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Walter Springs died on a wooden barroom floor, in a small Texas town, his final moments in the Jim Crow South witnessed by a crowd who’d heard the shot from a military police officer’s Colt pistol. The bullet entered Springs’ chest and pierced his heart and both lungs. He staggered a step or two before hitting the ground. He was 24.
When the Bastrop County sheriff arrived at Jackson’s Cafe just after midnight on December 17, 1942, he found Springs, who was Black, facedown on the floor. Springs’ paperwork identified him as an Army technical sergeant from Denver stationed at Camp Swift, just seven miles north. Police took inventory of the room. Tables and chairs were tossed about as if a brawl had occurred. A nearby booth had been destroyed. A half-opened pocketknife, with a blade around three inches long, was in Springs’ right hand.
Local law enforcement and Army investigators questioned Corporal Martin Walker, the officer who’d fired the shot. Walker, who was white, was a high school dropout from San Antonio who’d enlisted in the Army three years earlier. On this winter night, the 21-year-old was leading a military police (MP) unit as it patrolled venues in Bastrop, a town of about 2,000 residents located 30 miles southeast of Austin.
Walker was with three other white MPs, and their duties that night included rounding up servicemen who’d broken the camp’s 11:30 curfew. Springs, the corporal told police, had become belligerent during a routine identification check that included a lineup of six other men near the bar’s front door. The sergeant began to argue with one of the MPs, then punched him in the face. The officers drew nightsticks; at least two MPs began to beat Springs, who flung one of the MPs into a booth, badly spraining that man’s ankle.
In the commotion, Walker drew his pistol and yelled for his injured MP to get back. He fired once. There was no other option, the corporal told law enforcement officers. The sergeant needed to be stopped.
The Army completed an investigation quickly and forwarded its report to the Army’s Eighth Service Command, in Dallas. Walker was charged with manslaughter and was court-martialed three weeks later at Camp Swift. The general court-martial proceeding lasted five hours, after which a secret vote was taken. Walker was acquitted and returned to active duty.
Hardly anyone in Bastrop spoke of the killing after that. The local newspaper never mentioned the shooting. The MPs went back to work, and Camp Swift continued training young men to fight the Axis powers in Europe.
Walter Springs’ body was delivered to a funeral home in Austin and eventually was returned to Denver for burial. In time, it was almost as if he had never existed at all.
Springs’ family held his funeral two days before Christmas, at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Five Points, where he’d received his First Communion a few months earlier, before shipping out for basic training in Alabama. His nine siblings and his father sat in pews near faculty from Regis College who’d come to mourn the first wartime death among its student class. A Jesuit priest officiated; the college’s president spoke over Springs’ flag-draped casket.
He was unlike anyone they had met, the men told those assembled for the service, a quiet force. The 10th of 11 children, Springs had spent much of his life in poverty before he enrolled at the all-male Regis College in north Denver. School records show he was one of the first—perhaps the first—Black student in Regis’ then 64-year history. Springs was a star boxer in college, and he was a running back on the Regis football team who often led his team in prayer before games. During his sophomore year, he was voted the college’s most popular student.
After the funeral, a Regis history teacher and priest named Joseph P. Donnelly wrote a letter memorializing his former student. Springs had told the professor he’d joined the Army because he hoped his service “would aid in the elimination of race prejudice”; that Black men like him might help create a more fair and equitable society. Donnelly and the rest of the folks at the funeral that day had taken the totality of the events in Texas and compared them to the history of the South, then to the politely driven young man they’d all known.
“Walter didn’t die from a bullet fired from an enemy gun,” Donnelly wrote in the letter, which was reproduced in both Black and Catholic publications. “The Axis army neither in Libya nor in the South Seas saw our first casualty. He never got that far. Walter was a Negro. He died from a bullet fired by an American citizen, on American soil. The hand which struck him down is owned by a man with a white face, a man in whose favor the principles of democracy work to their fullest extent.”
Springs’ casket was taken to Riverside Cemetery a few miles from Five Points. He was buried in a section reserved for servicemen, in a plot that has a view of the Front Range. Months later, a white marble headstone was added to the grave. It gave his birth and death dates and included an epitaph: “His life an ideal—his memory an inspiration.”
One day this past summer, Walter Springs’ niece met me on the porch of her home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, 1,600 miles from Denver. Meredith Springs-Levert gave me a hug and invited me inside. She offered me a seat in the family room, which looked over the magnolias and marigolds planted out front.
The 76-year-old had left Colorado decades earlier and now works from home as a management consultant. We’d been corresponding and talking on the phone for months about the man she called Uncle Walt.
I’d seen Springs’ grave at Riverside, I told her when we first talked, and learned more about him when Regis University (formerly Regis College) began its own investigation into his life and death following the 2020 nationwide protests over police brutality against Black Americans. The university had recently taught a class on Springs, part of which included a podcast that used archival material gleaned mostly from his time at the college. Despite this research, Walter Springs’ life in Denver and death in Bastrop, Texas, were still very much a mystery. “This has haunted my family for the past 80 years,” Springs-Levert told me.
She disappeared for a moment and went into the nearby dining room. She emerged with a thin white album that had a frayed binding. She carried it across the room with both hands, as if it were a relic. She set the album down gently on the coffee table in front of me. The cover was embossed with a floral pattern with the word “Photographs” printed in gold lettering. “This is what we have of Walt,” Springs-Levert said, and then she opened the book.
Immediately after his son’s body arrived at the funeral home near Five Points, William Springs, Walter’s father, was intent on seeing it. The funeral director was at his side when the casket was opened. A study of the body showed the young man had a two-inch cut along his scalp, which the men assumed had been made by an MP’s club. William looked at his son’s left hand, which included at least one large gash. The funeral director said it appeared to be a defensive wound, as if the young man had been fending off an attack. William stared at his son’s lifeless form for a few minutes trying to imagine those final seconds—the last acts of a man attempting to save his own life.
Inside his rented two-story home on Marion Street in Five Points, William composed a letter to the Army public relations officer at Camp Swift. He explained the injuries he’d seen on his son; nothing seemed to make sense. “I feel Walter gave his life needlessly,” William wrote.
William Springs had moved from Missouri to Colorado as a teenager and was 62 at the time his son was killed. A widower, he’d driven a horse-drawn trash trailer in Five Points to make a living early in his life and eventually raised his children on a railroad worker’s salary. The family struggled financially, and everyone was expected to contribute. In the winter, the family heated the house with coal remnants the Springs children found along nearby train tracks.
William had been furious when his son announced he was leaving school to enlist in the Army. Walter was the sixth Springs child to graduate from high school and the first from his family to attend college. Springs’ father couldn’t understand why his son wanted to serve in a segregated military, why he’d willingly give up an education and a partial athletic scholarship so he could fight with men who saw the Springs family as something less than human.
After receiving two responses from the public relations office at Camp Swift, William couldn’t help but feel he’d been correct in his skepticism. The missives were clinical and cold; neither acknowledged his loss as a father. Springs was belligerent and drunk, the camp officer wrote. Springs refused to show his furlough pass to an MP who’d asked for it. He started the fight, “severely beating” an MP. He pulled a knife and began “slashing the air.” He was preparing to kill the downed MP when he was shot. There had been several witnesses. The message to William was clear: His son was responsible.
William returned to his typewriter. “I feel that this is just another tribute to the gallant South,” he wrote, this time to an Army officer in Washington, D.C. He’d seen the defensive wounds, and William was certain his son didn’t own a knife. William had raised all of his sons to detest bullies, and it would have been unlike Springs—a trained, collegiate boxer—to win a fight and then re-attack an injured man.
It also seemed absurd that Springs would launch this kind of beating against a white military man in the segregated South. “Knowing Walter was at least of average intelligence, having the advantage of a college education, I can’t see how he would ever attempt to attack…armed men with only a pocket knife, if he only had such a stated knife.” William thought there might be a cover-up. “It grieves me to think that this verdict should be accepted by sensible men in responsible positions and passed on as just another incident,” William continued. “I can’t help [but] shudder to think of six other of my sons, all of draft age, and the thousands of other Negro boys, that feel they are in more danger in the South, during their training period, than they would be on foreign soil.”
In the summer of 2020, Rose Campbell, a historian at Regis University and the associate director of the school’s Center for the Study of War Experience, had been tasked with researching Springs’ life when she noticed a plaque outside her office that included the names of 38 Regis students who’d died during World War II. She stopped at number 31 on the list: Walter Springs. “I could not believe I’d never heard this story,” she told me this past summer.
Campbell pulled files from university archives, including photos, yearbooks, and memorials written after Springs’ funeral. At that time, a racial reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd was happening across the country—including at Jesuit schools like Regis, where social justice is practiced as a cornerstone of Catholic faith. Campbell called Lauren Hirshberg, an assistant history professor at the school who also heads the Center for the Study of War Experience. Since starting at Regis three years earlier, Hirshberg had made it her mission to diversify war stories beyond those from white Americans’ perspectives. She’d been looking for something more nuanced and complicated—something like Springs’ story.
After conducting more research, the pair created a curriculum that told the story of Springs’ time at Regis. They included information they’d found on his time in the military, which wasn’t much. The retelling came mostly through written recollections from campus friends, Regis faculty, and write-ups associated with a short-lived scholarship in Springs’ name that was introduced a decade after his death.
Campbell and Hirshberg wanted Springs’ story to resonate within a larger framework, specifically to introduce the plight of Black Americans in the segregated military. Through Springs, they thought, they could tell the story of a Black man who’d served his country and lost everything. The two tracked down Springs-Levert, her brother, Paul, and several other of Springs’ nieces and nephews and collected family stories. Yearbooks filled in other details: Beyond classrooms and football fields and boxing rings, there was Springs in a theater production, at a school dance, as the emcee at a school event. In one photo, a white classmate has an arm draped around Springs’ neck.
Two years after Campbell came across Springs’ story, his life and death still haunted her. From what she knew of the young man, the Army’s official report about his killing seemed dubious at best. She found the letter Donnelly had written after Springs’ funeral. It included details of a 1941 football trip—likely against what was then called Adams State Normal School, in Alamosa—where Springs was refused a motel room because he was Black. The team was on the verge of tearing the place apart when Springs stepped in. Damaging the motel, he said, would only disgrace the college and its football program. The team found another place to sleep. The next day, Springs scored all three touchdowns in an 18-0 win.
Campbell found it difficult not to feel both awed and frustrated. She’d seen the letters Springs-Levert had from her grandfather, begging the Army for answers. She’d seen the military’s responses. Campbell filed a request for Springs’ service records—and then a follow-up request—but two years had passed without any reply.
“I think of it this way,” she said, “we’re supposed to believe that this guy, a literal pioneer for racial equality, suddenly changed everything about himself and decides to fight a white cop in segregated Texas, for no reason at all?” Campbell said. She laughed bitterly and then said, “I mean, come on.”
Springs-Levert and I spoke often as I began my own reporting into her uncle’s life. During my visit to her home in Maryland, she showed me the album that included newspaper clippings and letters. There was a photo of Walter in his pressed military uniform and one of Walt in his Regis football jersey, with the rest of his team—their signatures covering the photograph. There were pin holes in all four corners, as if Walter had just taken it off a bedroom wall. There was a photo of Walter in Five Points, in a baseball jersey that read Welton Dept. Store.
I talked with Paul and to two cousins, both of whom still live in Denver. They each had their own stories about their uncle, many of which were about how he remained a never-ending topic of family conversation, as if he were in the room with them.
“It’s like there’s this ghost that’s been sitting on our shoulders,” Paul told me over a Zoom call with his sister one day this summer. “Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the long arc of justice. I hope our arc reaches across generations.” His voice rose as he spoke. “Even though 80 years have passed, we’re still asking questions. We will never, ever let Walt go.”
In a search for facts, 80 years presents a significant challenge. Memories fail, documents are lost, and photographs fade. What the Springs family wanted, more than anything, was to know why? Why did Walter Springs die the way he did that day in 1942?
The quest for the truth was winding. In the Colorado State Archives, I discovered 18-year-old Walter Springs’ application for Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work in Norwood, Colorado. On the yellowed paperwork, Springs reported he’d driven an ash and trash truck as a 17-year-old; under “schooling,” he indicated he’d only finished his sophomore year in high school, perhaps an indication that he’d taken time away to help his family through the Great Depression. When he took the CCC job—it was exceedingly rare for Black men to work in the Conservation Corps—Springs sent one of his brothers $25 a month.
A Manual High School yearbook revealed that Springs had only played organized football his senior year. A researcher at the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection pulled census records that offered Springs’ various addresses throughout Five Points. The Archdiocese of Denver had a record of his baptism and confirmation. A historian near Bastrop found Springs’ death certificate; another historian in town discovered Springs’ hospital admission card from the night he was killed. Under the header, “Injured in Line of Duty,” it read: “Not in line of duty, misconduct.”
A genealogist in Colorado uncovered Springs’ Army enlistment card and a January 1943 article about Martin Walker’s exoneration published in the Baltimore Afro-American—the only paper that covered the story in any detail. The report mentioned Springs had been arrested several times for larceny and assault and battery. The news hinted at deeper issues at Camp Swift than anyone in his family had known.
The information was exciting and disappointing, sometimes all at once. A picture was emerging of Springs’ life—and death—but significant details were still missing. I wanted to see where Springs had lived, and I invited Jameka Lewis, a senior librarian from Denver’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, to join me. We stopped at William Springs’ former house on Marion Street and then walked the neighborhood amid the 120-year-old homes and modern, angular townhouses. Five Points, which had once been redlined, now was gentrifying. Springs’ former rental home is currently valued at around $650,000. It was ironic, Lewis said, that a place once so inhospitable to investment because of its Black residents had now become a hotbed for white money. “That’s messed up, right?” she said.
The Springs family story was the narrative of every Black family who’d once called Five Points home, Lewis told me as we stood in front of William Springs’ former house. It was the story of racial pain. “It’s family, community, and survival,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s also erasure.”
Springs’ life in the segregated South spanned just 18 months but had proven far more challenging than anything he’d faced in Denver. His former professors noted at the time the ways he’d changed when he returned home on furlough, how his usual wittiness and sunny demeanor had turned sullen. Springs seemed worried, uneasy.
Donnelly, the Regis history professor, noted that “incidents had happened,” and that Springs had been “innocently involved in one.” He didn’t elaborate. In a letter to his former football coach, Robert “Sarge” MacKenzie, Springs mentioned a confrontation but didn’t give details. MacKenzie replied immediately. “Damn it, Walt, it really makes me boil,” MacKenzie wrote, begging for elaboration and suggesting Springs take his story to Time and Life magazines and expose the Army’s issues in the segregated South. “Good Americans don’t believe in racial discrimination and good Americans won’t stand for it,” the coach added.
The coach tried to buoy the young man’s spirits. Springs, MacKenzie wrote, was the perfect soldier for the moment. He likened him to Joe Louis and Jesse Owens—racial pioneers who’d knocked down walls between white and Black worlds. “This war is affording you that opportunity,” MacKenzie continued. “All Americans have a great stake in the war. American negroes have a greater stake than other Americans for it is their opportunity to once and for all rise above a sectional hatred and emerge so gloriously that no one will dare cast a stone against them…. You and your fellow soldiers, I know, will make all Americans feel the same way towards your race.”
Springs cut his furlough to Denver short that December. He told his family and college friends that he’d been recommended to attend officer candidate school. Springs was excited about a potential promotion and wanted to return to Camp Swift early.
The train depot in Bastrop was on the east end of town, where Black residents were able to move without restriction. Jackson’s Cafe and Montgomery’s—two neighboring establishments—were the only places Black residents and Black camp soldiers could relax and enjoy one another’s company. On December 16, Springs walked the two blocks from the train station with his coat and suitcase. He’d have some beers with friends, maybe get something to eat. Sometime after midnight, he’d probably return to the camp.
The National Personnel Records Center in Spanish Lake, Missouri, is a 474,500-square-foot repository that sits on more than seven acres north of St. Louis. Dating back to the Spanish-American War, it is the nerve center for rank-and-file military documents. Roughly 56 million individual files are stored in cardboard boxes stacked 29 feet high on metal shelving.
For veterans, the center, which is operated by the National Archives, can help track medical records. For their families, it can serve as a bridge to a long-dead relative. In other cases, it can give clues to a moment 80 years ago, in a small Texas town.
In midsummer, I’d filed a request for Springs’ military record but was quickly denied. The paperwork didn’t exist: A fire 49 years earlier had torn through the stacks. Millions of documents were burned during the four-day fire, and millions more were left soaking wet and slowly disintegrated in the Missouri humidity. For years, archivists had tried to reconstruct some files by pulling from other resources, but they’d only succeeded in recreating a fraction of what had been lost. Around 80 percent of Army records from World War II had been destroyed, a figure that probably includes most everything related to Walter Springs.
There was one final option for possibly figuring out what happened to Springs: the court-martial transcripts for Martin Walker. I requested the file, and in late August, an archives employee in Spanish Lakes walked into the records bays—with their 17,501 linear feet of storage—and pulled a box from one of the shelves. Inside was file 229865, which was wrapped in an aging manila folder. On the top left, in black ink, it read: “Walker, Martin A.”
The file contained 79 pages. The papers were varying hues of yellow and orange, but the corners appeared pristine, as if they’d never moved since being put there in early January 1943. There were official-looking stamps and signatures throughout. The file included basics: a timeline of the shooting; the court-martial; a record of Walker’s monthly Army pay ($66); his charging sheet for manslaughter; and a list of witnesses. Most important, it included affidavits from the MPs and 33 pages of court-martial transcripts.
It was loud in Jackson’s Cafe that night in December 1942. Maybe 25 or 30 Black civilians and six to 10 Black servicemen were packed inside. The jukebox was playing in one corner; drinks were flowing. At around 11:30 p.m. the four-man, all-white MP detachment led by Walker arrived to clear the room of curfew violators. Black MPs usually handled duties in this part of town, but they’d been confined to the infirmary after a bout of mumps.
The white MPs were all friends, the court-martial testimony shows. Three were privates—Vivian McDowell, Barney Martin, and Henry Kehr—and the men had moved quickly through Jackson’s, rounding up the servicemen at a table near the doorway, demanding identification, and then lining them up along a wall. While the MPs were collecting information, Springs walked through the door.
Defense: Was [Springs’] attitude antagonistic?
Walker: It seemed that way. When he first came in the door, which was pretty crowded, he brushed right in and shoved his way through the other colored boys.
Springs had been inside Jackson’s earlier that night, according to testimony, then went next door to Montgomery’s. He drank whiskey and beer with two women and a local shoe-shine man named Steve Reed. Reed eventually left for Jackson’s. At around 11:40 p.m., Springs did, too, taking his suitcase but leaving his coat behind. When Springs walked in the door at Jackson’s, he saw Walker and the other MPs rounding up the Black soldiers.
Walker addressed Springs. “Sergeant, we are going to have to write you up,” he said, according to an affidavit from Private Barney Martin. Springs stopped and turned around to face the corporal. He explained he hadn’t broken curfew; he was still on leave from Camp Swift. Walker didn’t want to hear it. He’d have to show his papers to McDowell, who was standing nearby. Springs attempted to show his furlough paperwork to the private, but McDowell told Springs he’d need to line up against the wall.
Springs called to Reed and asked him to go back to Montgomery’s and get his coat. “These damn MPs got me,” he told Reed.
McDowell spun around. “Soldier, why don’t you be quiet,” Martin claimed McDowell said. Springs immediately got in McDowell’s face, according to Martin. “I’ll have you understand that you are not to address me as soldier,” Springs told McDowell, according to Martin. “When you talk to me, address me as Sergeant.”
Prosecutors called Reed to testify.
Prosecutor: Did any MP say anything to [Springs]….”
Reed: One did.
Prosecutor: Which one said something, do you know him?
Reed: I don’t know him. He was a tall fellow.
He was referencing McDowell, whose words had sparked such quick anger from Springs, which eventually led to the fight with Martin.
And then, there it was. Page 55:
Prosecutor: What did the tall MP say?
Reed: He told him, “One more word out of you, n—–, and I’ll be on you.”
Prosecutor: What, if anything, did Sergeant Springs say after the MP made the statement which you have just stated to the court?
Reed: He said, “Don’t call me n—–, call me sergeant or soldier. I think he said “soldier”; I don’t know.
Prosecutors called Cornelius H. Hall, a Black staff sergeant who was also in the bar. He was lined up near Springs when the fight broke out. Hall had never met Springs, he testified, and had never seen him at Camp Swift. Hall was asked to explain what he’d witnessed that night.
“At the time Sgt. Springs entered the door at Jackson’s Cafe, the MPs were taking my name,” Hall began. “They told [Springs] to stop, and he set his suitcase down and stopped. They were mumbling something behind me, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I heard someone say, “Shut up, n—–,” and someone said, “You can call me, ‘colored soldier.’ ”
Martin stepped up, put his hand on Springs’ shoulder, and pushed the sergeant back. Springs threw a punch, Martin told investigators. Martin took a swing with his club but missed. Springs grabbed the private. The men wrestled, knocking over tables and chairs. McDowell jumped in and clubbed Springs in the forehead. Springs and Martin tumbled into a booth, breaking the table. Martin sprained his ankle; he later told police he’d been pinned down by the debris. McDowell hit Springs at least twice more, “never seeming to have an effect,” according to McDowell’s affidavit. Springs took off toward the cafe’s rear door, but then stopped. McDowell said the sergeant turned around and pulled out a knife.
“[A]fter I attempted to reach [Springs], he was using his knife in a slashing manner,” Walker testified at his court-martial, sizing up Springs as six feet tall and between 175 and 190 pounds (the autopsy reported Springs was five feet, nine inches and 165 pounds). “[W]hen he came out with the knife… just like a mad dog, I knew he would have cut anything in his path.” Walker said he saw Springs moving toward Martin, who was still pinned by debris in the booth. Walker pulled out his Colt .45. He yelled for his men to step back. He fired once.
I sent Springs-Levert the transcript on September 2. She eventually read most of the file but says she couldn’t find the emotional strength to finish it all. Just getting through parts of it seemed to be a quiet and simple act of bravery her uncle and her grandfather would have appreciated. When she finished reading, Springs-Levert felt numb.
For weeks afterward, she couldn’t get the confrontation between her uncle and McDowell out of her mind—how a racial slur uttered by a military police officer was one of the last things Walter Springs heard. Even then, Springs’ inclination wasn’t to fight over that word; instead, he asked for them to respect his humanity, to acknowledge his rank, to recognize he was one of them.
Was Walker guilty of manslaughter? Springs-Levert wondered. Maybe not. But she thought the MPs were guilty of perhaps something far more sinister. She kept thinking about the descriptions of her uncle, the way Walker called him a “mad dog” and how the white MPs thought he was three inches taller and 10 to 25 pounds heavier than he actually was. “These are all the tropes about the angry Black man in America that we’re still seeing today,” Springs-Levert said. “The MPs see Walt as big and strong and almost not human. Walker literally uses an animalistic description. All the police are good friends; one MP says he feared for the lives and safety of his fellow officers.” Springs-Levert shook her head. “How many times have we heard that story? How many times do we have to read this same thing? How many times are we going to excuse that behavior?”
There was another troubling issue: While the MPs testified that the half-opened knife had been near Springs’ right hand, one of the first police officers at the scene said Springs was “gripping the handle of the knife” when he arrived. Both the sheriff and the town constable said the knife clearly was in Springs’ hand when they showed up, too; however, under cross-examination, the constable admitted that “it was possible for someone else to have placed [the knife] in his hand.”
“At the end of the day, no one was concerned about Walt,” Springs-Levert said. “No one seems upset about the word used against him. They don’t care he obviously had been harassed for months leading up to the shooting. Walt was talking to everyone about this, and we know because we have the written evidence. But he ends up like this character to these MPs, to the people at the court-martial.”
It was vindicating to know her family’s stories had been correct. Their assumptions about the night in Texas, Walter’s father’s intuition, were right all along.
There was a fragility here, too, Springs-Levert thought. What if she didn’t have the family album with her uncle’s photographs and papers? What if Campbell hadn’t been asked to research Springs’ life in 2020? What if the fire at the National Personnel Records Center had destroyed the transcripts of Martin Walker’s court-martial proceedings?
“We finally have the missing piece to our family’s story,” Springs-Levert said. “And I can hold it in my hands.”