A Black Cadet At West Point


Despite the somewhat garbled grammar, everyone got the point: Whittaker was being asked to swear that he had not mutilated himself. He placed his hand on the Bible:

A.—I do, sir.

With this dramatic scene over, to the excited murmur of the courtroom, Whittaker was excused for the present.

During the next several days activity really picked up. Major Thomas F. Barr had arrived from the Judge Advocate General’s office in Washington on April 9 and was shown Dr. Alexander’s report and the note of warning. According to Schofield he immediately noticed a great similarity between Whittaker’s handwriting and that of the note of warning. That same day Colonel William Wherry, the West Point adjutant, left for New York to secure the services of a detective to help investigate the case. On April 12 Mr. James Gaylor, the superintendent of city delivery of the New York Post Office, the first of five “handwriting experts” retained by West Point, began his investigation of the warning note. On the same day Professor Richard Greener, Whittaker’s former teacher and now dean of the law school at Howard University, arrived to lend his support and advice to Whittaker.

With national interest in the case kept high by the newspapers, nonmilitary agencies began to get involved. There were debates in the United States Senate over whether the entire “regime” at West Point ought to be investigated under suspicion of prejudiced treatment of Negro cadets. At the request of President Rutherford B. Hayes, the United States district attorney for the northern district of New York, Martin I. Townsend, was dispatched to oversee the inquiry for the government.

This in itself put West Point—the administration and the Corps of Cadets alike—on the defensive, and Townsend’s first statement after his arrival on April 14 only increased the tension: “I don’t say the cadets did it, but if it was not a hostile attack then the world is a farce.” Townsend, whose habitual manner was blunt and sarcastic, immediately became a leading figure in the inquiry. He questioned witnesses aggressively, and repeatedly challenged the code of conduct of the Corps. In a discussion of the earlier incident when Whittaker had reported a fellow cadet for striking him, Townsend suggested that although this was in keeping with official regulations, the normal response would have been for Whittaker to strike back. The only reason he had not was that he was a lone black in hostile surroundings, and there was one rule at West Point for whites and another for blacks. This aroused and confused General Schofield, who rushed to the front of the room and heatedly declared: “If you think the rule is taught at West Point that a cadet is to tamely submit to a blow without returning it or defending himself you are greatly mistaken.…That rule may perhaps be taught in the Bible, but it is not taught here…” The implication seemed to be that Whittaker was a coward.

While all this was going on, newspaper reporters were poking around, and one who worked for the New York Times uncovered a tale about three cadets who had been overheard, on the night of Whittaker’s mutilation, boasting that they were going to “take care of him.” This was supposed to have taken place at Ryan’s Tave n, in nearby Highland Falls. The proprietor, Philip Ryan, was called, and he denied before the court that cadets ever came to his place. This was soon discredited when a number of cadets testified that it was indeed common practice to change into civilian clothes at Ryan’s place prior to a night on the town. It also developed that several cadets had been out after taps on the night of the trouble.

At this point General Schofield issued General Order No. 14, dated April 21, 1880, “commending the Corps of Cadets for their bearing under the injurious suspicions cast upon them and expressing… confidence in their honor and integrity.” In his official diary he gave this remarkable explanation: …the unanimous belief of the Corps…was that the alleged culprits were not cadets.…[Yet] all the Cadets were again undergoing the same examination under oath before the court of inquiry, as if their statements upon honor were doubted… I knew that they were all innocent except possibly three or four.…The order of April 21 was issued as a simple act of justice to the Corps of Cadets.