Senator moves to 'right a wrong' at West Point

February 09, 1994|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- As West Point cadet Johnson C. Whittaker lay sleeping, three masked men burst into his room. With a razor, they gouged his hair and slashed his face, hands and ears. "Like we do hogs down South," they told him.

They tied his hands and feet to his bed, smashed a mirror over his head and left him, barely clothed and bleeding.

Whittaker, one of the first African Americans to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., was court-martialed and discharged. West Point brass maintained that he had attacked himself to dishonor the military academy.

Through his long ordeal, more than a century ago, Whittaker, who had been born a slave in Camden, S.C., refused to lose hope.

"I have borne much, and although it is enough to drive me to despair, I shall still bear, I shall still hope, for I have done no wrong . . . I shall wait patiently. And maybe, things will grow brighter, and I shall be 'righted' at last," he wrote a friend in his careful hand during his court-martial.

Now, Whittaker's hopes for vindication may finally be answered.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., has introduced legislation to "right a wrong" and award him a posthumous commission as a second lieutenant -- a rank given to West Point cadets upon graduation.

"I'm so glad I lived long enough to see this story come about," said Whittaker's granddaughter Cecil McFadden, 76, who lives in Detroit. "It vindicates his memory. Maybe he can rest in peace now."

For most of his life, the soft-spoken Johnson Chesnut Whittaker was determined to win a place in life.

He was born in 1858 at Chesnut Plantation in Camden. His mother was a "body slave" to Mary Chesnut, the author of famous Civil War diaries. His father, James Whittaker, who left shortly after he was born, worked as a seamster by candlelight to earn his freedom before the Civil War.

Convinced that education was the only avenue to acceptance in society, Johnson Whittaker studied with fellow South Carolinian Richard Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard College. He later attended the University of South Carolina.

Rep. Solomon Lafayette Hoge agreed to appoint Whittaker to West Point in 1876, at the height of Reconstruction, when many abolitionists were pushing for full and speedy integration.

Although deep in the North, West Point at the time had a racist atmosphere that differed little from that of the hostile South.

"The attitude of the nation, North and South, was almost universally that whites were superior and blacks were inferior and [that] inferior people have no business aspiring to be officers," said John Marszalek, a history professor at Mississippi State University who wrote a book about Whittaker's life in 1972. "It was a very sad situation."

In the National Archives, Mr. Marszalek found a 10,000-page handwritten transcript of Whittaker's court-martial, which included several letters, his Bible and other personal documents from which he pieced together the story for his book, "Court Martial: A Black Man in America," which will be reissued in paperback this month.

One year after Whittaker arrived at West Point, Henry Ossian Flipper, who was born a slave in Georgia, became the first African-American cadet to graduate. After that, Whittaker was alone with white cadets determined not to allow another African American to graduate.

Whittaker was ostracized. No one spoke to him, except to give him an order. He lived alone and ate alone. Other cadets drew straws to determine the loser who would have to march beside Whittaker.

Whittaker was in his fourth year at West Point when he found a note on his chair on April 4. It read: "Mr. Whittaker, You will be fixed. Better keep awake. A friend."

That night, he was attacked.

Although Whittaker immediately called for a court of inquiry, no cadet confessed. West Point officials determined that no white cadet would break the honor code and lie; therefore, Whittaker must have been lying.

At Whittaker's court-martial, the attorney for West Point argued that "Negroes are noted for the ability to sham and feign."

The doctor who examined Whittaker after the attack testified that Whittaker was faking, because his heartbeat was so regular. Handwriting experts testified that Whittaker himself had written the warning note.

"My heart droops . . . and life almost seems a burden," Whittaker wrote at the time. "Oh, how hard, and how cruel is the blow, and who could wonder that as I pen this, tears come to the once twinkling eyes. Friendless. Alone. Sad. Suspected, conscious of innocence. What could seem more cruel to a sensitive nature?"

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