Johnson Chestnut Whittaker was one of the first black men to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. However, when he was at the academy, he was brutally assaulted and expelled after being falsely accused and convicted of faking the incident. It took 60 years after his death for his name to be cleared when he was posthumously commissioned by President Bill Clinton.
Born into slavery on the Chestnut Plantation in Camden, South Carolina, Whittaker studied privately with Richard Greener, the first African-American to graduate from Harvard College. He later attended the University of South Carolina.
In 1876, he was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point under congressman Solomon L. Hoge. During much of his tenure at the institution, he was the only black cadet at the school, and his white peers made every day of his academy life difficult.
On the morning of April 5, 1880, Whittaker was found tied to his bed, bleeding, bruised, and unconscious. His face and hands were cut with a razor and his Bible was burned with pages torn and thrown across the floor. Whittaker told administrators that he had been attacked by three fellow cadets, but academy officials did not believe his account of the attack. West Point administrators said that he had fabricated the incident to win sympathy.
Whittaker was found guilty in 1881 and was expelled from West Point. The verdict was overturned in 1883 by President Chester A. Arthur. However, West Point reinstated the expulsion on the grounds that Whittaker had failed an exam.
After his time at West Point had officially come to an end, he worked as a teacher, lawyer, principal, and a psychology professor in South Carolina. Several of Whittaker’s descendants pursued careers in the military; two of his sons served as Army officers in World War I, one of his grandsons joined the all-black Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, and one of Whittaker’s great-grandsons served as the first lieutenant in the Army during the Vietnam War. Whittaker died in 1931.