In June 1910, black soldier Nathaniel Bledser of the 25th Infantry Regiment (so-called Buffalo Soldiers) at Fort Lawton is accused of "assault with intention to do sexual mischief." This incident, and the court case resulting in a swift guilty verdict and harsh sentencing, reflects racial prejudice in Seattle in the early twentieth century.
Arriving in Seattle
When the transport ship Sheridan docked in Seattle's harbor on October 5, 1909, some 900 African American soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment may have had a temporary sense of relief about their new assignment. Having spent the previous two years in the Philippines, "assailed by the treacherous bolos and barongs of fanatical Moros as well as devastating fevers and cholera," being stationed at the picturesque Fort Lawton army post on Magnolia Bluff might have come as a welcome change for many of the men. The black regiment was one of four then in existence in the United States Army. It was composed of black enlisted men and NCO's (noncommissioned officers). This trailblazing unit was commanded by white officers.
The soldier's new idyllic surroundings provided dramatic contrast to a series of disturbing and fateful events that unfolded soon after their arrival. The troop was fated to suffer the slings and arrows of racial prejudice in their new home in the Northwest.
These soldiers, members of the First Battalion of the 25th Regiment, were probably aware that the white residents of the neighboring Interbay community had voiced objections to the presence of black troops a few years before their arrival. Local white residents objected to the 25th coming to Fort Lawton, not only out of exaggerated fears based on racial prejudice, but also because the unit had been involved in the 1904 Brownsville, Texas, incident in which white citizens accused black soldiers of committing unprovoked violence and murder.
Although the soldiers accused in the Brownsville incident were almost certainly not guilty of the charges, and moreover had been discharged from the unit several years prior to the arrival of the 25th Infantry in Seattle, a cloud of suspicion hung over the unit in the minds of many white residents.
One Fateful Night
Despite this stigma, relations between the black soldiers and white residents were harmonious until nine months later. On the night of June 4, 1910, a middle-aged white woman living near the post accused a black soldier of assaulting her with intention to do sexual mischief. The woman, Mrs. J. W. Redding, testified that a soldier, "tall and slender, and quite black," came by her house in the early evening and asked for some food to eat. When Mrs. Redding turned him away, he shortly returned and sprang upon her, reeking of liquor and apparently intent on doing sexual and physical harm to her. When her young daughter was drawn to the scene because of the noise, the man fled and Mrs. Redding rushed to a friend's house for help. She had a gash on her lip received in the struggle.
The incident set off a firestorm of protest in the Interbay community, an angry and fearful murmuring which soon touched many parts of Seattle (abetted by lurid and sometimes factually incorrect reporting by the city's three main newspapers). A nearly hysterical mass meeting was held by outraged residents at Steiner Hall in Interbay on June 6, 1910, organized by the leaders of the Interbay Improvement Association (most of whom were real estate agents and land speculators). Many of the white residents of Interbay formed an impromptu vigilante committee, and openly threatened to hang any black soldiers they found outside the fort in the defense of "wives and daughters [who] have been insulted by the negroes."
The officers of the 25th Infantry were quick to investigate the attack on Mrs. Redding. Even before the night of the attack was over, one man had was singled out. Private Nathaniel Bledser had been several hours late in returning to the post, and could not offer definitive proof of his whereabouts at the time of the attack on Mrs. Redding. Although Bledser insisted that he was at a city tavern at the time of the incident and was entirely innocent of the charges, Mrs. Redding and her daughters identified him during a line-up on June 6, 1910, as the man who had committed the crime.
However, the case against Bledser was anything but a clear-cut case. Racial prejudice colored virtually every step of both the investigation and the public debate about the incident. Despite the general insistence in the newspapers that the white residents of Seattle had "no prejudice against colored soldiers as such," the language of the reporting and the tone of the accusations make it very clear that preconceived racial notions about black males being bestial and libidinous threats to womanhood and social order formed the basis for the reaction to Nathaniel Bledser and his fellow soldiers.
Furthermore, the investigation conducted by the Army suggested that the evidence against Bledser was at best circumstantial. The testimony given by Mrs. Redding and her daughters conflicted on several important points, and Mrs. Redding's original description of the attacker does not fit Bledser's profile (Bledser was a stout man of medium height with a mustache, whereas her original description identified a "tall and slender man" who was probably clean-shaven.)
Ten Minutes to the Verdict
In addition, Mrs. Redding apparently needed several chances to view Bledser before she picked him out of the line-up; considering that the Army had already singled him out for suspicion, one wonders whether Mrs. Redding received any deliberate or inadvertent coaching in her choice of suspects. Under the weight of pressure from military and civil authorities, Bledser agreed to plead guilty to the charge, but during his hearing he changed his mind and entered a plea of not guilty. Bledser was tried in a King County Superior Court on October 14, 1910, and found guilty after just ten minutes of deliberation by the all-white jury. Bledser complained of having inadequate legal advice and getting the "third degree" from city detectives to coerce his original confession of guilt, but was in the end sentenced to four to 10 years of hard labor at the Walla Walla state penitentiary.
In time, the commotion over the Bledser case subsided, and the War Department made it very clear that it would not move the 25th Infantry Regiment on the basis of public pressure. No similarly provocative incident occurred during the remainder of the regiment's stay at Fort Lawton, but race relations in Seattle had clearly suffered a setback in the wake of the Bledser case. The First Battalion left for the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii in January 1913, and was replaced by a white unit. Racial tensions subsided with the departure of the regiment in Magnolia, but the legacy of Jim Crowism would endure in the city for decades to come.