NJ Atty Changes History For Wrongly Executed Black Soldiers

By Jake Maher | December 15, 2023, 7:40 PM EST ·

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More than 100 members of an all-Black U.S. Army regiment were convicted of mutiny and 19 hanged following an outbreak of racial violence in 1917 in an incident that became known as the Camp Logan Mutiny. More than a century later, a New Jersey attorney and descendant of one of the soldiers recently helped convince the Army that the men had been unfairly tried. (Getty Images)

More than a century after 19 soldiers were hanged for mutiny following trials that were marred by racism, a New Jersey attorney and descendant of one of the servicemen recently helped convince the U.S. Army to overturn the soldiers' convictions. "You don't often have an opportunity to really impact history," Jason Holt, a partner at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC in New Jersey, told Law360 in a recent interview.

When presented with the opportunity himself, however, Holt made sure that he took it.

Due in part to Holt's advocacy, the U.S. Army recently corrected what he and other critics say was one of the most glaring wrongs in its history: the unfair mutiny convictions of over a hundred Black soldiers and the subsequent executions of 19 of them in the aftermath of the so-called Camp Logan Mutiny in Houston in 1917.

The Army formally granted clemency to the soldiers, who were members of the all-Black Third Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, a buffalo soldier unit, in November, acknowledging racial bias in their trials.

Members of the unit were brought up on mutiny charges after participating in a violent conflict with Houston locals while stationed in the city. The incident began when members of the Houston police beat and shot at a Black military police officer when he was checking on the status of another soldier who had been arrested by local police.

When word about the beatings spread at Camp Logan, the site where the unit was stationed, many soldiers feared a potential attack by a white mob, and some opted to arm themselves and march on Houston. The soldiers who left engaged in a violent fight at the city jail that would ultimately leave nearly 20 people dead.

Sixty-three soldiers were brought up on charges at an initial military trial, where they were represented by a single officer who had some legal training but was not a lawyer. After just two days of jury deliberations, 58 of the soldiers were convicted, and a first wave of 13 soldiers was executed by hanging, the largest mass execution in Army history, less than 24 hours after verdicts were reached. Six more soldiers were hanged in later months after two more trials.

Among those first 13 to be hanged was Pfc. Thomas Coleman Hawkins, an ancestor of Holt's.

"The family always felt as though what happened was incorrect, that it was a miscarriage of justice, that he along with the other soldiers were obviously mistreated," Holt told Law360.

Through the years, Holt's family has passed down a physical letter that Hawkins sent to his family in North Carolina shortly before he was executed.

"Dear mother and father, when this letter reaches you, I will be beyond the veil of sorrow. I will be in heaven with the angels," Hawkins wrote. "I'm sentenced to be hanged for the trouble that happened in Houston, Texas, although I am not guilty of the crime that I am accused of. But mother, it is God's will that I go now and in this way."

"When [Hawkins] made his transition, he did it with a forgiving heart and a lot of strength," Holt told Law360.

Holt said there had been several efforts over the years to achieve retroactive justice for his ancestor and the others convicted and executed.

Most recently, Holt signed onto a clemency petition filed by John Haymond, a historian and author, and Dru Brenner-Beck, a legal scholar and attorney. Through trial transcripts and other sources, the petition outlined how the soldiers were denied due process and other rights, the New York Times reported.

In response, the Army set aside the convictions, corrected the soldiers' records to show that they had been honorably discharged and made their descendants eligible for military benefits.

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Jason Holt, an attorney with Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC and descendant of a soldier who was hanged following the Camp Logan Mutiny, at a November ceremony marking the Army's decision to overturn mutiny convictions of the servicemen involved in the incident. With him are two other descendants, Angela Holder, left, and Shelleye Arnold.  (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle, via AP)

"Sadly, we cannot ease the sorrow that Private Hawkins and his family felt," Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo said at a mid-November ceremony at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston to mark the granting of the clemency petition.

"As much as we want to, we cannot revise this difficult chapter in our past, but we can learn its lessons. We can use them to create a more just future for all Americans, including those who have bravely chosen to wear the Army uniform," Camarillo added.

Both Camarillo and Holt noted that after the first 13 executions and as a direct result of them, the Army instituted a mandatory presidential review of any court-martial death sentence.

"Any time you take a group of people that are willing to put their life on the line to defend the freedoms of others, especially when they are not accorded those very same freedoms, those are special people," Holt said.

Members of Holt's family, meanwhile, have never forgotten Hawkins' treatment by the Army and the attitude he took with him to his execution.

"As an inspirational figure in the family, I found that if you think that you're dealing with a set of circumstances or issues which are insurmountable, if you think about that, that gives you a lot of inspiration and a lot of strength, a lot of buoyancy, to weather the storms that come to all of us," Holt said.

The memory of that injustice was part of what inspired Holt to become an attorney, he said.

His career as an attorney has taken him across a variety of roles in New Jersey. In addition to working as a partner at Chiesa Shahinian in the real estate, environmental law and cannabis law groups, Holt has worked for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, as corporation counsel to the city of East Orange, and as city solicitor and business administrator for Atlantic City.

Holt said there were still some elements of the effort to achieve some kind of justice for the soldiers executed that have to be wrapped up, like determining how their ancestors will receive their military benefits, but the bulk of the work was now done. What has stuck with him the most, he said, is the happiness he feels about being able to set the record straight about his ancestor's and others' service.

"At some point, what you want in terms of legacy is you want everyone's soul to be at peace, and you would want the record corrected," Holt said.

--Editing by Karin Roberts and Jay Jackson Jr.

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