WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Sitting at a long table in his high school gymnasium surrounded by classmates, Jonathan Parham signed his paperwork to join the Class of 2023 at the U.S. Military Academy.
Along the same lines as the athletics signing days held throughout the country each year, this ceremony was a chance for seniors at Frontier High School in Bakersfield, California, who excelled academically to be celebrated for signing with their college of choice.
Seniors filled six tables stretching the length of the basketball court. Many of them wore T-shirts or polo shirts. Some had on hats or hoodies. Then there was Jonathan. His choice of what to wear for the ceremony had been a no-brainer.
The knit black sweater has a gold and gray line on each cuff and on the pockets. Wooden buttons run down one side with all but the bottom one intact. The sweater wasn't made for him, but despite being an inch taller and 40 pounds heavier than its original owner, it fits Jonathan perfectly.
To those around him it likely looked like just a simple black sweater. For Jonathan though, it carried the weight of history, showed the continuation of a family legacy and was a beacon showing just how much things can change in 90 years.
Square meals and silence
Alonzo Parham, Jonathan's great-grandfather and the original owner of the sweater, arrived at West Point July 1, 1929, as the only African American member of the Corps of Cadets. He spent a single semester along the banks of the Hudson River before being separated in January 1930 after failing a math class.
Alonzo may not have finished his plebe year at West Point, but 347 future officers did graduate in the Class of 1933. And, like every class at West Point from 1890 to 1935, not one of them was African American.
More than 90 years after their dad's stint at West Point, his children can still recount some of the stories he told them of the academy-both good and bad-although it wasn't something he talked of often.
Jonathan's grandfather John Parham and great-aunt Cherie Parham-Smirni remember their dad talking about having to eat "square meals" with his arm at a right angle. Then there are also the stories of buttons being snatched from his uniform and his fellow cadets being told not to speak to him during their first summer of training.
Although the stories he told his children and his West Point sweater have survived the passage of time, his roughly six months at the academy have mostly faded from the historical record. One of the few things remaining is a two-line entry in the Register of Graduates and Former Cadets listing him as a non-graduate in the Class of 1933. It tells of his careers working for the Illinois Department of Labor and as an artist. Then it gives his date of death before moving on to the next member of the class.
What those two lines don't capture are the impact he had on the city of Chicago after going home, his son and daughter say. It doesn't say how their dad always walked with perfect posture and was such a gentleman people were afraid to tell dirty jokes in his presence. It doesn't tell how well he treated people and the impact the six months he attended West Point had on how he carried himself for the next 70 years.
"He always said you want to be sure you don't take anybody's face away from them," Parham-Smirni said. "That you give them the chance to be whoever they are, and you treat them like you would expect to be treated. If you would do that with people, you would find you would get it back."
Alonzo never returned to West Point, although he had the option because he failed an academic class not a military one. He did eventually join the National Guard, though, and his son John retired from the Air Force as a colonel.
Jonathan is next in that line of service. Wearing his great-grandfather's sweater during his school ceremony was one small way he could honor Alonzo's legacy and the road he had helped pave.
"I just felt like I belonged here"
Jonathan first decided he wanted to attend a military academy around fourth grade. He hadn't heard about his great-grandfather's time at West Point yet, but as soon as he learned the academies existed, attending one was his goal.
It just wasn't West Point he planned to attend. He looked into West Point after hearing about his great-grandfather's time there from his dad, but it wasn't at the top of his list.
"I wanted to go more the Navy route because that's when they got bin Laden and that's when I heard about Navy Seals," he said.
Jonathan joined Sea Cadets. He did a summer seminar in Annapolis at the U.S. Naval Academy. Then, he took a visit to West Point, was showed around by a friend from high school and everything changed.
"I just felt like I belonged here," Jonathan said.
Ninety years to the day of Alonzo's own arrival, Jonathan enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy on July 1, 2019.
The uniforms haven't changed much in 90 years, but everything else has. Buildings have been built and remodeled changing the physical look of the academy. The biggest change has occurred in the look of the cadets themselves, though. Not only are women now a part of the Corps of Cadets, but when Alonzo arrived at West Point in 1929 no African American cadet had graduated since Charles Young in 1889 and none would until Benjamin O. Davis Jr. in 1936.
On his R-Day, Jonathan was one of more than 170 African American new cadets arriving to begin their 47-month West Point experience. African Americans now make up 14 percent of the Corps of Cadets, and while many will have never heard the name Alonzo Parham, his great-grandson knows the role he played in making his own presence at West Point possible.
"I think he'd be excited," Jonathan said. "Not just at me being here, but all the colorful faces we see here. I think he'd be excited that what he did here in the time he spent here was able to make some sort of impression. It meant something and that change did occur so that I can be here and so many other people can be here that are qualified to be here."
"Thank you for what you went through"
Walking back to Lee Barracks after his last term-end exam of the fall semester, it hit Jonathan. He had made it.
When he went home for Christmas break it wouldn't be for good. Instead, it was just a few weeks break before he returned for his second semester. Jonathan had passed his classes. He'd made friends. He joined the boxing team and was allowed to travel and compete.
One semester was all his great-grandfather had gotten at the academy. In those six months, Alonzo had been ignored and at times mistreated, but 90 years later his legacy was continuing. His great-grandson was picking up the torch and carrying it forward.
"It's a completely different experience. I'm here and there's really no part of what I do here that is more difficult than any other cadet has it. I think that was the whole point," Jonathan said. "I think that's what everybody was working toward in his community. My experience is that I'm kind of just a regular cadet."
Alonzo Parham may not have returned to West Point, but in the care of his great-grandson his sweater has. It is a link to the past that keeps Jonathan grounded as he makes his own way through West Point.
He passed the first milestone by starting his second semester Jan. 7 and day-by-day he moves closer to walking across the stage and adding his name to the Register of Graduates and Former Cadets as not just a former cadet, but as a member of the Class of 2023.
Jonathan never met Alonzo Parham who died in 1999, but if given the chance his message to the man who helped lay the foundation for his own path would be simple: "I made it. Look at me, I'm here. But also thank you for what you went through and the type of person that you were, that put me in this spot."