Patriotism, picnics all part of legacy of Memorial Park
By Steven Long, published in the Houston Chronicle, September 1992
When the president of the United States jogs through Memorial Park, George Bush is running on hallowed ground.
Many Houstonians know that the city's largest park is called Memorial Park, but a memorial to whom? A new book, Memorial Park, A Priceless Legacy, by the late Sarah H. Emmott (Herring Press, $15), tells the history of the land. The book goes on sale today.
"At first it wasn't a book project," publisher Jerry Herring said. "Sarah Emmott was developing a history of the park for The Park People. At first, it was just supposed to be a brochure."
All proceeds of the book will benefit The Park People, a non-profit citizens group of more than 1,000 dedicated to preserving, enhancing and increasing Houston-area park space.
"It gives people a look into Houston's history that they might not be aware of. It tells of some of the movers and shakers of Houston, and the park's relation to Camp Logan," Herring said.
Camp Logan was on the eastern edge of today's park and in the neighborhoods of Cottage Grove, Crestwood and Glencove immediately east of the park. Those neighborhoods are often referred to as Camp Logan.
Camp Logan was the training ground of Illinois' 33rd Division during World War I. From Houston they traveled to Galveston, where they shipped out to Europe.
The park is a memorial to the Americans who fought and died in World War I.
Few Houstonians remember Camp Logan. A 20-year-old doughboy who fought in France and returned home at the war's end in 1918 would be 94 today.
But pictures of Camp Logan remain, and the lavishly illustrated book is filled with them. Construction began on July 25, 1917. During the 20 months of Camp Logan's brief time of service, more than 25,000 soldiers passed through it for training.
The city feted them with wartime patriotism and parties.
But the history of Camp Logan was not all brass buttons and glory. Part of Memorial Park is the starting point of the Camp Logan riots, a sad reflection on Houston's racial history.
The riot, or "The Houston Mutiny and Riot" as it is called in the book, happened early in Camp Logan's brief history. An all-black unit of 654 enlisted men and non-commissioned officers of the 3rd Battalion, 24th U.S. Infantry, had the duty of guarding the camp during construction.
"These were seasoned soldiers, one of several all-black units in the U.S. Army, who were accustomed to respect as veteran soldiers and career-military men," Emmott wrote. "Confronted with Texas' discriminatory Jim Crow laws, which enforced the rigid segregation of the races, they became increasingly resentful."
Tensions rose in the unit to the boiling point, and some Houstonians suggested that the soldiers be replaced.
On Aug. 23, 1917, rumors flew through the init that a black soldier had been killed by police. Another rumor spread that a group of armed citizens was approaching the camp. Both rumors were false.
Panic swept through the battalion, and the soldiers seized arms and ammunition. By 9 p.m. that night, the soldiers were in mutiny.
"The rioters moved east down Washington Avenue, and turned south on Brunner Street (now Shepherd Drive), crossing the bayou and continuing to San Felipe, where they turned and headed toward downtown Houston, firing on anyone who happened into their path," Emmott wrote.
By dawn, 40 people lay dead of both races, including police, soldiers and civilians.
The riot produced the largest court martial in U.S. history, resulting in the execution of 19 soldiers and prison sentences for others, according to the book.
Two days after the riot, the unit was moved to New Mexico.
Playwright Celeste Colson Walker is the author of Camp Logan, a play produced last year at The Ensemble Theater. She has studied the riot from the black perspective. Walker said that the black community was stunned by the incident.
"A lot of blacks were leaving town then," she said. "The Houston Chamber of Commerce tried to stop them at the train station.
"A lot of the local black leaders, you'd call them the gentry in the community, tried to hush it up. They took the position of the whites that it was the soldiers' fault. They sided more with the whites. They wanted things to resume as usual."
But other blacks of the period had another view, Walker said.
"They were very afraid to speak out about it," she said. "Most blacks kept their mouths shut, but the feeling was that they were proud that the soldiers did it.
"The soldiers had seen the harassment that the colored civilians suffered daily," Walker said. "It wasn't just the injustices done against the soldiers, but the injustices done against the people."
Walter Hall Sr., 85, is a native Houstonian who remembers the fear in Houston the day after the riot. He is one of Texas' oldest active bankers. He is chief executive of The Citizen's State Bank of Dickinson and Bay Area Bank and Trust in Webster.
"The people were scared to death," he said. "It doesn't take much of a riot to scare the hell out of people, because they don't know how big it is going to get.
"My dad had a little old cheap pistol, and Dad was designated to patrol the same area where Reagan High School is now. He patrolled two blocks," Hall said.
The remaining months of Camp Logan's history were packed with intense troop training.
The camp was closed at the end of the war, and by 1923 only the hospital remained. It too closed in July of that year.
A Houston Chronicle article written by columnist Ilona B. Benda served as the camp's epitaph. It so moved Emmott's mother-in-law, Catharine Mary Emmott, that she wrote a letter to the newspaper suggesting that the old Army camp be made into a memorial to the soldiers who had served in "The Great War." Sarah Emmott's book is dedicated to the Chronicle.
Houston's famous Hogg family supported the park idea. Miss Ima Hogg, Houston's great benefactor, was a supporter of the park until her death in 1975.
Much of the land had been bought by her family, then sold to the city at cost to purchase the park. Shortly before Hogg's death, she formed a committee to watch over and protect the land.
When it opened, the park was 1,503 acres of lush forest and meadows.
There was federal improvements as well. In 1934, the Works Progress Administration made the golf course at the park its first Houston project.
Soon golfers were playing the 18-hole course. Among the celebrities to hit a ball in Memorial Park were Johnny Weissmuller, Bob Hope, Jimmy Demerit, Byron Nelson and Bing Crosby. Pro golfers who have played there include Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Cary Middlecoff, Doug Sanders and Jay Hebert.
Joggers and walkers will find no signs now that the park was a teeming Army camp.
"There are no markers in the park," Herring said. "The park, the land, the presence is really the memorial to the soldiers.." He believes that Memorial Park is nicer without makers.
"The fact that the city has kept it as an open space for the people was what was intended and what has happened over the years.
"There were all kinds of plans and proposals for the park," he said. "One of the things we show in the book is one of the early plans, which showed a grand entrance off Washington Avenue and Westcott."
Herring said that when Memorial Park became part of Houston's park system in 1924, the land was on the outskirts of the city.
"It was really at the edge of the vegetation of the pine trees. Once you went west of there, it was plains," he said.
Today, Memorial Park is one of the 10 largest city parks in the country, and the largest in the South. It is bigger than Chicago's Lincoln Park, St. Louis' Forest Park, and even larger than New York's Central Park.
Across the Bayou & Into the Trees
Born of war, Memorial Park became Houston's green heart. A new book tells how.
By Barry Moore, published in the Houston Press, November 1992
Houston enjoyed the fruits of a postwar "peace dividend" for the first time in 1924. This and other juicy bits appear in Memorial Park, A Priceless Legacy, by Sarah H. Emmott, published by Herring Press this year.
The vast forest preserve was first blocked up and purchased by the U.S. Government in mid-1917 for Camp Logan — Houston was one of 32 cities that considered itself lucky to be selected for army training facilities. Congress had declared war on Germany in April, and Americans were eager to join the Allies and do their part to end the World War.
Camp Logan lives on in local memories because of the August 1917 riot involving veteran African-American troops from the all-black 24th Infantry Division, posted in segregated Houston at a camp on Washington Avenue, just east of the present park. Emmott carefully details the sad event, in which 40 people died, including policemen, soldiers of both races and civilians. Like most such catastrophes, it should never have happened, and in fact, serious racial incidents have been rare in the U.S. Army ever since. For those fascinated by such things, there is a street map of the trooper's bloody route.
The rest of the Camp Logan history is a story I had never heard before. The camp was never meant to be permanent; most facilities were built and occupied in two months. The 7,600 acres in the compound included 2,000 for the campsite, 200 for machine-gun practice, 800 for rifle practice and 2,too for drill grounds.
Logan boasted 1,085 buildings, mostly large tents and a few wood-frame structures. The camp map in the book was another surprise — the 1917 plan is shown overlaid on present streets. If you live in Crestwood Addition you can get an idea what was going on around your home site decades before the slabs were poured.
When Camp Logan was closed in 1919, 25,000 Illinois troops had been trained there — a thousand of them died in Europe. For years tarpaper-covered shacks remained, visible from Washington Avenue, a reminder of Houston's days as a wartime camp.
When the War Department sold Camp Logan as surplus in 1923, River Oaks developers Will, Mike and their sister Ima Hogg bought the easternmost 1,500 acres as a possible additional section of their new, exclusive subdivision on the south side of the bayou. But by the following year, they were persuaded to sell the land to the city for a great "urban forest" park. Mayor Horace Baldwin Rice was early as 1909 exhorted the city to acquire park land along its bayous. The park was acquired in 1924 and named "Memorial" as a tribute to "all the doughboys who were there" — specifically the drafted infantry of Camp Logan. It is more a reflection of the times than the Hogg brothers that their generosity is always mentioned in connection with the park, even though they gave nothing away; the city bought the land at their cost plus interest!
Miss Ima did, however, become watchdog of the park, often leading the fight to limit incursions. The most surprising revelation for me was the list of development proposals within Memorial Park that have been slashed since 1924: a fish hatchery (50 acres), the Astrodome, the Museum of Natural Science, a high school stadium (50 acres), the University of Houston, a flying field (500 acres), a road connection between Highway 90 and Memorial Drive, a lake (30 acres), oil wells, and a 24-lane superstructure expansion of the West Loop.
Obviously, the Memorial Park Advisory Board has a full-time job just keeping their eyes open. As it turns out, the only incursions into the park have been roads and highways —the expansion of Memorial and Woodway, and the original Loop 610.
The park also benefited from successful fights against the Army Corps of Engineers' attempts to channelize with concrete any water that moves, but that is another story.
Memorial Park, A Priceless Legacy has lots of other fascinating chapters, including everything you always wanted to know about professional golf in Houston. If you like local history, if you are into parks, if you jog or if you're curious about how cities become what they are, this book is for you.