A Black Cadet At West Point

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West Point, April 7, 1880. At reveille—6 A.M. —it was discovered that Cadet Johnson Chesnut Whittaker was not in formation. This caused a slight stir of interest, for Whittaker was an unusual cadet. He was the only Negro at West Point.

After dismissing the cadets the officer in charge directed George R. Burnett, the cadet officer of the day, to see if Whittaker was still in his room. Burnett moved quickly up the barracks stairs to the fourth floor and banged on Whittaker’s door. There was no answer, and he opened the door and looked in.

Whittaker was lying motionless on the floor, and Burnett could see that his legs were trussed to the side rail of the bed. There was blood on the floor, and the room was in disorder. Burnett left him untouched and ran to get the officer of the day.

Cadet Johnson C. Whittaker had been appointed to West Point from his native Camden, South Carolina, and had come to the United States Military Academy on August 23, 1876, at the age of seventeen. Previously he had been on a scholarship at the University of South Carolina and one of the school’s leading students. South Carolina was not, in the true sense of the word, a university, but rather a school to prepare the freedman for entrance into society. Whittaker, however, had benefited from tutoring at the hands of Professor Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard College. When he came to West Point, he seemed to have enough background to complete the four-year course successfully.

Academically his record from 1876 to 1880 was spotty. At one point he was on the verge of academic disqualification but was put back a year instead. In 1880, then, he was a second classman —the equivalent of a junior in college. In class standing he was at the head of the sixth, or lowest, section.

The real problem of Whittaker’s life was not academic, but social. No one spoke to him except on official business, and then as briefly and as curtly as possible. Cadets reproached him if he tried to sit next to them at the mess table or if he fell in next to them at formation. Once, a cadet struck him in the face over some disagreement; Whittaker complained, and the cadet was suspended for a month. No one wanted to room with him, and the administration put him by himself in a room normally occupied by two cadets.

Whittaker, who was light brown in color, sometimes visited other Negroes in the area around West Point, but not often. He faithfully wrote to his mother and to his former teacher, Professor Greener. Occasionally he talked with two black workers at the Academy, one named Simpson and the other Mitchell. For the most part, however, he kept to himself, studied, and regularly read his Bible.

On the front leaf of this brown leather Bible, on April 21, 1878, Whittaker had written, “Try never to injure another by word, by action or broken … [illegible] Forgive as soon as you are injured and forget as soon as you forgive.” On New Year’s Day, 1879, he had written that he would always try “to do his duty to God and man” and never to do anything that would “make his mother ‘blush.’” In the text of the Bible Whittaker underlined passages and wrote his own commentaries. All the underlined passages concerned loneliness. For example, he underlined a phrase from the thirty-second verse, chapter 16, of John: “And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” In the margin he wrote in pencil: “I in my dreary solitude surrounded by none but enemies can say that I am not destitute of friends for God is near me.” The fourteenth verse of the Twenty-seventh Psalm was also underlined: “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine (heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.” In the margin he wrote: “a world of comfort for sad souls is locked up in this 14th verse, XXVII chapter.”

On Sunday, April 5, 1880, Whittaker opened a small post commissary envelope that, he said later, he found in his room. The message was short and to the point:

Mr. Whittaker

You will be fixed. Better keep awake.

A friend

Finding this note after he returned from supper, Whittaker said, he did not know what to make of it. He mulled it over and even asked the opinion of the black bathhouse-attendant, Louis Simpson, who urged him to ignore the whole thing. Whittaker mentioned the note Monday in a letter to his mother and said he was planning to show it to the superintendent of the Academy, General John M. Schofield. He had not done so, however, by Monday evening. After supper that night, Whittaker studied, read his Bible as usual, and went to bed a little after midnight. It was the following morning that Cadet Burnett found him unconscious on the floor, tied to his bed.