Duty, Honor, Country
In its first 133 years of existence (1802–1935), over 10,000 white cadets graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. In stark contrast, only three African American cadets could claim this achievement: Henry Ossian Flipper (1877), John Hanks Alexander (1887), and Charles Young (1889).
The United States Military Academy at West Point was founded in 1802 with the passage of the Military Peace Establishment Act, which was signed into law by President Thomas Jefferson. Designed to educate and train future Army officers, Jefferson claimed that West Point would be established under democratic ideals—a meritocracy that would admit cadets based on their character and abilities rather than their wealth and family connections. However, these democratic ideals only applied to white men.
To send to West Point for four years competition a young man who was born in slavery is to assume that half a generation is sufficient to raise a colored man to the social, moral, and intellectual level which the average white man has reached in several hundred years. As well might the common farm horse be entered in a four-mile race against the best blood inherited from a long line of English racers.Major General John D. Schofield, Superintendent of West PointExpressing his views on African Americans at West Point in his 1880 annual report
Although written in 1880, the views expressed by Major General Schofield on the presence of African American cadets at West Point reflected the prevailing views at the elite academy (and much of the country) since it was established in 1802. It wasn’t until almost 70 years after its founding that the first African American cadet was admitted to West Point, when James Webster Smith, a formerly enslaved man, entered in the Fall of 1870.
Between 1870 and 1899, only 12 African American cadets were admitted to West Point. Each endured physical and emotional abuse and racist treatment from their white peers and professors throughout their time at the Academy. They were ostracized, barred from social activities with other cadets, and spoken to only when officially necessary, a practice known as silencing. While white cadets were hazed by their fellow cadets as punishment for serious misconduct, Black cadets were hazed for being Black and for being at West Point. Each of these cadets persevered through incredible circumstances, enduring years of mistreatment and injustice, and excelling in the rigorous coursework required of all cadets, to prove that African Americans belonged at West Point and in the officer corps. Ultimately, due to various just and unjust circumstances, only three of those 12 cadets graduated from West Point: Henry Ossian Flipper in 1877, John Hanks Alexander in 1887, and Charles Young in 1889.
Henry Ossian Flipper, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1877
“On that eventful afternoon I viewed the hills about West Point, her stone structures perched thereon, thus rising still higher, as if providing access to the very pinnacle of fame, and shuddered. With my mind full of the horrors of the treatment of all former cadets of color, and the dread of inevitable ostracism, I approached tremblingly yet confidently.”
—Henry O. Flipper on first arriving at West Point. From his autobiography The Colored Cadet at West Point.
Henry Ossian Flipper was born enslaved in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1856 to Festus Flipper and Isabella Buckhalter. The Flippers were emancipated at the end of the Civil War in 1865 and relocated to Atlanta that same year. While a student at Atlanta University, Flipper gained admission to West Point in 1873, the fourth African American to be admitted. During his first year at West Point, Flipper roomed with James Webster Smith, who shared with him some of the hard lessons he had learned about surviving as the first African American cadet admitted to West Point.
My four years were drawing to a close. They had been years of patient endurance and hard and persistent work, interspersed with bright oases of happiness and gladness and joy, as well as weary barren wastes of loneliness, isolation, unhappiness, and melancholy. I believe I have discharged—I know I have tried to do so—every duty faithfully and conscientiously.Henry O. Flipper on the eve of graduating from West PointThe Colored Cadet at West Point.
In 1877, after persevering through four years of relentless harassment and ostracism, Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point. At the graduation ceremony, he was the only cadet to receive a round of applause upon receiving his diploma, perhaps an indication that others in attendance recognized the magnitude of what he had accomplished. As a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant, Flipper also became the first African American commissioned officer in the regular U.S. Army. He was appointed to the 10th Cavalry and stationed at Fort Sill in what is now Oklahoma. While serving with the 10th, Flipper also became the first African American officer to command soldiers in the regular U.S. Army.
The 10th Cavalry was one of the famous Buffalo Soldier regiments, along with the 9th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. These African American regiments, initially commanded by white officers, were stationed at forts across the Western Frontier in support of westward expansion. Buffalo Soldiers built roads and fortifications, installed telegraph lines, protected settlers, guarded stagecoaches, and patrolled the Mexican border. They also fought with distinction in wars throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s including the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the Mexican Punitive Expedition.
Following postings across Texas, including Fort Elliott and Fort Quitman, Lt. Flipper’s historic military career came to an abrupt and unjust end in 1881. While stationed with the 10th Cavalry at Fort Davis in Texas, Flipper’s commanding officer accused him of embezzling commissary funds, an accusation many believed to be racially motivated. A court martial was convened in November 1881 to review two official charges against Flipper: embezzlement and “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” Although a court martial acquitted Flipper of embezzlement, he was dismissed from the Army in 1882 for conduct unbecoming an officer.
Flipper fought for years to clear his name to no avail. He went on to have a long and successful career as a civil engineer, working in Arizona, Mexico, Minnesota, Texas, and Venezuela. He also served as a political advisor and assistant to the Secretary of the Interior for several years and was considered an authority on foreign relations with Mexico. Henry O. Flipper died in 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of 84. Thanks to the tireless efforts of his descendants, he was awarded a retroactive honorable discharge from the Army in 1976 and received a full pardon from President Clinton in 1999.
John Hanks Alexander, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1887
“You can not realize to what extent I have been shut off from all refining influences (social) and how utterly West Point is isolated from the rest of the world. Were it not for changes in the climate … it would seem that I had spent the last two years in the confines of the highest and most secluded peak of the Himalaya Mountains. Just to think of a person going two years without speaking to anyone!”
—John Hanks Alexander writing to his friend John P. Green in 1885 about his first two years at West Point
John Hanks Alexander was admitted to West Point in 1883, 10 years after Henry O. Flipper. He was born in 1864 in Helena, Arkansas, to formerly enslaved parents, James Alexander and Frances Miller. A successful businessman, James had worked for many years to purchase freedom for himself and for some members of his family. The rest of the family was emancipated with the end of the Civil War in 1865. John Alexander was attending Oberlin College when he applied for admission to West Point. During his four years at West Point, he was subject to the same racism, segregation, isolation, and hazing as the Black cadets who had preceded him. And like Flipper before him, he persevered, performing well academically and proving that African Americans belonged at West Point. He also paved the way for future cadets, including his roommate, Charles Young.
Alexander graduated from West Point in 1887, the second African American to do so in the school’s 85-year history. Like Flipper, he was met with thunderous applause upon receiving his diploma. After graduation, he received his 2nd Lieutenant commission and was assigned to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, with the 9th Cavalry. At the time, Alexander was the only African American officer with a regular command position in the U.S. Army.
After six months at Fort Robinson, Lt. Alexander transferred with his troops to Fort Washakie in Wyoming. A few months later, in June 1888, he led a company of the 9th Cavalry on a seventeen-day march from Fort Washakie to Fort Duchesne in Utah, where he remained for over three years. At Fort Duchesne, Alexander served for a time with his former West Point roommate, now himself a 2nd Lieutenant, Charles Young. In 1891, Lt. Alexander was transferred back to Fort Robinson, where he won a commendation from his superior officers.
In January 1894, Lt. Alexander was assigned to detached service at Wilberforce University in Ohio as a professor of military science and tactics. The War Department had recently designated Wilberforce as a school for military training, the first of its kind for African Americans. Tragically, only a month after his arrival at Wilberforce, Lt. Alexander died suddenly from a ruptured artery near his heart. He was only 30 years old. Lt. John Hanks Alexander was buried with full military honors in Xenia, Ohio.
Charles Young, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1889
“You know for me the Academy has, even to this day, heart-aches in spite of the many advantages I derived there.”
—Maj. Charles Young in a 1915 letter to West Point classmate and friend Col. Delamere Skerrett
Charles Young was born enslaved in 1864 in Mays Lick, Kentucky, to Gabriel Young and Arminta Bruen. In February 1865, Young’s father escaped across the Kentucky border into Ohio to join the Union Army with the 5th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment. Pvt. Gabriel Young was honorably discharged from the Army in 1866, and the Young family settled in Ripley, Ohio. Charles Young was admitted to West Point in 1884, the ninth African American to do so. He endured the same mistreatment as the Black cadets before him, although he had the benefit of rooming with fellow cadet John Hanks Alexander until Alexander graduated in 1887.
Young struggled in mathematics and was forced to repeat his first year. This meant he would be at West Point for five years rather than four, but he persevered. Although he eventually gained a few allies among the white cadets and instructors, he was still isolated. Often his only social interactions were with the shoeshines at the Academy, with whom he would converse in German. In June 1889, having failed to pass an engineering class, Young was held back from graduating with the rest of his class. After receiving tutoring over the summer from his engineering instructor, Lt. George W. Goethals, Young passed the class. In August 1889, Charles Young became the third African American to graduate from West Point. Unlike when Flipper and Alexander graduated, there was no ceremony and no applause, but the accomplishment was monumental, nonetheless. It would be 29 years before another African American, Byron Alexander, received an appointment to West Point in 1918, and 40 years before an African American, Alonzo Parham, was admitted to West Point in 1929. It would be 47 years before an African American cadet, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., graduated from West Point in 1936.
Young was originally commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant with the 10th Cavalry but was reassigned a few weeks later to the 25th Infantry. On October 31, 1889, he was reassigned to the 9th Cavalry and began serving at Fort Robinson. In 1890 he transferred to Fort Duchesne, where he remained for four years, serving for a time with Lt. Alexander. At Fort Duchesne he also mentored Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who would later become the first African American general in the Army, and whose son would become the fourth Black cadet to graduate from West Point.
In 1894, after Lt. Alexander’s untimely death, Lt. Young was appointed to take his place at Wilberforce University’s new military department. While at Wilberforce, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and became close friends with another faculty member, W.E.B. Du Bois.
With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Young received a temporary promotion to Major and was assigned command of the 9th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. However, the war ended before Major Young and his men could be sent overseas, and Young, relegated back to the rank of 1st Lieutenant, returned to Fort Duchesne. Young was promoted to Captain with the 9th Cavalry in 1901 and served his first tour in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War.
Upon returning from the Philippines in 1902, Captain Young was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco with the 9th Cavalry. In 1903, he was assigned to what is now Sequoia National Park, becoming the first African American superintendent of a national park. As superintendent, Young supervised his troops in constructing roads, drawing maps, and in preventing poaching, illegal logging, and illegal grazing. In 1904, Young married Ada Mills and was appointed military attaché to Haiti. He was stationed in Haiti for three years, during which time his son Charles was born. After temporary duty in Washington, D.C., Young began his second tour in the Philippines in 1908 where his daughter, Marie, was born in 1909. Upon returning from the Philippines, Young was stationed at Fort D. A. Russell in Wyoming from 1909–1911.
In 1912 Young was appointed military attaché to Liberia for three years, taking over the position from his former mentee, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who had resigned due to illness. While in Liberia, Young was promoted to Major and tasked with training and reorganizing the Liberian Frontier Force. Like his predecessor, Young contracted malaria in 1913 and was forced to recuperate in the U.S. for three months before returning to Liberia. In 1916 he was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal for his many outstanding achievements.
From 1916–1917, Young was stationed in Mexico with the 10th Cavalry as part of the Mexican Punitive Expedition, where he commanded a company of the 10th in several engagements with the enemy. He distinguished himself in combat, including at the Battle of Agua Caliente, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
“[My retirement] seems regrettable for both the country and our people, for I could have done good work for both. … Perhaps I may yet be able to convince the authorities that I am not sick and thus be permitted to serve. … Physically I believe myself in condition to render as full and as strenuous service as ever, when the occasion arises.Col. Charles Young in a letter to the Pittsburg CourierThe Crisis, Vol. 15, No. 1, November 1917
With the U.S. on the verge of entering World War I, Lt. Colonel Young was the highest-ranking African American officer in the Regular U.S. Army. He was also on the verge of promotion to Colonel and was expected to command American troops when the U.S. joined the war, as he had throughout his career. However, many white military leaders and Senators were determined to prevent Young from commanding white officers, something the Army had always taken great pains to avoid happening. In 1917, when doctors performing a physical exam found that Young had high blood pressure and an enlarged heart, he was medically retired from the Army at the rank of Colonel.
In an effort to prove his fitness for duty, Colonel Young embarked on a horseback ride from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, DC. According to his itinerary, he covered 497 miles and arrived in Washington on June 22, 1918, after 16 days of riding and only one day of rest. While in Washington D.C., Colonel Young met with the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, to discuss his reinstatement and participation in the war.
Finally, five months after his meeting with Secretary Baker, Colonel Young was recalled to active duty on November 6 and assigned to Camp Grant in Illinois with the Ohio National Guard. Armistice was declared five days later on November 11, 1918, and Colonel Young was relieved of his duties three months after that. Neither Colonel Young, nor the Buffalo Soldiers he had served with for almost 30 years, had been allowed to serve overseas during the war.
In 1920 Colonel Young was again appointed military attaché to Liberia. Two years later, while visiting Nigeria, Colonel Young passed away on January 8, 1922, at the age of 57. It was the end of groundbreaking and historical life and career. Colonel Young was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in 1923. Young was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General in 2022.
The life of Charles Young was a triumph of tragedy. No one ever knew the truth about the Hell he went through at West Point. He seldom even mentioned it. The pain was too great. Few knew what faced him always in his army life. … He lived in the army surrounded by insult and intrigue and yet he set his teeth and kept his soul serene and triumphed. … Seldom did he lose his temper, seldom complain. … Steadily, unswervingly, he did his dutyW.E.B. Du Bois in a eulogy to Col. Charles YoungThe Crisis, Vol. 23 No. 4, February 1922
West Point in the 20th and 21st Centuries
Forty-seven years after Colonel Young graduated from West Point, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. became the fourth African American cadet to graduate in 1936. Perhaps best known as commander of the famous Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, Davis had a long and distinguished career in the Air Force before retiring in 1970 at the rank of Lieutenant General. In 1998 he was advanced to General by President Clinton. General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. passed away on July 4, 2002, at the age of 89 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1975, President Ford signed Public Law 94-106 permitting women to be admitted to all military services academies, including West Point. In 1976, the first class of women were admitted to West Point, 174 years after its founding. Among that first group of women were African American cadets Pat Locke from Detroit, Michigan, and Joy Suzanne Dallas Eshelman from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. In 1980, Locke and Eshelman became the first African American women to graduate from West Point, earning their place in history and paving the way for the women who would come after them.
Throughout the history of West Point, African American cadets have persevered through incredible circumstances with courage and determination, embodying the values of duty, honor, and country. At West Point and beyond, they have broken barriers for future generations of cadets and have proven beyond a doubt that African Americans belong in the officer corps.
Browse Objects in the NMAAHC Collection Relating to African Americans in the Military
Written by Patri O’Gan, Curatorial Research Assistant in Military History
Published on May 2, 2022