Thursday, February 10, 2005

Black Army Chaplain's Discharge Ruled Unfair

Century-Old Disservice Gets Honorable Revision
Black Army Chaplain's Discharge Ruled Unfair
By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer

The offense that led the Army to dishonorably discharge Henry Vinton Plummer seems trivial now. At a desolate post on the Nebraska plains, Plummer, an officer, violated regulations by fraternizing with enlisted men.

But the year was 1894, and Plummer, a chaplain, was black, a former Maryland slave ostracized by his fellow cavalry officers, all of them white. After he sought the only companionship available to him, socializing one evening with a group of black soldiers, his superiors accused him of conduct unbecoming an officer, then convened a court-martial and drummed him out of the military.

Plummer, who spent a decade in the Army and was once its only black chaplain, remained officially disgraced for more than a century.

Until yesterday.

Acting on a request made a year ago by several of his descendants and other supporters, the Army announced a rare decision, changing Plummer's discharge to honorable in what it said was "a matter of fairness."

"Here is a man who served his country with great pride," said the Rev. L. Jerome Fowler, a minister in Capitol Heights and a great-great-nephew of Plummer's. "Other officers would not associate with him because of his color, but he still served his country. The fact is, [the Army has now] recognized his patriotism and his loyalty to his country."

Although the Army Board for Correction of Military Records agreed to erase the dishonorable discharge, it declined to remove the stain of Plummer's court-martial and conviction. The board rejected as irrelevant the argument that his conduct, in today's Army, would not lead to a court-martial.

"To equate society's mores then with the current rules laid down by society is neither desirable nor possible," the board said. "To do so would open the door to unlimited challenges and re-arguments based on changing values and viewpoints, with no decision ever being final."

G. Brian Busey, an attorney for Plummer's supporters, said the Army appeared to be concerned about setting a precedent that might inundate its docket "with other old and potentially deserving cases."

Still, said Leigh Ryan, another of Plummer's supporters, "I am just very, very grateful that we have at least accomplished this much for him."

As a chaplain, Plummer, who died 100 years ago today at age 60, was the equivalent of a captain and the only black officer at isolated Fort Robinson.

In their petition for exoneration, his supporters argued that the prosecution of Plummer was driven by officers intent on silencing an outspoken black man. Plummer had fought to curb alcohol sales on the post, and commanders suspected that he was the anonymous author of a circular listing members of a lynch mob that had tried to kill a former black soldier.

Born a slave in Prince George's County, Plummer escaped in 1862 and joined the Union Navy. After being honorably discharged in 1865, he enrolled in Wayland Seminary in Washington. In 1884, with letters of recommendation from Frederick Douglass and others, he was appointed chaplain of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, one of the four units of so-called Buffalo Soldiers.

A decade later, at Fort Robinson, Plummer and three black sergeants toasted the promotion one of the sergeants had received. That evening, Plummer stopped at the home of one of the men, Sgt. Robert Benjamin. Benjamin was not in, and Plummer chatted with his wife and entertained his daughter while he waited, according to testimony. Benjamin returned drunk, witnesses later said, and flew into a rage at finding Plummer in his home with his wife and daughter.

The sergeant prepared a complaint. Plummer was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer, for drinking earlier in the night with the enlisted men and for his visit to Benjamin's home.

Busey argued that racial bias drove the charges. "He was an uppity African American at a time when it was dangerous to be anything African American.


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