Mary Church Terrell

Taft Befriended Disgraced Troops - 1930

Mary Church Terrell
January 01, 1930
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[Taft Befriended Disgraced Troops, 1930]

At a woman’s request, William Howard Taft when Secretary of War, suspended the President’s order to dismiss, without honor, three companies of Negro soldiers.

The passing of ex-president Taft recalls vividly to my mind a service he rendered me in particular and the colored people of the United States on general principles when he was Secretary of War. For me it was a very thrilling experience indeed. I had waited all day to see him. About ten o’clock on a certain Saturday morning I reached the State, War and Navy Department in Washington, D.C., where I live, and went straight to Mr. Taft’s office. I told his secretary, Mr. Carpenter, that I wanted very much to see the Secretary of War. But Mr. Carpenter told me it was utterly impossible to arrange for me to do so. Mr. Taft, he explained, had just returned from an inspection of the army posts in the West, and would leave the next day for the East. In spite of this discouraging information, I remained in the office. At intervals of about an hour I would go to Mr. Carpenter and repeat my request to be allowed to say a few words to Mr. Taft, but Mr. Carpenter always assured me very politely but firmly that it could not be granted. When I went to him about two o’clock again to beg him to let me talk to the Secretary of War just of a second, Mr. Carpenter said, “You see that man going out of the door?” Well, he is leaving Washington for New York right away to take a steamer for Spain. He wanted very much to see the Secretary of War on important business, but Mr. Taft is too busy to see him”. About three o’ clock I went to Mr. Carpenter again and repeated my request to be allowed to see Mr. Taft. Natually by that time Mr. Carpenter had grown a bit impatient. “What do you want to see Mr. Taft about”? he said. He had asked me the same question several times before, but I had not explained my mission because I felt my chances of seeing the Secretary of War would be much slimmer than they were if I did. Finally I realized how hopeless my case was if I continued to withhold the reason why I wished to see Mr. Taft. “I want to say a few words to him about the colored soldiers who have just been dismissed without honor because they were accused of shooting up in Brownsville, Texas”, I finally mustered up sufficient courage to say. A look which plainly showed how he felt, spread over Mr. Carpenter’s face. Nevertheless, he went into the Secretary of War’s private office and remained closeted with him quite a while. He then returned to the room without giving me any encouragement at all. Finally, about a quarter of four, Mr. Carpenter told me that Mr. Taft would see me just a few minutes.

“What do you want to say to me”, inquired Mr. Taft, as soon as I entered his office. “I have come to see you about the colored soldiers who have been dismissed without honor at Brownsville, Texas”, I said. “What do you want me to do about it”, he asked. “President Roosevelt has already dismissed them and he has gone to Panama. There is nothing I can do about it”. “All I want you to do, Mr. Secretary”, I said, “Is to suspend the order dismissing the soldiers without honor until an investigation can be made”. “Is that all you want me to do inquired Mr. Taft, with good natured sarcasm, as he emphasized the word all, and then smiled as he always did. “All you want me to do”, he continued laughing, “is to suspend an order ussed by the President of the United States during his absence from the country!” But Mr. Secretary”, I pleaded, “as colored we take great pride in our soldiers. They have always had an unblemished record and they have fought bravely in every way which this country has waged. It seems more than we can bare to have three companies of our soldiers summarily dismissed without honor at least until a thorough investigation has been made”. The smile left Mr. Taft’s face. He became serious and remained silent for several seconds. Then he said with an intensity and sympathy, “I can never forget. I do not wonder that you are proud of the record of your soldiers. They have served their country well.” Without telling me exactly what he was going to do, Secretary Taft encouraged me to believe that he was going to do something in the colored soldiers behalf. In less than half an hour after I had left his office he had cabled president Roosevelt, who was on his way to Panama, that he would withhold the execution of the order to dismissed without honor the three companies of the 25th Infantry until he heard from him -- or words to that effect.

In spite of my keen disappointment that the order to discharge the colored soldiers dishonorably was not rescinded, I was very grateful to Mr. Taft for the effort he made in their behalf. When he withheld the execution of the president’s order thirty-six hours in response to [hw] The enclosed letter explains itself. I advised that colored people should inform 4

a colored woman’s plea for the discharged soldiers he did what no other cabinet officer has done since the Declaration of Independence was signed. So far as I have been able to ascertain no other cabinet officer has withheld the execution of a Presidential order thirty six seconds. There was nobody in Secretary Taft’s office but himself and myself. The interest he manifested in the colored soldiers the tribute he paid them were not the flowery words of a politician uttered to serve personal ends. They were the genuine expressions of an honest, generous-hearted, justice-loving man who meant what he said and who intended to do what he could in their behalf. The effort he made was commendable and it required great courage, too. I shall never cease to thank him for trying to save those three companies of colored soldiers from dishonor and disgrace. [hw}

Terrell, Mary Church. “Taft Befriended Disgraced Troops.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. 1930.