The morning before his 87th birthday in 1973, Dorsie Willis sobbed uncontrollably in his bed at his Minnehaha Avenue home in south Minneapolis. His long wait for justice was over.

After 66 years, the U.S. Army was about to apologize for its unjust dishonorable discharge of Willis and 166 other Black soldiers wrongly punished for a 1906 violent rampage near their post in Brownsville, Texas.

"I just felt like I had to cry, that's all," Willis said.

He'd been shining shoes and sweeping floors at barbershops in Minneapolis for nearly six decades since arriving in the Twin Cities in 1915. His tarnished service record had hurt his hopes for finding a better job.

Born in Mississippi in 1886 and raised in Oklahoma, Willis was 20 when things in Texas turned ugly near Fort Brown on the night of Aug. 13, 1906. Willis' all-Black company had been transferred from Nebraska to Brownsville, where unwelcoming residents had sent a delegation to Washington, D.C., to object to the move.

Then a white woman accused a Black man in uniform of trying to rape her. A fight between a white merchant and Black soldier followed, just before a mob of roughly 20 armed men on horseback rode through Brownsville shooting out windows of white-owned homes — killing one man and injuring several others. The Black soldiers were blamed for the mayhem.

Ensuing military investigations and a grand jury failed to identify the men in the mob or implicate the Black soldiers. When none of the soldiers would testify against their fellow Army mates, War Secretary (and future president) William Howard Taft accused them of orchestrating a "conspiracy of silence."

In a 1972 Minneapolis Star interview, Willis said President Theodore Roosevelt's investigator warned the troops of dire consequences if members of the company refused to admit their roles.

"If you don't tell, you will all suffer the same fate," Willis said, remembering the investigator's words. When no one spoke up, the investigator went back to Washington vowing to tell his bosses they were "thieves, robbers and murderers and unfit for government service."

Roosevelt promptly dishonorably discharged the entire group. But Willis insisted that no members of his company were outside the post that night.

"They said the men were on horses," he said. "We were the infantry. We never had horses. Only the cavalry had horses."

At the time, Willis said, he wasn't fond of Army life and was "glad to get out of the service." But after working for decades sweeping barbershops and shining shoes at the Northwestern Bank Building in downtown Minneapolis, he realized his service record had hurt his employment prospects and barred him from the American Legion. Starting in the late 1950s, Willis spent 15 years trying to clear his record by writing letters to political leaders in Washington.

"His family said that the stain of dishonorable discharge prevented him from getting a better job," the Associated Press reported.

Willis' wait for exoneration lasted until the early 1970s, when he suffered from arthritis and his eyesight and hearing were declining. By then, he was the last living member of the wrongly discharged company.

Leaning on a wooden cane at Zion Baptist Church in north Minneapolis in 1973, he stood with his wife, Olive, and son Reginald as Maj. Gen. DeWitt Smith said: "We are trying to substitute justice for injustice, to make amends, to say how much we of this generation — white men as well as Black — regret the errors and injustices of an earlier generation."

Smith granted him an honorable discharge, backdated to 1906, and said that Willis had "rendered honest, faithful and entirely honorable service to his country while in the uniform of the United States Army." He told Willis: "You honor us by the quality of the life you have led."

U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey and U.S. Rep. Donald Fraser sponsored legislation to give Willis $40,000 for his unjust Army dismissal, a figure that was reduced to $25,000 — amounting to $373 for each year he'd been wrongly discharged. "Fraser and Humphrey went to bat for Willis to get his discharge changed," said Michele Pollard, an archivist at the Hennepin History Museum who studied his case after prompting from researcher Jim Cox of Circle Pines.

Willis said it had been "a long time coming" when he finally received the money in 1974. "It was a tough fight. I'm happy," he said.

Willis died in 1977 of kidney failure at 91 and was buried with full military honors at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. "He seemed a resourceful and charismatic person, who would have had a better life without the damage done by dishonorable discharge and the racism of his time," wrote Pollard, calling him "a survivor, and even a thriver based on his circumstances.

"The story serves as a reminder that everyone is significant," she said, "even the shoeshiner you may walk past every day."

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: