Oscar-winning screenwriter Kevin Willmott salutes Army’s reckoning of injustice faced by WWI-era Black soldiers
photo by: Jill Hummels/For the Kansas Reflector
TOPEKA — Academy Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Kevin Willmott welcomed the U.S. Army’s decision to set aside courts-martial convictions of 110 Black soldiers, including 19 executed for involvement in World War I-era race rioting in Houston.
Willmott, a professor of film at University of Kansas, released “The 24th” in 2020 to shed light on injustices that precipitated the uprising in 1917 and triggered military prosecution of the soldiers.
He directed the movie and worked on the script for about 20 years. The project was finished amid aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer who restained the Black man for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a store. Floyd grew up in Houston.
“I was hoping it showed what they went through — to put a human face on the guys,” Willmott said. “The movie clearly educated people.”
In mid-November, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth approved a recommendation to overturn convictions of Black soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment.
The decision endorsed by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records meant the Buffalo Soldiers would have their military records corrected to document honorable service in the Army. The soldiers’ gravestones could be replaced by markers listing their service in the Spanish-American and Phillippine-American wars. Relatives of the soldiers may be entitled to benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“After a thorough review, the board has found that these soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials,” Wormuth said. “By setting aside their convictions and granting honorable discharges, the Army is acknowledging past mistakes and setting the record straight.”
The rioting occurred Aug. 23, 1917, after months of racial provocation against the 24th Regiment. Two members of the regiment were arrested and assaulted. Rumors spread other Black soldiers would be targeted. In response, troops seized weapons and marched on the city. Nineteen people died in the clash — 15 white and four Black.
Eventually, 110 Army soldiers were convicted. Nineteen were sentenced to death. Those orders led to the largest mass execution of American soldiers by the U.S. Army. The first set of executions was conducted in secrecy and within one day of sentencing. That expedited process resulted in regulatory reform prohibiting use of the death penalty on soldiers without review by U.S. military officials and the president of the United States.
The South Texas College of Law in Houston petitioned the Army in 2020 and 2021 to authorize an official review of the courts-martials. The Army received petitions from retired general officers seeking clemency for the 110 soldiers.
The Army Board for Correction of Military Records reviewed information pertaining to the cases and provided recommendations regarding appropriateness of each conviction. The report found the military justice system at that time was permeated by “significant deficiencies” leading to “fundamentally unfair” trials, the Army said.
The records board unanimously concluded all convictions should be set aside to correct a “miscarriage of justice,” said Michael Mahoney, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for review boards.
“I am proud that the Army has now formally restored honor to soldiers of the 3-24 and their families,” said Gabe Camarillo, under secretary of the Army. “We cannot change the past. However, this decision provides the Army and the American people an opportunity to learn from this difficult moment in our history.”
Willmott said he was uncertain whether the movie filmed in Texas helped propel action by the Army. However, he said he hoped the reversal would “help people discover this film.”
He won an Oscar for best adopted screenplay in 2019 for contributions to the film “BlacKkKlansman.” He and two other writers co-wrote the film with Spike Lee.
— Tim Carpenter reports for Kansas Reflector.