black people of America. Then a conservative white senator from Ohio, Senator Joseph Benson Foraker, a big business Senator, very wealthy man sitting in a yellow brick mansion a few blocks from the White House, not interested in the case. And he was a constitutional lawyer, and he began to study it. He hired a Black lawyer, sent him to Brownsville to make his own investigation, Foraker paid for this himself. He began to gather evidence that the soldiers were innocent. Now his wife, Mrs. Foraker, would hear her husband sitting there with these papers, said, "But this isn't true, this man is lying, because this witness is, said so-and-so." And Foraker became obsessed with the case. Now, this became an interesting thing. He became the Zola of the Black Dreyfus case.
Studs Terkel What's amazing about Foraker, again we have a certain ambivalence and ambiguity in American life that's here almost so dramatic in the case of Foraker. He represented big business, too, as a--and Roosevelt, seemingly Teddy the enemy of the trusts, Foraker, friend of the trusts, suddenly is defending, he thinks, he is convinced, innocent Black soldiers who are cashiered out of the army in the manner of Dreyfus.
John D. Weaver Right.
Studs Terkel And so you have this split here, don't
John D. Weaver Well, that's an interesting thing. You see, Foraker had the very simple notion that I wish we could get across to some of our people today, that he was a constitutional scholar, Foraker, and he had this simple notion that if the system was to work for Standard Oil, it had also to work for these anonymous Black soldiers, because if it didn't work for them, it would never work for Standard Oil, either. And Teddy Roosevelt was not trained in the law and Foraker was, and this was part of a great constitutional debate. Now they met by chance at a dinner party given by the Gridiron Club, and this is where Roosevelt on the trustbusting made a very revealing speech. He was somewhat in wine, he had drunk about a quarter sauterne, I think, that night, but in his speech Roosevelt said, to big business, and they were all sitting there at the table. There was John P. Morgan and various big business representatives, and Roosevelt said, "Either you accept my minor reforms, or more serious reforms will be forced on you." In other words, he was holding off
Studs Terkel Indeed there was a deal, here was the
John D. Weaver Right.
Studs Terkel But this, that Gridiron dinner that is recounted so vividly, too, by John Weaver, my guest, tells us so much about feelings toward--the racism that was there and in such high places. So deep. So deep, you know, at the Gridiron dinner itself, you know. "The Brownsville Herald", the paper, I mean this poem they had, that incredible poem.
John D. Weaver Oh.
Studs Terkel And--
John D. Weaver It grabs you, doesn't it?
Studs Terkel The continuous lies, too, the absolute hysteria that the publisher and the [town?]--
John D. Weaver Oh--
John D. Weaver It's all part of such a deep-seated racism, and it will come--as so it will read, it's such a familiar story to so many of us today. For example, Roosevelt insisted from the beginning that his treatment of these Black soldiers, who were dismissed by a stroke of the pen, no public hearing, no assistance of counsel, none of the constitutional guarantees, Roosevelt said, "I would have treated them just the same if they'd been white soldiers," and to prove it, he ordered the War Department to court-martial two of the white officers, but the two white officers were given a trial. They were, appeared in a public place with the assistance of counsel--
John D. Weaver Major Penrose and Captain Macklin, and both white officers were acquitted by a jury of fellow officers who went out of their way to say that these white officers are innocent, but the soldiers are guilty, and the soldiers were not even on trial. But they were pronounced guilty by this court-martial.
Studs Terkel This is incredible.
John D. Weaver It's
Studs Terkel Although those two officers--
John D. Weaver Outrageous.
Studs Terkel Were maintaining the innocence of their men.
John D. Weaver Yes.
Studs Terkel You know. They were found innocent.
John D. Weaver Right.
Studs Terkel But their men were found guilty. By the way, the manner in which they were found guilty. Attempts were made to have men inform on one another, and since no one had anything to say, therefore, they're all guilty, because none were, see, none were, no single one was guilty, therefore all were guilty.
John D. Weaver Right. It was like the old Turkish thing, if a crime was committed you cut off the heads of the first 50 men you find, because maybe you'll get the guilty one by doing that. It was--it--the violence. This is not just another story of violence in our past between Blacks and white. The violence here is the violence to our system. This is what, and this massive confrontation between the president, the Senate, on a great constitutional issue.
Studs Terkel We come to this matter that, an astonishingly contemporary aspect of it is the bugging of Senator Foraker. We'll come--in a minute. I was just thinking about, it was not too long after Captain Dreyfus in Paris, after Devil's Island, finally was vindicated. Not too long after the Dreyfus case, was
John D. Weaver No, it was just a few weeks.
Studs Terkel And, thus, here's an extension of it now.
John D. Weaver Right.
Studs Terkel But without the vindication. At the opposite, and so, in a sense, Foraker became somewhat like John Peter Altgeld when he pardoned the Haymarket survivors.
John D. Weaver Yes, yes, very much. Very much,
Studs Terkel Did that ruin his, did he have a career ahead of him, or was near the end of his?
John D. Weaver Foraker still nursed, I think, some lingering ambition for the presidency, although he had been pushed aside in earlier, but what he didn't want to do, I think, in the 1908 campaign was to dictate the choice, and the choice was not Taft. Foraker and Taft both came from Cincinnati. And so there was a political motivation in Foraker when he first took up the case, but as he got into it, then he became obsessed, because this was a fight for justice.
Studs Terkel See, now there's several dimensions to this story, the Brownsville Raid and its implications nationally as told by John D. Weaver, and one is as you say, the coalescence of Black people, even though these soldiers were submissive it would seem, incredibly obedient to the obvious injustice administered to them, it did unite and it, for the first time, threatened Black votes taking away from the Republican column.
John D. Weaver Right.
Studs Terkel See, so this is something that preceded FDR, then. We think that the tremendous flow of Black votes to the Democratic column began with the New Deal administration of FDR. Indeed it did. But you're saying there was a seed of it.
John D. Weaver What I'm saying is that it was Teddy Roosevelt's actions with these Brownsville soldiers that triggered this glacial shift of the Black vote from Republican to the Democratic column. What it did, it widened the chasm between the forces of Booker T. Washington and those of W. E. B. Du Bois. Now, Washington deplored Roosevelt's action, but he said, "We must remain loyal to him because he has done so much for us." Du Bois took the other attitude. He said, "Both parties are racist, but the Republican racists have taken us for granted too long, and in the end, our hope is with them because they will give us jobs instead of a few token appointments," where you'd have a few highly visible Blacks in high positions and then millions of Blacks who
Studs Terkel Several things are happening at the same time. There was bureaucratic dishonesty, dishonesty in a high place, the injustice done to those down below. At the same time in as far as Black thought is concerned, the big conflict after the Niagara convention between Booker T. Washington, who spoke of the Blacks doing trades, hewers of water in a sense, you know, drawers of water and hewers of wood, whereas Du Bois was saying, "Professions, art, everything," and this battle is going on at the same time as the other, so this is wheels within wheels work, work here.
John D. Weaver Oh yes, and because, you see, when Roosevelt issued the order, it was carried out by his Secretary of War and handpicked successor for the presidency, William Howard Taft. Now when Taft ran for president just two years after these Black soldiers were dismissed because of the Brownsville incident, there was a, Brownsville was a central issue in the campaign and because of Brownsville, more Blacks voted against Taft than had ever voted against a Republican presidential nominee. It was beginning, you see, of Black power and of this shift.
Studs Terkel So coming back to us, we're really talking about what Mr. Weaver has written about and what we're talking right now, we're recreating in a sense, you're recreating a history that was buried, and this, in a sense, is a lesson in history, right this very moment--
Studs Terkel As we're talking, you see. And none of the historians covered this event. I asked you this question again and again because this is the astonishing aspect of why people ask for new studies, you know.
John D. Weaver Well, you know what happens with history, because you go out and collect living history yourself. I could not believe what I found when I went to Texas. Walter Prescott Webb is one of the most distinguished American historians. He is a figure revered among Texans. He wrote a book on the Texas Rangers that had two chapters on this Brownsville Raid. Every word of those two chapters was taken from one book that was published in 1908, and Webb was writing in 1930-something, and he did--he had the official records of the Brownsville Affair within a thousand yards of his office. He never consulted one volume, and this is one of the most distinguished historians in the country.
Studs Terkel There it is. And Albert Bigelow Paine,
John D. Weaver too. Yes. And the book he consulted was Albert Bigelow's book on Bill McDonald, which a child would find absurd.
Studs Terkel By, Bill McDonald is a clown, brutish figure, it's hard to describe him. He's a--frightening, because he's a clown and yet could--indeed, was an irresponsible killer, could very easily be, you see.
John D. Weaver This was the Bull Connor of his
Studs Terkel He was the Bull Connor. He was honored by two distinguished historians.
John D. Weaver Yes. Yes. My respect for professional historians has dwindled somewhat because of this.
Studs Terkel Well, you're making great discoveries, aren't you? This is why so many of the young historians today are so passionately indignant--
John D. Weaver What I hope is, that this book will be used in Black study program and it will spur other, it will spur young Black scholars to go into these nooks and crannies of our Jim Crow history and dig out other incidents like
Studs Terkel What was the attitude of the big city papers now, of the nationally known papers? 'Cause you were doing, you were digging into--
John D. Weaver Well, the southern papers, as you would expect, were "This is what happens when you put Black men in uniform and give them guns and bring them into white communities, that there should be no Black soldiers at all." Some of the northern papers, including "The New York Times", "The New York Times" said they were not at all sure we should have Black soldiers, but if we did have Black soldiers, they should not be sent to our southern states.
Studs Terkel But the idea of sending an investigative reporter down there never
John D. Weaver Never occurred to them.
Studs Terkel Today is somewhat different.
Studs Terkel But the fact that here was a continued, you know, "All the news fit to print," this news was not quite fit
Studs Terkel So we come to the--well, there was no hearing, and there was a court martial of the officers. And yet there were tests. You deal at length with the actual people, the townspeople of the community as well as members of the Black troops in the garrison, and the testimony is incredible, how they were, each was contradicting one or the other, and how they could see in the darkness.
John D. Weaver Oh, that's, well, the towns, they were obviously, of course, lying in their teeth, but what happens is, when you have--are an eyewitness, and you've told a story 100 times, it gains in each telling, and you will become more and more certain that this is what the truth is. Now the physical evidence that the soldiers, that the War Department used to convict the soldiers, was, again, a fascinating thing. Every time the War Department would find some evidence that they thought proved the men guilty, the evidence turned out to prove that they were, indeed, innocent. There were spent shells found in the town. The shells were fired by an army rifle. The War Department said this proves that the men did it because the civilians in the town did not have this particular rifle and no other rifle could have fired those shells. But some of those shells were fired by a rifle that was in a locked box in a locked storeroom on the night of the shooting. That rifle was not fired in Brownsville that night, but shells from that rifle were found in the street next morning. They were obviously planted there.
Studs Terkel Incredible. The [Wittgenstein?] tests were interesting. You're talking about tests that took place here that completely knocked out the idea of veracity of the town's witnesses for a loop.
John D. Weaver Oh, eyewitnesses, even well-meaning eyewitnesses, as you know, are so undependable. My mother, for example. She went to Brownsville with my father to cover this court of inquiry in 1909. Now, she has told this story for 60-odd years. And after I had been to Brownsville and to do the research there for this book, I asked my mother one day, I said, "By the way, Mother, how long were you and Dad in Brownsville?" She said, "Oh, several months," she said, "Most of one fall, I guess, from before Thanksgiving 'til after Christmas." I said, "Well, actually there one weekend you arrived on the noon train on Friday and left Tuesday afternoon." And she said, "But that's impossible." I said, "Mother, it was in the paper." Said, "It's impossible." But you see in her mind over the 60 years, that weekend had become three months.
Studs Terkel Of course. But something else involving your mother. And this is the point. You found out about this accidentally because your mother now and then made a casual comment about T.R. kicking out those soldiers who fired on the townspeople. She accepted the myth all these years.
John D. Weaver All these years,
John D. Weaver Right. Of course. Yes.
Studs Terkel What are her reactions, this is, what are her reactions now that her son has done this book?
John D. Weaver This is very funny. I'll probably--she watched a television interview with me on it, she got through and she listened to the interview and she said, "Well, it's very nice, John," but she said, "I still think they did it."
Studs Terkel Well, this is the point you make in the book with some of the witnesses, too, that this conditioning through the years, through lifetimes, you know, of some people by nature are violent, some people are innocent by nature, or was guilty by hearing the voices they heard. "How did you know it was a Black voice?" "I could tell. It was coarse."
John D. Weaver Yeah. That's right. Yeah.
Studs Terkel It was coarse, you know. Or afraid--"I could tell," they could tell. Or seeing. That's another thing. How they saw in the darkness is quite remarkable. But coming back to, and also for many of the witnesses, their lives are drab and dull, suddenly they become celebrated.
John D. Weaver Celebrities. One of them, a very attractive widow, comes to Washington in a skin-tight dress and a big flouncy hat. And she was very positive she saw all sorts of things, except for one little difficulty she had neglected to mention: an orange tree that obstructed her vision. It was physically impossible for her to stand in the room and see what she said she saw at the barracks. She just hadn't mentioned the fact that it was an orange tree in between that room and the barrack.
Studs Terkel But for the rest of her life she was celebrated and to strangers told the story she believed something. But now we come to the respectables high up, to the Senate committees and all, and the role they played in this, you know.
John D. Weaver This is an interesting thing because if you can find this incident mentioned anywhere in our history books, what you're likely to find is that the soldiers, provoked by the ill treatment of the townspeople, leaped the wall and shot up the town and that Roosevelt dismissed them without honor administratively and that then there was a long Senate hearing and Roosevelt's action was upheld by this Senate Military Affairs Committee after lengthy hearing. This is what you will find. What you will not be told is the composition of this Senate committee, because five of the Senate committee members were white southern white supremacist Democrats. They were convinced of the soldiers' guilt from the first word, they never listened to a word of testimony, and nothing would have affected their decision. That's five votes. Four votes, one was Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt's closest friend. Another was
John D. Weaver Yes. Another was the chairman of the committee who had made Wyoming a branch of the War Department, and he didn't want to stop those federal funds coming into Wyoming, so that's two sure votes, and then you had two old Republican stalwarts.
Studs Terkel And you had DuPont, too, didn't
John D. Weaver DuPont. Now the miracle was, that four Republican senators voted against their president, against their administration, in favor of these Black soldiers. And that is not in any of the history books, I've never seen it printed.
Studs Terkel So we come to Teddy Roosevelt and history's treatment of him. And this is left out and his behavior here is actually incredible throughout here. By this time he was practically convinced they were innocent, but he would not under any circumstances reconsider it.
John D. Weaver Never. Never. He never admitted any wrongdoing. Now, the soldier that came to represent, to symbolize the monstrous nature of this injustice was a first sergeant named Mingo Sanders. He's first sergeant of Company B. Mingo Sanders had fought in Cuba with Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, had actually shared, literally shared his hard tack with Roosevelt one night in Cuba. Mingo Sanders had no motive for violence, certainly no motive for helping cover up the crime. He was dismissed along with everyone else. This was a man who was within two years of retirement on three force pay. He was dishonored, his military career, a distinguished career of 26 years was abruptly ended, and he was robbed of his retirement benefits. He retained only one right: the right to be buried in a government grave. And this is the only thing the bureaucracy left him. Now, Roosevelt got very uptight about the press singling out Mingo Sanders, and one editorial said that he was probably, had a more distinguished record in Cuba than Roosevelt, which may be true. Roosevelt just before he left the presidency, the last thing he did was to write a letter to the War Department saying that "Mingo Sanders is the blackest villain of them all, under no circumstances should he ever wear the uniform of the United States army again." Now, this is so clearly a transference of guilt. The man that Roosevelt has most grievously wronged must be the man who is most wicked, because otherwise Roosevelt is wicked and wrong, and that he couldn't face.
Studs Terkel And I'm thinking about the irony of it all is that it was this much overly-publicized event. His charge up San Juan Hill, a tough guy who once was a weak child did it, as though he--helped elect him, you know, to a vice presidency and then to the presidency, you know, helped do this, whereas the guys who did it, including Mingo Sanders,
John D. Weaver Yes. And it completely vanished from history. You know, the two things that everybody, that we all know about Roosevelt is that charge up San Juan Hill and he invited Booker T. Washington to dinner. But the other two things we don't know is first about the Black soldiers at the top of the hill and then on the Booker T. Washington invitation, there was such an uproar after that incident, and Roosevelt said, "I will invite whomever I please to dinner." Now, Roosevelt was in the White House seven more years, and he never sat down to the table with another Black guest, not once in seven years. When Booker T. Washington came to the White House, he came between meals.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of now of Senator Foraker, this very fascinating figure, heroic figure in this instance certainly, and we hear a lot about army surveillance today, 1971, now we hear something was happening to the mail of Senator Foraker at this time in 1906.
John D. Weaver Well, his mail was steamed open, sealed back up. There were gumshoes hanging outside the door when his daughter would go to a dance, there would be a secret service man hiding behind the potted palms watching her. He was threatened. He was boycotted in the Senate cloakroom and he was also bribed. Roosevelt sent a fellow senator to see Foraker one night and offered him any position he wanted in government, wanted to be ambassador to anywhere, fine, he could have it if he would only drop the defense of these soldiers. And Foraker said "No."
Studs Terkel So Foraker's credo was a very simple one, then it was just being a constitutional lawyer, he believed in it.
John D. Weaver Yes.
Studs Terkel And that was his mistake.
John D. Weaver That was--well, I think he took the only course that a man of, with his knowledge and integrity could take.
Studs Terkel So what was also revelatory to me are some of the figures familiar in our time who will enter now. This is Teddy Roosevelt we're talking about in 1906, his buddy Henry Cabot Lodge and the others and the southern senators as well as William Howard Taft, but we come to a young--well, this time a new congressman is out of the picture, it was Cactus Jack Garner, another county heard from, he too is convinced of the guilt
John D. Weaver Oh yes, well, he represented that, Brownsville was in his constituency. Another interesting figure that came in was a young lawyer from out of the West, William E. Borah, freshman senator, and he made a speech defending the administration at one point.
Studs Terkel What you're doing is revealing so many things, john Weaver, were thinking of William Borah, somehow we think of Borah as a conservative but independent. We think of William E. Borah of Idaho who was almost Secretary of State, or wanted to be at least asked to be so he could turn it down perhaps, but Borah the eloquent independent, far from independent.
John D. Weaver Oh, no. He was the administration's stooge in this thing.
Studs Terkel Roosevelt called him, said, "You're a good boy."
John D. Weaver Right.
Studs Terkel And he was challenging Foraker--
John D. Weaver Right.
Studs Terkel On the floor. So again we have history not fully recorded, isn't it?
John D. Weaver Yes. I just wonder how many other incidents there are. I've run across several myself and I know that books and magazine articles are being written on aspects that have never been touched before. This instance, for example, I searched the literature and in the last 50 years nothing had been printed anywhere on this incident except two learned in articles, one on just a rewrite of a master's thesis in '56 in "The Journal of Negro History" and then another one.
Studs Terkel Now something's happened--by the way, as a result of your book, this is at least there's some hope here, whatever it doesn't do any good to the 170 soldiers that were cashiered, most of whom I assume now are dead because of the time but the congressman from California, Congressman Augustus Hawkins, has now inserted a lot of your book in the Congressional Record, and he's offered what, a resolution.
John D. Weaver He's introduced a bill into the Congress directing the Secretary of Defense to rescind the order dismissing these men and in fact clear their military record. This is a way of tidying up history, and there's a little irony there. History, as you know, is fraught with these charming little ironies, it's one of the things that makes history amusing to read or to write. Just before Congressman Hawkins introduced this bill to clear the records of the Brownsville soldiers, Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia introduced a bill to grant full citizenship to General Robert E. Lee posthumously, because it seems that after the Civil War General Lee didn't fill out the proper forms or something, so he was never given full citizenship. So I would assume that Senator Byrd and his distinguished colleagues, following this line that now is the time to clean up our history, would have to do justice to the Black soldiers along with General Lee. And I find that very appropriate.
Studs Terkel It is. Well, has anything been done?
John D. Weaver The--both bills have been referred to committee and I talked with some of the members of the Black caucus when I was in there and also several white congressmen that I know personally, and they were all very much in favor of it. It's a curious thing. When I went to Ohio to do research in the Foraker papers, and I sat there and I had a cold and a temperature of 104 , I sat there and I started going through these papers, I could feel the restless presence of this old man, and that this case was not finished and he went to his death bemoaning the fact that no one spoke any more for these soldiers, the case had been forgotten, that he was the only one who knew about it or cared about it--
Studs Terkel This is who, Foraker, you mean.
John D. Weaver Foraker. And I thought that all these years later, this work had to be completed. This was a bill that he wanted to get through the Senate.
Studs Terkel Foraker is certainly a very dramatic--this could make a powerful play.
John D. Weaver A play or film, I can see a marvelous movie in it.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about, coming back to, suppose they are vindicated. The pensions were denied and no doubt many of them died penniless, broke, in spirit as well as in pocketbook. They have descendants, don't they? I mean, it would seem to me, wouldn't their descendants be entitled to so much of this back pay, pensions?
John D. Weaver I would think so. I would think so. I think this might open up a very interesting case. The widow of one of the soldiers I understand is still alive in Georgia. I just found this out the other day and I hope to get down to see her this spring.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about this, John D. Weaver, history you said this is one incident that you accidentally discovered thanks to your mother remembering and today is still convinced of their guilt after watching you on TV.
John D. Weaver And after reading the book!
Studs Terkel I was thinking, a friend of mine is working on something involving a World War II event buried, and it's called "The Port Chicago Mutiny", involving Black soldiers loading some dynamite ships unguarded, many were killed as a result of the lack of safety devices and there was a rebellion. There was challenge to it and many of them have been spending, are still in prison, and no one knows, so I'm just curious how many such events have happened, have been covered.
John D. Weaver I have no idea. I suspect--I know of one. There's the famous case of Lieutenant Flipper, he was the first Black graduate of West Point who was court-martialed on one charge, found guilty, and found innocent of the charge in which he was court-martialed, but dismissed for conduct unbecoming an officer because he had gone riding one day with a white woman.
Studs Terkel The case is, of course. This again, this is a question of digging into and see, one of the tragic aspects is the people who know the stories, you know, many of them will have died, in so many of these events have died. And, so, I guess that's the job for oral historians today--
John D. Weaver Yes. Yes. And you have to dig through records, you have to find--I--there are old scrapbooks lying around, letters.
Studs Terkel And, so, it's going now. Where did you go? It's a question of also knowing and now digging into the files, libraries and historical societies.
John D. Weaver The official records on Brownsville you could find in any library, the Senate hearings and the court of inquiry hearing. The other material, manuscript material I found in the Library of Congress and in Texas and in Ohio. But I went to Howard University after the book came out, and I talked with Mrs. Dorothy Porter, who is probably the leading Black bibliographer in the United States. And we're sitting in her office in the library there at Howard and she said, "Look, there are the records," and she pointed right to them, she said, "Students here have never been interested in them," said "I've often wondered why." And I did, too. But she said maybe--she thought the book would be very helpful to her because maybe this would encourage students to look around, see what else is lying around.
Studs Terkel So there are all these lodes, these mother lodes around and about, discover something about ourselves and history. Ronnie Dugger, by the way, who is the editor of "The Texas Observer", is quite an unconventional Texan, or in the best sense Texan, as John Henry Faulk is, and son [Jay? J.?] Frank Dobie became. He reviewed your book and he spoke of this particular aspect of it,
John D. Weaver Yes, yes he did. Well, historians rewrite each other's stuff, and in the rewriting it loses each time, and in this case, for example, one of the things that you find most often, is very distinguished historians say that the soldiers were dishonorably discharged. Now this indicates immediately that whoever says that did not spend five minutes with the records, because you could not dishonorably discharge a man with a stroke of the pen. That requires a trial. The discharge without honor is one of these little bureaucratic administrative devices that Roosevelt used. Well, just simply that phrase indicates a complete ignorance of the Constitutional
Studs Terkel There were a number of strange kind of rehearings held, weren't there, because of what Foraker was doing, aren't there?
John D. Weaver Well, Foraker's last act before he left the Senate was to get a bill through creating a court of inquiry. This was composed of five retired generals. Now, these five retired generals were called on to determine whether two commanders in chief and goodness knows how many of their friends from West Point had committed a monstrous injustice or whether these anonymous Black soldiers might be innocent. So you can imagine what their decision was. They found that the soldiers had indeed committed this heinous crime, and that was the end of it, and that is where the case was closed.
Studs Terkel I was thinking, talking to John D. Weaver, his book, very--rewarding is not the word, it's revealing. It's called "The Brownsville Raid" and the subtitle "A Story of America's Black Dreyfus Affair", and it's Norton the publishers. You had done a book, your biography of Warren.
John D. Weaver Yes.
Studs Terkel "The Man, the Court, the Era", but also in the '30s, I mean, you did a book about the bonus march.
John D. Weaver I did a book called "Another Such [Victory?]". I was in Washington during the bonus march.
John D. Weaver I saw the bonus march.
Studs Terkel I wish I'd have seen you during the time I was working
John D. Weaver And I, well, I thought of that when I read your book, 'cause I was fascinated by it.
Studs Terkel But you were in Washington at the--
John D. Weaver It's very interesting. The thing that I remember most again was the enormous patience of these men. They would--they were a delight. I went to the camps. They would come to the door asking for work, any kind of work. And I've never forgotten. When I was doing research, it's very interesting. In 1948, 16 years after the event, I rented a projection room at Pathe Newsreel in New York. A young 18-year-old girl there from the film library sat in there and we, I ran all the newsreel film that they had of the bonus march and the eviction of the bonus marchers. As she could see flames from these burning camps and could see the dome of the United States Capitol in the background, when this film was over, she was shaking, at how horrible, how horrible, said, "Where did this happen?" I said, "Washington, D.C." She said, "That's impossible. I don't believe it." And she looked at me, I said, "But you could see the Capitol." She said, "I don't believe it. It's some sort of propaganda."
Studs Terkel Yeah, that's it, isn't that it? Yeah, there It is again.
John D. Weaver Yeah. Couldn't.
Studs Terkel That is so funny. The Chicago convention? They didn't believe they saw it. My Lai? Some don't believe it, yet. And so here it is, isn't it?
John D. Weaver My Lai, Brownsville, it's the same thing. A bureaucracy when it is attacked it must immediately cover up. It cannot ever admit error and this is what is happening, it is so--
Studs Terkel The book, by the way, has documentation toward the end, remarkable documentation by Mr. Weaver. But the last part, coda. You know, this is the Brownsville Raid. "The soldiers were never exonerated. By the time a handful were reinstated in 1910, Brownsville was of so little interest to white newspaper readers that most editors wasted no space on the story. Since then, two generations of youngsters, Black and white, have been reared in ignorance of this massive assault by two presidents, this is Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, on the civil rights of 167 Black Americans that lived and died in the Black man's limbo. Alive they were denied the equity of the white man's justice, and dead the vindication of his Jim Crow history." This, in a sense, is what you're writing about. On Jim Crow history.
John D. Weaver And if the book does nothing else, I hope that this incident will become as familiar as San Juan Hill.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Much more, it would seem to be, pertinent to our history than San Juan Hill, too.
John D. Weaver It is. Roosevelt was a great press agent.
John D. Weaver And he had one client!
Studs Terkel We always have to remind Mr. Weaver to say Teddy
John D. Weaver Teddy Roosevelt, yes,
Studs Terkel Teddy Roosevelt.
John D. Weaver Teddy Roosevelt.
Studs Terkel Not that FDR wasn't a bad press agent.
John D. Weaver FDR, I don't think he ever hid his light under any bushel.
Studs Terkel But there's quite a difference between the two, obviously.
Studs Terkel Teddy Roosevelt. We have to look back again as to what makes our country what it is, dilemmas, and part of it has to be to recreate our history.
John D. Weaver We have to re-examine the balance. It is completely out of balance. Historians are human and they like Roosevelt and they don't like Foraker, so they just naturally tend to give the men they like a better play.
Studs Terkel You know, I can think of no better spot to use a phrase from the most unlikely of sources, John Foster Dulles, and say, "History needs an agonizing reappraisal."
John D. Weaver It's getting it, thank goodness, finally.
Studs Terkel Yes.
John D. Weaver Finally.
Studs Terkel Thanks to some of these, you yourself to a great extent, as well as some of these young historians.
John D. Weaver The young historians, I think, are the hope, and how long it will take to get this into the textbooks I don't know. But when that comes, it will be a great day for all of us, because it's, to me it's, I can so sympathize with members of groups who don't see any of their heroes ever in the textbooks, and the heroes are there. They just haven't been written up.
Studs Terkel And in many cases their non-heroes made heroes, too.
John D. Weaver Right. And heroes quite often are heroes simply because of press agentry. And some people get a good press in history and some don't.
Studs Terkel The selling of a president took place, it seems, in 1908 as well as in 1968.
John D. Weaver Oh, yeah, you know--
John D. Weaver Teddy, Teddy Roosevelt was really one of the first celebrity presidents. You know? The first one who would get a good table at the better restaurants kind of president. And this is
Studs Terkel That's interesting, yeah.
John D. Weaver Aspect of our presidential explorer.
Studs Terkel That's a very good point. He did become--now, the telephone just came into play pretty much. Well, it probably was used a bit.
Studs Terkel But, the right, the celebrity president, the personality.
John D. Weaver Right. Yeah. And it was very interesting because the feature stories when he was written up just like a stage star of those [periods?]. "The New York Times" once had a long feature story and they had a leadoff saying that "Our readers' interest in this man is insatiable," and indeed
Studs Terkel Yeah, the press agentry the "Teddy bear" came
John D. Weaver The "Teddy bear," and--
Studs Terkel The pugnacious little scrapper carrying a big stick, "Speak softly, carry the big stick," of course the jingoism of, was quite--
John D. Weaver I talked with, when I was doing a book on Earl Warren, we were talking about Teddy Roosevelt one day, and Roosevelt delivered a commencement address at Berkeley when Warren was a student, and Warren said the thing he remembered most about Roosevelt, he was a very great admirer of Roosevelt as a student, and he said, but he said, "This man had a very high squeaky voice," and he expected, you know, a very strong, but he said it was a little, high, piping voice, it was so
Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking, somewhere in my stacks over there, there's an old Ediphone record, and there's Roosevelt's voice, Teddy Roosevelt inveighing against trusts, but nothing about his inveighing against Black soldiers, and the history that is being helped so much, truth in history, is by John D. Weaver, my guest, and the book is "A (sic) Brownsville Raid", and I think a very important one. Norton the publishers. You know, we opened with a song.
John D. Weaver It was a beautiful--
Studs Terkel "Come by here. We need justice, Lord. Come by here." I can think of no better way than to close with it, too, and to thank you very much, John Weaver.