- Historic Sites
A Black Cadet At West Point
One morning Cadet Johnson Whittaker was found battered and bleeding, trussed to his barracks bed. Who had done it, and why?
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Schofield also granted interviews to newspaper reporters. According to a New York Herald account he was more certain of the culprit than he had seemed in the communiqués to his superiors. In the Herald interview Schofield indicated his belief that Whittaker had committed self-mutilation in order to spend some time in the hospital and thus avoid next month’s examination, which he feared he could not pass. Most West Point officers, Schofield reportedly said, shared this belief. The New York Tribune , citing Schofield, reported that Whittaker had had an encounter with an Alabama cadet, John B. McDonald, a few years back; but Schofield said he was convinced McDonald had not been involved in this affair. Commenting on details of the episode, the General said the blood was so fresh that it seemed to indicate that the mutilation had occurred just a little before reveille. Moreover, why was it that no one in the adjoining rooms had heard any noise? And finally, why should anyone else commit such an outrage? “He has no enemies, because the other students have had no intercourse with him.”
The press was inclined to accept Schofield’s view, however reluctantly. As the Tribune editorialiZed on April 8: “It is painful to know that the one representative of the colored race among the cadets, who had such an opportunity to do credit to his people, should have made such a dismal failure.”
Meanwhile, the court of inquiry got under way. It first met on the morning of April 9 in the Military Academy library. From its first session it had national significance, as newspapers kept their readers informed of each day’s proceedings and often made editorial comments. The inquiry room was filled each day with the trial’s participants as well as an audience, including many officers’ wives.
The first order of business was to summon the black cadet to testify. As the spectators buzzed in anticipation, the recorder of the court, Lieutenant Clinton B. Sears, called Whittaker to the stand. Whittaker stood up and, with a slight limp, moved in front of the assembled officers of the court. He saluted smartly, was sworn in, and was told to take his seat. Lieutenant Sears then asked him to tell the court exactly what had happened. Whittaker, in a calm and steady voice, related again the story of his night of terror. He spoke clearly, though at times quickly, and poured out the tale of masked attackers, slashed ears, and cut hair. His still-evident wounds gave his account dramatic reality.
The court listened carefully to the story, and then the recorder asked a series of questions, trying to get Whittaker to give more exact details of the attack.
Q.—During this affair, did you continue to struggle throughout?
A.—I did, sir.
Q.—Did you make your best endeavor physically to prevent their touching you?
A.—I did, sir.
How had his ears been cut? He thought with a single blade. Had the rope covered his fingers? No. Had he tried to free his legs by kicking? He had. Was he now limping from the affair? Yes, the wound on his toe was causing a limp. Had he recognized any of the voices? He had not.
The questions now took a new line. How did Whittaker feel about getting through West Point? He had always felt confident about his chances.
Q.—Have you any cause to suppose that there is any prejudice against you in the minds of your instructors due to which it would be more difficult for you to graduate than other cadets against whom such prejudice did not exist?
A.—No cause to think so from their actions toward me in the least.
Q.—Has your social isolation had any effect on you in the progression of your studies?
A.—It has, sir.
Whittaker was kept on the stand that first day until 4:40 P.M. The next day, at 10 A.M. , he was again called, and after a long series of questions about various details of the attack the recorder raised a key point:
Q.—You are aware that the opinion is held by some that this assault is entirely an imaginary one and that you yourself were alone concerned in it; now for your own benefit I have here this Bible which you state you are accustomed to read, which has been in your possession for some years, in whose sacredness I presume you have every belief, and I want you to put your hand upon that Bible and take an oath that you are in no way cognizant of nor were in any way a free agent, nor had any knowledge of or connivance with your assailants.