A Black Cadet At West Point

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As for the inquiry itself, the focus of attention now shifted to the reputed handwriting experts. Samples of Whittaker’s handwriting, labelled as specimen No. 8 but supposedly not otherwise identified, were mixed in with other numbered samples evidently chosen at random, and the lot were compared to the handwriting on the note of warning that Whittaker had received. Three of the five experts, after several tries, averred that the handwriting of No. 8 matched that of the warning note. Since everyone suspected that No. 8 was Whittaker’s, it was not a great surprise when, on May 15, Lieutenant Sears dramatically asked Whittaker if he had written the note of warning. Whittaker said No. Why then, Sears asked, had the experts found his handwriting and that of the warning note identical? Sears punched this home by revealing that one expert had matched one edge of the warning note with an edge of a letter Whittaker had written and declared that both sheets had come from the same piece of paper. Whittaker was unable to offer any explanation of this alleged fact.

On May 29, 1880, the court of inquiry found that Cadet Johnson C. Whittaker had written the note of warning, had mutilated himself, had tied himself up, and had then feigned unconsciousness. “The imputation upon the character of Cadet Whittaker, referred to in the order convening the Court, and contained in the official reports of the Commandant of Cadets and the Post Surgeon,” the court concluded, “was fully sustained.”

Almost immediately after the court disbanded, June examinations began at West Point. Despite the pressure and distractions of the last two months, Whittaker passed all of his subjects except philosophy. His grades, however, dropped sharply in everything, and because of the failure in philosophy he was deficient and subject to dismissal. No one seemed sure just what would happen.

In any event the Whittaker affair was not yet over. The argument about whether there was racial prejudice at West Point, and whether the black cadet had been treated fairly, continued in the press and in Congress, reflecting dissatisfaction in many parts of the country with the results of the court of inquiry. The press ran critical editorials, to which Professor Peter S. Michie, of the Military Academy, replied in an article published in the June, 1880, North American Review . If Negroes were ostracized at West Point, the professor said, it was because any white cadet caught in any altercation with a black cadet would be more severely punished than usual. “Let the authorities send here some young colored men,” he wrote, “who in ability are at least equal to the average white cadet, and possessed of manly qualities and no matter how dark be the color of the skin, they will settle the question here as must be settled in the country at large, on the basis of human intelligence and human sympathy.” Few of West Point’s critics seemed to be convinced by this.

On August 17 General Schofield was summoned to Washington for a conference with President Haves. After welcoming the General, the President said that a decision had been made to change the command at West Point to insure fair treatment of black cadets. In that case, Schofield observed, there was nothing he could say; but the President urged him to speak up.

Seizing the opening, Schofield began by insisting that at West Point black cadets enjoyed all their constitutional rights and in fact were “closer” to whites there than anywhere else in the country. Unfortunately, he said, “this enforced association had the effect of increasing rather than diminishing pre-existing prejudice and hence of preventing rather than encouraging voluntary social intercourse.” Warming to this theme, Schofield asked rhetorically whether those who were opposed to mingling with blacks did not have the same rights as those who favored it? How could West Point force social intimacy when the rest of the country was opposed to it? As for Whittaker, he was ostracized because “he had provoked a difficulty with a white cadet, had tamely submitted to blows in the face; and then turned in his assailant, who was therefore court-martialled.”

After further discussion, in which Hayes remarked that he had not read the official transcript of the court of inquiry or kept up with newspaper reports of the case, the President asked whether Schofield thought Whittaker should now be court-martialled. Schofield said Yes, and that the black cadet should in the meantime be given a leave of absence: “The only necessity is to get him away from West Point, where he does not belong.”

Shortly after the meeting between Hayes and Schofield, Whittaker was indeed given an indefinite leave of absence and left West Point. In December, 1880, he himself appealed to President Hayes for a court-martial in order to clear his name. The officer slated to replace Schofield as superintendent of the Military Academy, General O. O. Howard, also urged that a court-martial be held, and an order to that effect was issued on December 31.