Over100 Years Later, Black Cadet Gets his Due
Reprinted from USA Today by the People's Weekly World, 29 July 1995, pg. 5
Johnson Whittaker was one of the first African Americans to attend the West Point military academy in 1876.
But his miliary career was ended without honor after three masked men - thought to be cadets - broke into his room, slashed his face, hands and ears with a razor and left him bleeding, unconscious and tied to his bed.
Whittaker was court martialed and expelled, accused by administrators of faking the assault In an attempt to discredit the institution. They believed that no white cadet would lie.
More than a century after he was drummed out, Whittaker was honored posthumously at a White House ceremony July 24. President Clinton presented his family with a second lieutenant's commission.
"It's about 115 years after it should have happened, but I'm glad it's being done," says Whittaker's great-grandson Ulysses Whittaker Boykin.
Boykin, a Harvard Law School graduate who lives in Detroit, attended the ceremony along with son Peter and his mother, Cecil Whittaker Pequette, 77, a retired teacher and Whittaker's oldest descendant. She says she did not learn the details of her grandfather's ordeal until after his death.
History professor John Marszalek contacted the family for a book he was writing about Whittaker's experience.
"Right now I am quite proud that the Army and West Point have come through," Pequette said. "It kind of closes a chapter in the book. It's a way for the story to end."
Boykin says the gesture "will help rectify a great wrong."
Whittaker's court-martial was over-turned by President Chester Arthur, but Whittaker never got his commission.
"This has been a long time coming and I'm sure Mr. Whittaker's family is happy and relieved," said Sen. Ernest Hollings, (D-S.C.), who last year began a push to get recognition for Whittaker. Hollings had asked the Army to open an inquiry after he heard the Whittaker story. Three months later he introduced a bill urging Clinton to grant the commission.
Johnson Whittaker, born a slave in Camden, S.C., in 1858 was appointed to West Point In 1876, during the height of Reconstruction when many abolitionists were advocating speedy integration.
Whittaker's roommate, the first year, was Henry Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point. But Whittaker's life at the academy was more often solitary and isolated as he endured the hostility of the white cadets and instructors.
No one spoke to Whittaker except to conduct official busIness, during most of his four years at West point. He sought comfort in daily Bible readings and prayer, his family says.
Representatives of the National Archives will present the family with Whittaker's Bible, kept as part of the records of his court-martial.
Boykin said his great-grandfather returned to his native South Carolina after his military academy ordeal and became a lawyer, high school principal and professor at what is now South Carolina State University in Orangesburg, S.C. He died in 1931.
"My impression of the man in doing my research was that here was someone who, as a young boy, determined that he was going to make it and overcome what it was like to he a Black man In a racist society," says Marszalek, author of Assault at West Point.
Boykin said he knew about Whittaker's ordeal, but it wasn't something the family dwelled on.
"For a while, he kept newspaper accounts of the incident, but later, he burned them because he didn't want his sons to be bitter."
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