Foundations: Black Experiences of West Point

Foundations: Black Experiences of West Point is an exhibit curated by cadets, faculty, and staff affiliated with the United States Military Academy Department of History’s Black History Project and the United States Military Academy Library. Drawing on a diverse array of textual records, physical artifacts, images, and interviews, Foundations traces the many and varied experiences of Black soldiers, free and enslaved laborers, cadets, and faculty from the American Revolution to the present day. In doing so, this exhibit aims to foster a deeper and more complete understanding of West Point’s history and the diverse people who built and shaped the institution we know today. 

Foundations is both the title and the central theme of this exhibit. Black soldiers established the foundation of West Point in integrated units that built, garrisoned, and maintained the vitally important fortifications at West Point during the Revolution. Black cadets and faculty are foundational to the United States Military Academy at West Point today. The complex history of the intervening years is one of deliberate exclusion and a long, contested, and ultimately successful effort to build sufficient access, acceptance, opportunity, and community to reintegrate West Point from its foundations up. 

That struggle is both an intensely human story and the impersonal history of an institution. It has heroes and villains alike, and far more people who fell somewhere between those two poles. It is a story that defies a singular, representative archetype. Accordingly, Foundations emphasizes experiences more than biographies to better contextualize the range of Black experiences of West Point. This allows for a better understanding of how those myriad experiences intersected with and shaped West Point as both a place and an institution. 

Foundations is organized thematically while also holding to a chronological progression to the greatest extent possible. It opens with Black soldiers serving at West Point throughout the Revolution, focusing on the nature and impact of their service. Some of those soldiers were free, and some were enslaved. That fact connects to the next section of the exhibit, which examines Black labor at West Point in the nineteenth century. Long before the admission of the first Black cadet in 1870, the United States Military Academy depended upon Black labor. Black servants—free and enslaved—handymen, barbers, cooks, groundskeepers, and stewards were not uncommon at West Point throughout the nineteenth century. Less common were Black cadets. The trials and tribulations of those involved in the first attempt to integrate West Point from 1870-1889 are the subject of the exhibit’s third section. After Charles Young became the Academy’s third Black graduate in 1889, political support for integrating West Point evaporated, and the effort went into a state of suspended animation.  

Integration resumed in the 20th century. The exhibit’s next section examines integration at West Point in the 20th century, beginning with the Buffalo Soldier cavalry detachment stationed at West Point early in the century and continuing to illustrate the experiences of those who reintegrated the Corps of Cadets and integrated the faculty from 1932 through the end of the century. The last section presents a display of photographs emblematic of Black cadets’ experiences within the Corps of Cadets today. Finally, the exhibit concludes with an opportunity for visitors to engage with a series of interviews from the vast collections of the West Point Department of History’s Center for Oral History that connect to various artifacts and themes presented throughout the exhibit. 

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Language Warning: This exhibit contains images of original documents from throughout history, and some of those documents reflect outdated, biased, and offensive language.

Foundations: Black Experiences of West Point