Alexander, John Hanks

views updated

John Hanks Alexander

Army officer, educator

John Hanks Alexander was the second black graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point following Henry O. Flipper and preceding Charles Young, the third graduate. He was the first black officer to hold a regular command post in the U.S. Army. In 1894 he received military orders to serve as professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University, a black institution in Ohio offering military training programs for blacks.

Born January 6, 1864, John Hanks Alexander was the fourth of seven children born in Helena, Arkansas, to former slave parents, James Milo Alexander and Fannie Miller Alexander. James Milo Alexander, who died in 1871, was a dry-goods merchant and owned property in Helena. He served as the first black justice of the peace in Arkansas and later served in the state legislature from Phillips County. Believing education was the key to success, John Hanks Alexander, along with his siblings, graduated from high school and three attended Oberlin College in Ohio.

Attends Oberlin and West Point

After graduating first in his high school class in 1879, Alexander moved to Carrollton, Mississippi, where he accepted a teaching position for six months. In the fall of 1880, he enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he did well academically. Upon hearing about a competitive examination for admission to West Point Military Academy, Alexander decided to apply. He, along with William Waite, the son of Chief Justice Morrison Waite, became contenders. Alexander, who was appointed alternate, made the highest score on the academic part of the examination and Waite, appointed delegate, scored better on his physical. Friends raised money so that Alexander could attend regardless of his rank as alternate. However, as luck would have it, Waite failed his entrance examination; Alexander passed his and was admitted to West Point in May 1883. He then left Oberlin to become the second black cadet to attend the academy.

At West Point Alexander continued to excel academically. He was noted for his skills in mathematics and languages and was also a skilled pugilist. Although he experienced white ostracism at the academy, according to Patricia W. Romero in I Too Am America, one professor described Alexander as "having character and behavior to admire and respect." Four years later, he graduated thirty-second in a class of sixty-four. His class initially had one hundred thirty-two members; however, over a period of four years, members of the class were cut because they were "unable to keep up," wrote Romero. Alexander may have ranked higher if he had not received a number of demerits for minor infractions. For example, twice he was reprimanded for skating on the frozen Hudson River. One of his former classmates, CD. Rhodes, second lieutenant sixth U.S. Calvary and professor of military science and tactics, stated in his condolences upon the death of Alexander that on the day of graduation, Alexander was applauded by the audience longer than any other graduate. Perhaps this statement is a testament to his character and begs to question the demerits he received.


Born in Helena, Arkansas on January 6
Graduates high school
Enrolls at Oberlin College in Ohio
Enters West Point Military Academy
Graduates from West Point Academy; reports to Fort Robinson, Nebraska
Transfers to Fort Washakie, Wyoming
Serves as training instructor in North Carolina
Passes examination for first lieutenant at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
Serves as professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University in Ohio
Dies in Springfield, Ohio of a heart attack on March 26

During the graduation ceremony Alexander was commissioned a second lieutenant and on September 30, 1887, he reported to the Ninth U.S. Calvary Regiment, nicknamed by the Kiowa Indians the Buffalo Soldiers, at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The Ninth Calvary, an all-black regiment, was commanded by white officers. Alexander became the only black officer to serve in a command position. Over the next seven years he was assigned to Fort Washakie, Wyoming, and Fort Duchesne, Utah. At these frontier posts, where he served with distinction, his responsibilities included garrison duties, operating a post commissary, escorting prisoners to Omaha, supervising the building and maintaining a post sawmill and telegraph line, and serving at court martial proceedings. Also during these seven years he had a temporary-duty assignment training an all-black infantry unit in Raleigh, North Carolina. During his off-duty hours he read military biographies, kept a diary of his daily military activities, and wrote letters to his family. In October 1893, Alexander qualified for first lieutenant at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after passing a rigorous physical and military examination.

Begins Teaching Career

As early as 1887 Booker T. Washington expressed an interest in Alexander's serving as an instructor of military science at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. According to military regulations, an officer serving in this capacity had to have previously served three years with a regiment. Such regulations precluded Alexander from serving in this capacity because he had recently graduated from West Point, not to mention that the state of Alabama already had its prescribed number of black college-assigned officers. Between 1892 and 1894 the president of Wilberforce University in Ohio requested the services of Alexander as a professor of military science and tactics. Although Alexander met the qualifications for the position, he was told that the State of Ohio already had its quota of assigned officers. Though he may have felt discouraged by this second rejection, his circumstances were about to improve. The U.S. Congress unexpectedly increased the number of officers for academic tour duty. Upon learning of the change, the Reverend S. T. Mitchell, president of Wilberforce, once again requested Alexander's services. On January 6, 1894, Alexander was assigned to Wilberforce University to serve as professor of military science and tactics. Unfortunately, on March 26, 1894 he died of a heart attack or apoplexy, the result of excessive cigarette smoking, in Springfield, Ohio. He is buried in Xenia, Ohio.

On August 15, 1918, the War Department issued General Orders 294 in honor of John Hanks Alexander. This order designated that a military installation in Newport News, Virginia, be named Camp Alexander in his honor because of his ability, attainments, energy, and outstanding military performance.



Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

Romero, Patricia W. I Too Am America: Documents from 1619 to the Present. Cornwells Heights, Pa.: The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, 1976.

Schubert, Irene, and Frank N. Schubert. On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier II: New andRevised Biographies of African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866–1917. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004.


"The African-American Experience in Ohio: Cadet John H. Alexander." Ohio Historical Society. (Accessed 11 March 2005).

"The African-American Experience in Ohio: Lieut. John H. Alexander." Ohio Historical Society. (Accessed 10 March 2005).

"The Black Officers: John Hanks Alexander." Dr. John Productions. (Accessed 15 December 2004).

Gatewood, Willard B., Jr. "John Hanks Alexander of Arkansas: Second Black Graduate of West Point." Arkansas Historical Quarterly. (Accessed 10 March 2005).


Alexander's papers are in the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

                                      Patricia A. Pearson

About this article

Alexander, John Hanks

Updated About content Print Article