Note: This author was researching the history of the Great Bend (KS) High School football program in the late 1990's when he stumbled across a compelling headline from the Great Bend Tribune in 1924. The headline stated that a former football star, "Bud" Porter, had been released from prison and was coming home. Further research revealed that Porter had been part of the infamous Houston Riot of 1917. This dark chapter in American military history and the story of Great Bend's Edward Rudy "Bud" Porter are detailed below.
A Football Hero
Great Bend, Kansas is a town of roughly 15,000 located in Barton County in the middle and western part of the state. The Great Bend economy has a been historically based around the farming and oil industries. The high school's football has developed into a highly respected program in the last decade, competing for the state championship consistently.
One hundred years ago, football was a very different sport from its modern counterpart. Great Bend, now known as the Panthers, were called the Bees. The student annual was called the Beehive. The Beehive of 1911 reveals that, in those early years, the program was organized around a coach, whose tenure was generally one year, and very few players as compared to the modern game. Most players played both offense and defense. The 1910 squad consisted of just 13 players and would post a 5-1 record. A pre-season scandal involving the players smoking almost caused school officials to cancel the season. Overcoming the difficulty, the players became the first sports stars in Great Bend community history. In that 1910 season the first truly great back emerged, Edward Rudy "Bud' Porter. To understand the significance of this player, one must understand the racial issues of the times.
In the 1850’s, the United States struggled with the issue of slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 nullified the Missouri Compromise and allowed states to choose their free or slave status. So divisive was the issue that, in Kansas, two separate governments were established, one slave and one free. As Kansas approached the possibility of entering the Union, tempers flared between the opposing sides. This era is now known as “Bloody Kansas”, as coined by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune.
Pro-Free and Pro-Slavery sides clashed along the Missouri-Kansas border region in open warfare between Kansans and pro-slavery Missourians. In retrospect, most of the people who came to Kansas Territory sought land and opportunity and were not concerned with the free/slave question. The majority of these immigrants from the Ohio Valley, Mid-Atlantic, South and New England wanted Kansas to be free from the institution of slavery. The Missourians were attempting to prevent the establishment of a safe haven for runaway slaves on their western border. The majority prevailed in Kansas and the state entered the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861, just three months before the beginning of the Civil War.
The number of slaves in the Kansas territory had been small, but the number of "free" blacks in Kansas grew steadily. During the territorial period, many passed through on the "Underground Railroad" and hundreds fled Missouri for Kansas. After 1861, enslaved blacks continued to make their way across the border in even larger numbers. Black settlements in Kansas are still well known and appreciated for their historical significance. Although small in numbers, black families and children were inter-dispersed among the population and the schools, like Great Bend High School, were integrated very early.
Bud Porter was one of few black children in high school in Great Bend in 1910. He and his sister are pictured in the Beehive class photos, but noticeably, their pictures appear last on the students photo pages. Regardless of race, Porter was a gifted athlete and a football hero in Great Bend. Arguably, Bud was Great Bend's first true football sensation. In 1910, at halfback, Bud mystified fans with a run from scrimmage against Cooper College of 95 yards and a kickoff return of 105 yards against Dodge City in a stunning 45-0 win. This was the Great Bend Tribune’s recounting of that historic return, which stands as a GBHS record to this day:
“Great Bend’s first touchdown was so spectacular that the Dodgeites never recovered. Porter got away with the ball and ran the length of the field, 105 yards for a touch down. After passing the last man, Porter loafed and a Dodge City player took heart and started after him. Inasmuch as this Dodge man was supposed to be some runner and was gaining, the Dodge people felt the day was saved. Porter let out a notch or two of reserve speed and ran the Dodge man off his feet.”
Bud Porter and the Houston Riot
For 100 years, Bud Porter's kickoff return has stood as a record in this Kansas town. What has not been recognized is that he was also a participant in one of U.S. military history's most violent and disturbing incidents. Bud graduated in 1912 and entered the U.S. Army in the years that followed. In 1917, he was a soldier in the 24th Infantry during WWI stationed at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas.
The 24th Infantry Regiment was one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments. It was organized on November 1, 1869 from the 38th and 41st Infantry Regiments. All the enlisted soldiers were black. From 1898, the 24th Infantry served throughout the Western United States. The 24th was deployed to Cuba as part of the U.S. Expeditionary Force in the Spanish-American War. At the climactic battle of San Juan Hill, the 24th Infantry assaulted and seized the Spanish-held blockhouse and trench system on the hill. In 1899, 1905 and 1911, the regiment was deployed to the Philippine Islands during the Philippine-American War. In 1916, the 24th joined the "Punitive Expedition" under General Pershing to ensure that the Mexican Civil War would not spill over onto U.S. soil. The 24th entered Mexico to fight Pancho Villa's forces.
Just months after America’s entry into World War I, the War Department, taking advantage of the temperate climate and newly opened Houston Ship Channel, ordered two military installations built in Harris County- Camp Logan and Ellington Field. The Illinois National Guard was to train at Camp Logan, located on the northwest outskirts of the city. To guard the construction site, on July 27, 1917, the army ordered the Third Battalion of the 24th Infantry to travel by train from the regimental encampment at Columbus, New Mexico, where they met animosity from whites beyond the everyday insults of Jim Crow law.
In his book, Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War, E. J. Scott stated, "It was unjust, but not strange, that there should be many attempts at discrimination against Negro officers and soldiers in many of the camps, particularly those in the South, and in other sections where white soldiers from the South were brought into contact with colored troops. Prejudice, based on race, was something too deeply implanted in the mental fabric of an element of the American people, it seemed, to be overcome overnight through any pressure the war might bring to bear. Clashes between white and colored soldiers happened North and South, after a sporadic fashion, but at no time were their clashes so general or persistent as to endanger the well-being of the Army as a whole."
"In many sections of the South violent protests against the quartering of colored troops were registered with the War Department, and the Governors, Senators, and Representatives of more than one State filed formal objections with the President of the United States and the War Department, insisting that Negro troops be not stationed at the camps within their borders. The War Department steadily declined to be moved by these protests and pursued unhesitatingly its practice of stationing units of troops, colored and white, at whatever posts the exigencies of tile service seemed to make their presence expedient or necessary. The dignified bearing of the Negro soldiers and their studious avoidance of any excesses, however, tended to mollify the feelings of the Southern people and they finally began to accept them, not as an inescapable burden "wished upon them," but with genuine pride in their progress, declaring that they were a part and parcel of the South and should be accorded full credit for their unquestioned valor, patriotism and loyalty."
August 23, 1917
The events of August 23, 1917 began when a Houston police officer, patrolling the San Felipe district, badly beat two soldiers in separate incidents. In the first incident, police arrested a black infantryman who tried to prevent their detaining a drunk black woman. In the second incident, the victim was a provost guard, Corp. Charles W. Baltimore, who was attempting to question the officer about the earlier assault. The police fired at Baltimore three times, chased him into an unoccupied house, and took him to police headquarters. Though he was soon released, a rumor quickly reached Camp Logan that he had been shot and killed. A group of soldiers decided to march on the police station in the Fourth Ward and secure his release. If the police could assault a model soldier like Baltimore, they reasoned, none of them was safe from abuse. Baltimore reappeared early in the evening, but even that failed to calm the men. The officers were oblivious to the outrage of their troops. By nightfall, most had left camp for social engagements or were preparing to depart. City officials were similarly unprepared for the impending outbreak, assuming that their promise to investigate the beatings had averted any further violence.
The stage was set for tragedy.
The soldiers, sure that the beatings would not be redressed, decided to take matters into their own hands. Maj. Kneeland S. Snow, battalion commander, initially discounted the news of impending trouble. Around 8 P.M. Sgt. Vida Henry of I Company confirmed the rumors, and Kneeland ordered the first sergeants to collect all rifles and search the camp for loose ammunition. During this process, a soldier suddenly screamed that a white mob was approaching the camp. Black soldiers rushed into the supply tents, grabbed rifles, and began firing wildly in the direction of supposed mob. The white officers found it impossible to restore order. Firing wildly into the darkness, about 100 men left the camp for Houston.
Sergeant Henry led the armed soldiers toward downtown Houston by way of Brunner Avenue and San Felipe Street and into the Fourth Ward. In their two-hour march on the city, the mutinous blacks killed fifteen whites, including four policemen, and seriously wounded twelve others, one of whom, a policeman, subsequently died. Four black soldiers also died. Two were accidentally shot by their own men, one in camp and the other on San Felipe Street. After they had killed Capt. Joseph Mattes of the Illinois National Guard, obviously mistaking him for a policeman, the blacks began quarreling over a course of action. After two hours, Henry advised the men to slip back into camp in the darkness- and shot himself in the head.
Early on the morning of August 24, civil authorities imposed a curfew in Houston. On the twenty-fifth, the army hustled the Third Battalion aboard a train to Columbus, New Mexico. There, seven black mutineers agreed to testify against the others in exchange for clemency. The Houston Chronicle reflected the racial tensions of the moment:
"Their lenient treatment has led negro soldiers to believe that the government is in sympathy with their arrogance and impudence toward white people … A court marshall, a hollow square and a firing squad will settle the matter once and for all."
Between November 1, 1917, and March 26, 1918, the army held three separate courts-martial in the chapel at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The military tribunals indicted 118 enlisted men of I Company for participating in the mutiny and riot, and found 110 guilty. It was wartime, and the sentences were harsh. Nineteen mutinous soldiers were hanged and sixty-three received life sentences in federal prison. One was judged incompetent to stand trial. Two white officers faced courts-martial, but they were released. No white civilians were brought to trial.
On November 1, 1917, the first of three courts-martial was convened at Gift Memorial Chapel at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The trials were held before the only all black general court martial board in U.S. military history. The 63 defendants, all of whom entered pleas of "not guilty" to all charges, were represented by a single defense counsel. In 22 days, 196 witnesses were called and on November 29 the panel of officers condemned 13 men to death, 41 to life at hard labor, four received lighter prison sentences, and five were acquitted. No white Houstonian was ever prosecuted for the day’s events It was the largest court-martial in U.S. military history. Those condemned to die:
Two more mass courts-martial would follow, resulting in six more hangings the following year.
The condemned soldiers (one sergeant, four corporals, and eight privates) were transferred to a barracks on December 10. Later, that evening, motor trucks carried new lumber for scaffolds to some bathhouses built for the soldiers at Camp Travis near a swimming pool in the Salado Creek. The designated place of execution was a few hundred yards away. Army engineers completed their grim work by the light of bonfires. Early on the morning of December 11, the thirteen troops were awakened and brought to the place of execution at five in the morning. They were taken to the banks of the Salado Creek, amidst a stand of mesquite, and executed on the large wooden scaffold. They rode to the execution singing a hymn, but the singing was as that of soldiers on the march. The sentence was carried out without appeal. They were hanged, simultaneously, one minute before sunrise, at seven seventeen. The scaffolds were then disassembled and every piece was carried back to Fort Sam Houston. The New York Times, impressed by the clean-up operations, observed the place of execution and place of burial were “indistinguishable.”
Bud Porter took part in the Houston riot of 1917, escaping execution, but was sentenced to life imprisonment at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. For about five years, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) campaigned to obtain the release of the imprisoned rioters. The government resisted, but released a few over the years until the last rioter was released from Leavenworth after serving 20 years.
In Great Bend, the Tribune reported the riot on August 24 and 25, 1917 and the executions on Dec 11, but did not make a connection with Bud Porter's involvement. They may not have known or may have chosen not to mention his presence. In the edition of Friday, November 28, 1924, the Tribune reported that Bud Porter had been pardoned and was coming home. The government had made the decision to mitigate on behalf of four of the men on the basis of the severity of their sentences. Bud was one of those who received a pardon. The last reference to Bud Porter in the Tribune is an obituary from the death of his father, Ned, on August 24, 1955. He is listed as living in Florence Villa, FL. It should be noted that the Tribune also reported that Bud had written a manuscript that chronicled the events surrounding the riots. The existence of this work would be very important to historians if it still exists. Any family members who may have additional information on the subsequent life of Edward Rudy Porter are encouraged to contact this site.