The Houston Riot of 1917 involved 156 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion. Angered by the false arrest of an infantryman and after arming themselves, the soldiers marched from Camp Logan on Houston. The incident occurred on August 23, 1917, lasting roughly two hours on a hot, rainy night, and resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and 15 civilians.
Street-Walker Working on Shepherd Avenue on the Night of August 23, 1917
Laughter. Crickets chirping. Rumpled rooms and girls big with babies. Voices like dark rumbling rivers. I am here outside Ophelia's Ice House holding sawdust to the ant bite in my cheek, right here when the police drag the woman from her house wearing only a rose–pink fringy robe, and when she fights, they slug her and break a tooth. Shrieks. Cockroaches, curses, pigs, mustard greens and fatback, black salve smeared on stab wounds. Twigs and gravel. The woman's left eye fills with blue stars. She shakes it off, but the eye weeps. I saw the soldier passing by, tall and strong, and when he tries to halt the beating, they pistol-whip and drag him off, too.
Only animals (even rats and snakes) are innocents and pecan trees, too.
I touch my cheek, hope it does not scar, since the red ant sting likes to leave its pock behind. I keep walking. Rumors spread though the thick leaves. Yes, the rain says, the infantryman was not only whipped, shot, and killed, but set on fire. They come marching, the 156 soldiers, up Washington Avenue, carbines loaded.
The mob gathers like Indian grass in thick vertical weeds. I kneel behind the shimmying azalea bushes when the soldiers pass by, marching steady, left–right, left–right, tall and strong in their uniforms. The rain falls heavily scented by magnolia and the original sin of one man owning another. People are mostly ignorant. Flush times are what matter.
Knots of men. Bible laundresses. Half–blind from mixing whiskey and arsenic with plums and glad they can't see anything but the prophet lion come to release them from suffering. Gut–bucket gospel stomping. They understand the dark sentences of the Lord. The rod that has to be. And he came close unto the ram and smote the ram and cast him to the ground. Listen to the tales of oil wells, the gushers of wildcatters and black crude. Washington Avenue to Westheimer—blow on her forehead and soothe the ample–hipped. Heat burrows into the Lone Star’s two–step, its gullet stuffed with piney woods and apricot homebrew. Don’t breathe…don’t scream.
Shotgun houses empty as if bled–out, pawn shops burglarized for bullets. I squeeze between the hissing raindrops. I keep walking, one foot down, then another, from Main Street to Catfish Reef where beef costs 7 cents a pound. Shots cry out.
The quiet gets quieter. Everyone holds their breath. Louder and louder.
On December 11, 1917, thirteen of the Houston Riot mutineers, thirteen infantrymen, were summarily hung at a hastily constructed gallows near a shallow creek south of San Antonio. The men were buried nearby in graves whose only identification was a number, 1 through 13. Sixty-three other soldiers were given life sentences, and in September 1918 six more soldiers were hung at the same Camp Travis site.
I, Larsen Brown
I picture home. My tulip tree is gone, and the pecan lies on its side—grey, leafless. It's my old dirt yard, and I'm going to say goodbye to the shade right behind the tool shed. I kneel beside the chinaberry, my hand touching the trunk of the one I called the caterpillar tree. Poor thing, stunted to begin with, and now less of it. Branches stripped away, some broken, but others budding. That night our 3rd infantry came out of the honey locust, suddenly more than marching men, straight and tall, most of our battalion just back from France and Black Jack Pershing's army. Rain hung in the wet trees, every breath, a curse—smudge pots in the hot mist, hard to see through.
I, Charles Baltimore
Every six months the landlord stopped by on pay–up–day. He'd shout, Tawny, time to settle up your field rent. Tender in seed, crop, cash, or a friend–to–friend. He stomped the boards on our porch awake, and our walls put their hands together and clapped. Live, Charles, he'd tell me with a grin that showed off his gold tooth. It goes fast. You got to swing your net, catch what you can, life's quicker than mosquitoes and flies through your fingers. He owned the chickens scratching under the white oak, the speckled hens, banties wobbling on their scatter–up ladders. I loved our patch of overgrown okra and sweet corn—the light—but him owning our dirt made it ugly.
I, Carlos Snodgrass
I was the first sentenced to hang, and on that day received a pecan pie from my sister, who said she started seeing men clad only in a smattering of quill feathers hoeing in her garden. One morning she woke to find she'd cut the tabby cat's throat with a spatula because the hoeing God had ordered her to prepare flour gravy sweetened with tabby blood in exchange for her brother. Fear not, brother, you'll live to one-hundred and die in your own bed.
I, Rosely Young
The rope sees 13 men to be hanged, and soon we must bow our heads to the nooses. I would not exhume from the earth the five policemen, but the boy especially, I have asked God to raise up and set walking again. The red naw gave its wood-life to the scaffold, and the mockingbirds will quiet for softer than taffeta is their dawn song. I salute the black gnats with their fiery red eyes, for all their diving and buzzing they have kept me good company.
I, James Divine
Rock of Ages. Coffee's oily black depths comfort me, the taste almost as good as my woman's brew. For weeks I think of nothing but her as she gets up from the rope-slung bed and stokes the cobs in the cook stove. First light, the chores waiting, the animals to be fed. She'll kneel to help me on with my boots. No talk. Our baby's not yet awake. It is a starved time—stanchion, boils, gut, dung heap, skillet lard, weevil, gristle, dandelion greens. At the stove, she's stirring. I reach out but the next hammer blow shatters her. The trapdoors are being tested. Let me hide myself in Thee.
I, Jesse Moore
They call my girl the tall man's wife. And so I am tall and will need more space to fall into. Besides a child, I left her a perfume decanter, which she fingered for hours. The remaining film of perfume was dried—bark and almond. Sandalwood. She touched the stopper behind each ear. “You're a pretty thing,” I said, running my hand up and down her, ashamed at her delight, her smiling at the decanter—the thing found in an alley's trash.
I, Ira Davis
I drive Y sticks into the ground—resting places for Christ on the cross, a dark–skinned savior. I raise the axe to applewood, six bundles for twelve hours of cooking, and so I have six bundles to chop as I sit in the earth–oven. Wash the butchered hog, the smartest creature of all, douse her with salt until she doesn't reek of dung but bitter orange twigs. Her name—Stella Lou, my own piglet raised for the dinner table. I hurry the splint through her, and then I touch her belly's nipples. "Tie her middle. We can't have her sagging and flapping over the coals. Don't scorch her. Get her tender enough to pull apart with your fingers." I keep stuffing her with apples and spices, and then I invite my brothers to the waking–dream feast. What is this hate thing that dredges our grave–pits and bastes our flesh as if it is a terrible love that burns in us?
I, Thomas Hawkins
Before I signed up for privy digging in the Army I mixed drinks in a juke joint. My favorites were the Pig and Whistle, potato beer, rye whiskey and brown stout. I served many a guitar picker the Poor Man's punch and the Smasher. Houston's streets stay hot in my mind. Magnolia leaves curl, going brown as the heat wave kills their white night perfume. From the train window taking us South, the cattle with their mouthlike eyes warn us of the pitiful patience needed to be herded over the parched, cracked ground.
I, Pat MacWharter
Bow your head and go meekly, the preacher says. Praise Jesus.
About Stephanie Dickinson
Stephanie Dickinson has lived in Iowa, Minnesota, Texas, Louisiana and now New York City, a state unto itself. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber, Fjords, Cherry Tree, Water-Stone Review, Gargoyle, Rhino, Stone Canoe, Westerly, and New Stories from the South, among others. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her Love Highway, based on the 2006 Jennifer Moore murder. Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, appeared in 2013 from New Michigan Press, and The Emily Fables, a hybrid collection, was recently released from ELJ Publications. Her work has received multiple distinguished story citations in the Pushcart Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Mysteries. She is the editor of Rain Mountain Press.