More than a century ago, Johnson Whittaker’s military career abruptly ended after three masked intruders broke into his room at West Point Academy, slashing his face and hands with a razor before leaving him unconscious and tied to his bed.
Because no one confessed to the attacks, military officials concluded that Whittaker, one of the first black cadets at West Point, faked the assault to discredit the military. He was courtmartialed and dismissed from the Army months before graduation during his fourth year at the academy.
Monday, 115 years later, President Clinton awarded Whittaker a posthumous commission at a White House ceremony attended by many of his relatives, including his granddaughter and oldest living descendant, Cecil Pequette, a retired school teacher.
“We cannot undo history, but today, finally, we can pay tribute to a great American and we can acknowledge a great injustice,” Clinton said.
The president presented Whittaker’s family with the bars of a second lieutenant, which he should have received had he graduated, and the Bible Whittaker’s mother gave him before he left for West Point.
The Bible was seized for evidence during the court-martial in 1881 and had been stored in the National Archives ever since. Whittaker lived much of his life at West Point in solitude and often sought comfort by reading the Bible, his family said.
“Today, fading words on the inside cover of that fragile volume reveal a young man whose essential goodness still offers a lesson to all of us,” Clinton said.
Pequette will donate the Bible to South Carolina State University in Orangesburg, where Whittaker, who became a lawyer after his dismissal from the military academy, once taught. He died in 1931.
Whittaker was born a slave in Camden, S.C., in 1858. During Reconstruction in 1876, he won an appointment to West Point, where he was the only black cadet for most of his stay. He was attacked on April 5, 1880, as he slept in his room. The attackers were believed to be white cadets, but school officials said Whittaker mutilated himself and fabricated the story because he expected to fail a philosophy course that would have resulted in expulsion.
Whittaker was court-martialed and expelled. Two years later, President Chester A. Arthur overturned the verdict. But the expulsion was reinstated by West Point officials the same day. After Monday’s ceremony, Pequette, 77, called it “a happy day and proud day.” She said, “I had hoped it would happen before I died. But as I got older and older I didn’t know if I would live to see it.”
She said her grandfather talked little of the episode. His family only learned many of the details during the 1970s, when historian John Marsazalek contacted the family for a book he was writing about Whittaker’s experience.
South Carolina legislators, Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings and Rep. James E. Clyburn, both Democrats, filed legislation to rectify the wrong.
Whittaker’s descendants were heartened by the ceremony. A great-grandson, John Whittaker, said the event did “a lot to restore faith in the system.”
And although they never met their great-great grandfather, Whittaker’s great-great grandchildren grew up hearing his story. “It showed that he struggled and made things better for future generations,” said Boykin’s 18-year-old son Peter, a sophomore at Hampton University in Virginia. “I wouldn’t be here today if he didn’t have to struggle.”