Alone in the profession of arms: America's first three African American West Point graduates



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Following Emancipation, many African Americans came to view military service as a crucial step toward the greater acceptance of blacks into American society and, potentially, toward complete citizenship. Military service demonstrated that the African American community was prepared to take on all of the responsibilities associated with full citizenship and verified that blacks were fully capable of serving as Regular Army soldiers, a role that had historically been reserved for white Americans alone. In 1866 Congress opened the ranks of the Regular Army to African Americans with the creation of four all-black regiments. These units were manned entirely by black enlisted men under the command of white officers. Although not legally confined to the enlisted ranks, African Americans were not expected or encouraged to pursue positions as commissioned officers. Many white Americans, including senior military and political leaders, did not believe that blacks possessed the competencies required to serve effectively as military commanders. In the late nineteenth century three exceptional African American men successfully challenged this notion. Henry Flipper, John Alexander and Charles Young became the first three black graduates of the U.S. Military Academy and the first black men to earn commissions as line officers in the Regular Army. Each of these talented men achieved success where countless others before them had failed. The middle class values and Protestant work ethic championed by their parents in their childhood homes shaped the way that Flipper, Alexander and Young viewed social issues and provided them with the greatest motivation to pursue careers in the profession of arms. While each of them earned the grudging respect of some of their white contemporaries, in the eyes of many, their race overshadowed their professional successes and weighed heavily upon any assessment or characterization of their service. Despite these challenges, each of these men served as role models for aspiring black youths and their successes helped to instill a sense of pride within other members of their race. These men remain important figures in African American history and continue to be a source of inspiration for many, both inside and outside of the black community.