By Sam Roberts
In the late 1930s, in rural Georgia, a former slave told his grandson a story about a case of racial injustice that had occurred three decades earlier and gone all the way to the White House.
The story began about mid-night on Aug. 13, 1906, when a flurry of gunfire erupted on a street in Brownsville, Tex., leaving a white bartender dead and a white police lieutenant wounded.
Soon, the city’s mayor and 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 in The Brownsville Herald the next day.
The soldiers, members of the segregated First Battalion, 25th Infantry (Colored), as it was known, professed their innocence. Their white commander said he believed that all the Black soldiers were in their barracks at the time of the shooting, and that their rifles did not appear to have been fired.
But the white citizens said they had seen Black soldiers on the street firing indiscriminately, and they produced spent shells from Army rifles to support their version of events. Despite evidence that the shells had been planted, investigators accepted that account.
President Theodore Roosevelt, as commander in chief, promptly and summarily discharged all 167 members of the unit, asserting that 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 this account, William Baker, would grow up to become a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and by 1972 he had been assigned to the Pentagon to work in the 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 that the discharged soldiers had been innocent. Indeed, skeptics had said all along that evidence against the soldiers might have been planted.
Hearing about the reopened investigation, and remembering the story his grandfather had told him, Colonel Baker asked for and 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 that 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, and 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 new findings, and some Texans criticized them as politically correct revisionism. But in January 1974, President Richard M. Nixon signed legislation compensating the survivors and 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 and a cerebrovascular accident. He had homes in Gettysburg, Pa., and in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
Dr. Baker said that rectifying an injustice from 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 and Roosevelt Baker.
Colonel Baker, far right, attended a White House ceremony in 1973 at which President Richard M. Nixon signed legislation compensating the lone veteran and the widows of other soldiers who had been unjustly dishonorably discharged from the Army after being falsely accused in the so-called Brownsville Incident. Creditvia White House Communications Agency
His mother died when Bill was 11 months old, and his father remarried. He was adopted by his grandparents Angeline and Ned Keaton. Mr. Keaton, a farmer, had once been a slave in the 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 and accounting and 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 from Syracuse University and joined the Army. He received two Bronze Stars and 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 from 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 with a deliberate, rhythmic and precise cadence. His clothes were clean, but old and tattered and dotted with holes that had been patched many times. He wore a quaint, funny-looking wide-brimmed hat, one that I had never seen before.”
The man, who was Black, was hungry. And 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 and sped away. Bill recognized the man’s hat. It 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?”
That was when his grandfather, Mr. Keaton, told Bill that he had known the old man from a long time before and that 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 and sweeping the floor in a Minneapolis barber shop.
“That dishonorable discharge kept me from improving my station,” he told The New York Times in 1977. “God knows what it did to the others.”
After waiting for nearly 70 years, Mr. Willis received justice in the form of an honorable discharge certificate — backdated to 1906. He also received a personal apology from Maj. Gen. DeWitt Smith Jr. and a government check for $25,000.
Colonel Baker was honored at a White House ceremony in 1973 and given the Army’s Pace Award for meritorious service and its Legion of Merit. Robert F. Froehlke, the secretary of the Army, said Colonel Baker had “brought favorable acclaim to the Army in the field of civil rights.”
After retiring from 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 survived by two children, William Rhett Baker and Janet-Lucylle Baker; three grandchildren; a sister, Dr. Helga Baskett-Tippett; three stepsisters, Ethel and Priscilla Baker and Catherine Baker Scarver; and a stepbrother, Samuel Baker.
In his manuscript, which he titled “The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906: The True and Tragic Story of a Black U.S. Army Battalion’s Wrongful Disgrace and Ultimate Redemption,” Mr. Baker said the lessons he had learned by investigating the case transcended racial boundaries and 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.”