You are familiar with the story of Col. Charles Young, the third African-American to graduate from West Point, whose home is now a National Park site located near Wilberforce. Today, I want to share the story of the second African-American graduate who also has Greene County connections.
He was a member of the graduating class of The United States Military Academy at West Point in 1887.
John Hanks Alexander, 2nd Lt. 9th Cavalry was born in Helena, Ark. on Jan. 6, 1864, the fourth of seven children. His father bought the freedom of his wife and the first three children by 1850, the others were born free. His father was a dry good merchant and the first black justice of the peace in Arkansas as well as a member of the state legislature from Phillips County.
After John graduated from Helena High School, he secured money by selling papers, riding mail and other odd jobs before he became a teacher in Mississippi. In the fall of 1880, he attended Oberlin College, working in the Cleveland Hotel in the summer.
John was accepted as a cadet at West Point and ranked number 32 in a graduating class of 64. He was a popular student and it was said that upon graduation, he received more applause than any other man in the class.
He was first sent to Ft. Niobrara, Neb. and tentatively assigned to the “A” Troupe of the 9th Cavalry and then he reported to Ft. Robinson, Neb. He was described as being “quite small but very bright and pleasant.” From there he went to Ft. Washakie, Wyo., assigned to the “M” Troupe.
He accompanied the “M” Troupe to Ft. Duchesne, Utah and was apparently the first African-American officer at that fort. It is during this period that he penned the following:
“Lauder, Wyo., June 11, 1888, 17 miles from Ft. Washakie, Wyo. First day’s march. Left Ft. Washakie this morning at 740 and marched here about 12:25 p.m. Have a passable camping place. Had quite a pleasant leave tasking of the Post. We march in fighting tie with 200 rounds of ammunition per man. Have along five freight wagons and three carriages containing families. Went up town visiting friends this afternoon. Took tea with Miss Roberts. My first experience in practical field service is very pleasant. I mess with my Captain.“
By June 13 the unit was in camp on Beaver Creek, 12 miles from Lemon’s Ranch. “Got to Camp at 10 o’clock this morning. Freight trains got in Camp fire hours later. Pull was terrible up Tweed’s Hill out of Red Canyon and up Twin Creek Hill. Went back a couple of miles on ‘Red’ bare back to find out what the matter with trains. Splendid camping place. Do not feel very tired. Athletics in camp with Captain and the boys. Mosquitoes very bad. Have had sore throat last three days but am over it now. Beautiful scenery along the march and especially in Red Canyon. The days are hot but the nights are very cold. Camp is right on summit of mountains and snow is seen on the side of the ridge surrounding us. Did not sleep this afternoon.”
Three days later, the unit was in Camp in Little Sandy River. His journal read “Broke camp at 5 a.m. and arrived here at 9:00. Very easy march. Good grass and water but no wood. Saw lots of antelope on the road and got a shot at one. Had a good swim in the river. Was very much refreshed as the day has been very warm. Slept all afternoon. Passed a bunch of Oregon horses on the way to Kansas. Couple of emigrant families going west are camping near us on the river. Wonder what is going on in the outside world. “
After 17 days of marching, they arrived on June 27. “I had a terrible duty mean march today. Not a dwelling on lie of travel and no water. Reached our coveted Du Chesnee and find it a terrible dusty windy hot post, very uninviting at the first glance. Find the officers of my own regiment and the 16th Troop very genial men. Met Grant and Ballou whom I knew at the Point. Burnett seems to be a much more affable man than I had thought him. Met with no sort of reaction. Not sufficient quarters so I am camped out as usual. Not comfortable these hot days in a tent.”
While he was in Kansas, he received a promotion to 1st Lieutenant and was then assigned to Wilberforce University as an instructor.
On March 26, 1894, Lt. Alexander was waiting in Springfield for his turn for a shave in a local barber shop. He complained about a pain in his head and as he approached the barber chair, he fell to the floor and died before anyone could reach him. A post mortem examination showed that he died from the rupture of one of the largest arteries near the heart. He was buried in Cherry Grove Cemetery in Xenia.
A tribute to this officer came Aug. 16, 1918 when The Stevedore Cantonment and the Labor Encampment’s in the vicinity of North Newport News was to be hereafter known collectively as Camp Alexander, New News, VA.
“The designation is in honor of the late Lieutenant John H, Alexander, 9th U. S. Cavalry, a black graduate of the United States Military Academy who served from the time of his graduation until his death as an officer of the army, a man of ability, attainments an energy, who was a credit to himself, to his race and to the service.”
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.