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Dorsey William Willis and the Brownsville Texas Riot

On Nov. 6, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 Black infantrymen from their battalion at Fort Brown, Texas when they refused to falsely confess to participation in a Brownsville, Texas, riot three months earlier.

Dorsey William Willis
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Dorsey William Willis in December 1972
Dorsey William Willis was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on Feb. 11, 1886, to Dochia and Casey Willis, Sr. — the oldest of the couple’s eight children. He became a member of Company D, First Battalion, Twenty-Fifth Infantry (all-Black) in the US Army in January of 1905.

Willis’ role in the Brownsville Texas Riot on Aug. 13, 1906, was the same as that of every other member of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry. He remained in his barracks while local residents on horseback fired gunshots around their own town, killing one man and wounding a second. These same residents later blamed the infantry for the staged riot and for the subsequent murder of one of the Brownsville, Texas residents.

“We were the infantry,” Willis recalled in a Minneapolis Tribune interview. “We never had horses. Only the cavalry had horses.”

Willis’ recollections and secondary sources reveal what really happened on Aug. 13.

Once the soldiers were in the town, tension was high. When some townspeople encountered the infantrymen, they struck or beat them for not adhering to Jim Crow laws. The last straw was an alleged assault of a white Brownsville woman by a Black soldier, who reportedly grabbed her and threw her to the ground.

Dorsey explained that “every soldier was present and accounted for” when shots from the riot rang out. But regardless of their statements, the soldiers were sent to Fort Reno, Oklahoma, arrested, and subsequently dishonorably discharged by President Theodore Roosevelt because of what he called their “conspiracy of silence” –their refusal to confess to the alleged part they played in the riot.

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Following his discharge, Willis remained in Oklahoma, where he met and married Lucille Jordan and started a family. His son, Reginald Haines Willis, was born there in September 1907, and a year later, his father, Casey Willis, died. Dorsey moved to Kansas in 1910, but he made his way back to Oklahoma in 1912, and he left the state for good in 1913.

Willis found himself in Minneapolis in September of 1913 with the same hope as most Black men at the time: to be seen and respected as a citizen of the United States and raise a family outside the reach of Jim Crow. But his dishonorable discharge was a stumbling block to finding gainful employment. Dorsey took jobs shining shoes, sweeping up in barbershops, and working as a doorman in many Minneapolis businesses, among them P. H. Timmins, Arvid N. Swenson, and the Northwest Bank building.

“That dishonorable discharge kept me from improving my station,” Willis said in a New York Times interview. At the start of this work in 1913, Willis made 10 cents per shoeshine, plus a tip. When he retired in 1971, he made 50 cents per shine. It was on these wages that Dorsey saved money to purchase a home on Minnehaha Avenue South and carve out a life for his family. Dorsey’s son, Reginald, was supported and respected by the community as a talented guitar player, dancer and entertainer.

The Black community in Minneapolis welcomed the Willises. Dorsey was vested in many local social organizations and was a member of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter. While his life in the North seemed more settled, he often traveled south to visit sick siblings and attend funerals. Though he was the oldest of his parents’ eight children, at least four of them preceded him in death. His father had died before Dorsey left Oklahoma (1908), but his mother passed away in 1929. It may have been around this time that he split with his first wife. According to the 1930 census, he was single in that year, but the local directory shows him married to Lillian in 1932. He married Olive, his third and final wife, in 1945.

As Willis’ distance from the Brownsville riot grew in the late 1950s, he tried to clear his name. The response he got from Washington, however, questioned his identity, and without proof, Willis abandoned the effort. It wasn’t until 1972 that Willis’ luck changed. He found out that his discharge had been changed to an honorable one in a Minneapolis Star article (Sept. 29, 1972). He said he bought about twenty copies just to give them out to people.

Senator Hubert Humphrey latched on to the case as a civil rights issue and sought to compensate the Brownsville survivors for the “irreparable harm done” to them. He proposed $40,000 per survivor plus service pensions, which could have totaled up to $55,000. Ultimately, Humphrey’s bill, modeled after one proposed by August R. Hawkins of California, garnered $25,000 for Willis. The only surviving battalion widow, Louella Conyers, wife of Boyd Conyers, received $10,000.

Dorsey Willis died in Minneapolis in August of 1977, at the age of 91.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.