If a cadet sought inspiration from past leaders and decided to study the notable alumni list, he or she would find some of the most decorated and accomplished leaders of character the U.S. Military Academy has ever produced. However, upon further examination of the list, one would also notice that the vast majority of notable alumni are mostly white men.
“I am very big on mentors and having people to look up to, but as a black female, I noticed there aren’t many black female cadets who graduated,” Class of 2023 Cadet Delorv’A Wilson said. “The only black female grad I’ve ever met was Mrs. Pat Locke, the U.S. Military Academy Class of 1980 (one of the first African American women to graduate from West Point). Upon further research in trying to find more black grads, I realized there was only about four that graduated in the span of 64 years between the late 19th century and mid-20th century, and I found that strange.”
Wilson added as she continued studying the monumental history of West Point, she found it challenging relating to historical leaders. Born of African American and Mexican descent, she grew up in a black household raised in a predominantly black/Hispanic neighborhood by her mother and grandmother.
“My Grandma grew up when the South was still segregated. She dropped out of school at 14 years old and became a housemaid, and granted, she had a lot of racial biases against white people,” Wilson said. “Over the years, I helped in teaching her how to read and write and perform basic math, and I learned a lot about my African American lineage as a black woman watching her as I grew up.”
Low-income living and a lack of diversity in her neighborhood were commonplace growing up in Dallas. Wilson and all her friends in high school had jobs and understood the value of hard work, paying bills and earning one’s keep, she added.
“When I got to West Point, I met so many cadets that didn’t understand the value of hard work and responsibility,” Wilson said. “They didn’t understand what it was like not having money to afford an expensive school trip because you just paid your phone bill. I especially learned how vital understanding diverse perspectives was when I would attend history class.”
During history class, racially sensitive topics would come up during discussions, challenging cadets to think critically and constructively on dealing with an array of topics, Wilson added.
“I remember during class talking about the confederacy statue removal my plebe year, and some cadets explained why the confederacy statue shouldn’t be removed and why there wasn’t a negative connotation behind its history,” Wilson said. “That moment allowed me to understand the importance of how history is viewed from different perspectives. That moment challenged me.”
Wilson would continue having discussions on critical moments throughout American history and Maj. Louisa Koebrich, an instructor in the Department of History, would help cultivate her interest and understanding of the country’s antiquity and underscore how the significant events of the past still impact the nation currently.
Furthermore, how does a diverse class of contemporary cadets effectively learn from past mistakes of former leaders to refine their leadership style when they commission? Does culture and identity play a role in honing in on a cadet’s uniqueness as a leader? Will updating and diversifying the notable Alumni list inspire new and more modern ways of leading the future for a diverse group of cadets? Wilson and Class of 2023 Cadets Alisa Friel-Watanabe and Michael Manetti are confident it will.
What started as a classroom discussion on the American Civil Rights Movement became a capstone project to update West Point’s notable alumni List. Wilson, Friel-Watanabe and Manetti began working hard to recognize the diverse array of minority cadets throughout history and their notable contributions to West Point and the rest of the Army for Projects Day on April 29 at the U.S. Military Academy.
“Knowing that women, people of color and the LGBTQ-Plus have served in the U.S. Army in every engagement, we know that the Army is a ‘people’s business,’ and diversity is the backbone of our success,” Friel-Watanabe said. “The U.S. Military Academy is responsible for graduating nearly 1,000 leaders of character a year in this diverse fighting force and as the U.S. population breaks racial, gender and sexuality barriers, so follows the Army’s population and representatively, we believe our notable alumni list should follow suit.”
The list consists of 24 USMA graduates from black, Native American, Asian and Hispanic backgrounds who attended West Point during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The list also acknowledges notable women and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning-Plus community members.
The cadet team focused on aspects of the list that would highlight cultural diversity, equality and the essential contributions all selected alumni made despite race, sex or creed.
The team put all the information they compiled together in a Venn diagram that showcased how the noteworthy attributes of a former cadet connect to form a larger, more holistic view of what makes a distinguished notable graduate, Manetti said.
“When I did my research, I would focus on societal contributions in ways that these graduates would contribute to both the U.S. and to the global community as a whole,” Manetti said. “I also focused on looking for consistent patterns of service, as well as service distinguishing acts that go above and beyond to really set graduates apart.”
The first two black female grads, Pat Locke and Joy Suzanne Dallas Eshelman, certainly set themselves apart, finding a spot on the cadet team’s updated notable grads list. Both women graduated in the first ‘ladies of the ‘80s class’ in which 62 out of the first 119 female cadets graduated from West Point. However, the achievement came with many challenges and scrutiny from detractors.
“From my understanding, not only were they discriminated as women, but they were also taken advantage of because of physical standards set in place for women,” Wilson said. “They had this thing where through formations, the males would come through and rub their finger down their backs to make sure they have bras on. They were getting sexually harassed the entire time and being black women made the experience that much harder.”
West Point has the Gen. Roscoe Robinson Auditorium and the relatively new Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Barracks constructed in honor of USMA Class of 1936 graduate Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and USMA Class of 1951 graduate Roscoe Robinson. Naturally, the cadet team added the black graduates to the list.
“As I investigated Davis’ history, I didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to fly with the Army, initially. It didn’t make sense to me,” Wilson said. “He was one of the best (military aircraft pilots) in our country’s history, and he was a Tuskegee Airman. Why was there a need for the separation? It was the little things like that example that while I understood it as a child, I didn’t realize to what degree or how deep it truly went.”
Despite the long history of mistreatment toward black graduates, Wilson took pride in learning about the awe-inspiring achievements that USMA Class of 1982 graduate Nadja West accomplished as she trailblazed her way through systemic prejudice and carved a pathway of success for future black female cadets to follow.
“Nadja West was the first black woman to pin three-star general and has an extremely impressive list of accomplishments in the medical field and as a military leader,” Wilson said. “I wanted to highlight West because she affirms that we, particularly in the case of black women, can do much more than what the naysayers of society typically expect of us. I think she’s just overall a really great example of what it means to be a West Pointer and what it means to succeed despite challenges that you face here.”
Like Wilson, Friel-Watanabe found inspiration as a cadet through the barriers Lt. Col. Anne Charlotte McClain shattered as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronaut who also paved a pathway for female cadets by becoming the first woman to live aboard the International Space Station. Moreover, she is currently training for the Artemis mission, which will evaluate how life on the moon would be possible, Friel-Watanabe said.
USMA Class of 2007 graduate Hung Wan-ting, not too long ago, became the first female Taiwanese grad at West Point, Wilson added.
“What I found interesting about her is she took the Defensive Language Proficiency Test, which was one of the criteria she needed to meet to attend West Point,” Wilson said. “Some Americans take English tests here and fail them. But, looking at what she had to do to overcome that difficult language gap, having to be at the top of her class and then she had her country’s support on top of that to get here. That’s wild to me and that’s one of the motivating factors that I think pushed me to ... keep going with this project. It gave me hope to find a USMA grad like her. She attended, she accomplished her tasks, and when she graduated, she went back to her own country, and whatever tactics she learned here she carried over there and I feel that’s what West Point is supposed to be about.”
Friel-Watanabe added Asian USMA grads like Col. Vincent Lim, also highlighted on the list, who was a cadet when the Philippines was a territory of the United States, and so it made sense for Filipino cadets to be American cadets here the academy.
Lim went on to serve as a commander in the 41st Infantry Division in the Philippine Army in World War II. He showed great potential moving up the ranks in the Philipino Army. Lim eventually became a high-ranking officer in the first U.S.-sponsored Filipino forces, then in the Filipino military. Unfortunately, the Japanese executed him for his role in leading the Filipino resistance against the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.
“In addition to his life and service, and also being the first Filipino graduate of USMA, we should qualify him as a distinguished graduate of West Point,” Friel-Watanabe said. “He embodies bravery, courage and despite your ethnicity, or some people perceiving you as an outsider, that hard work and determination that you show can win people’s appreciation, and this further shows that cadets today and our Association of Old Graduates today do appreciate the service of other cadets who have gone before us.”
Manetti added to the conversation of Asian graduates highlighting USMA Class of 1909 graduate Ying Hsing Wen, who became the first Chinese cadet and one of the first foreign cadets to attend West Point.
“The cadet’s recollection of him in his graduating year Howitzer said, ‘Wen has assumed a great many American characteristics and is even getting proficient in American profanity.’ So he definitely blended in with his classmates,” Manetti chuckled.
After graduation, he returned to his homeland and continued fostering good relations between the U.S. and China between 1920 and 1949, Manetti added. Wen would later involve himself in a rebellion against the Chinese government. When the communists defeated the nationalists, Wen fled to Taiwan then moved to the United States and opened a laundromat in Washington, D.C.
“I chose to highlight him in particular because of his very unique story,” Manetti said. “He also demonstrated both selfless service and a commitment to this example of coming to America, and living out the American dream while embracing both cultures, and really starting this culture of bilateral cooperation. He died in 1968, and he is actually buried at West Point.”
During a question and answers portion of their presentation during Projects Day, Dr. Eugenia Kiesling, a professor in the Department of History, asked, “Is it fair to say that one of Lt. Gen. Wen’s early career moves was to participate in a Chinese rebellion against the Chinese government? If that’s true, is his behavior consistent with West Point’s values?”
Manetti explained that when Wen went back to China, the Qing government was already very much close to the breaking point, and China was slipping back into this period of anarchy.
“In Chinese history, when there’s a transition of power, a big power struggle unfolds,” Manetti said. “What was interesting about the nationalist movement is it’s one of the first times where there’s an attempt to not have a bunch of warlords fight for power and have a transition from a very autocratic monarchy into a government which takes into account the sort of democratic values that are so important to us as Americans. So I think that in terms of ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ it very much follows that he did what was right in that situation in attempting to prevent this massive slide into anarchy.”
Dr. Jon Malinowski, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, asked, “Why did you exclude Louis Loramier, USMA Class of 1806, and William Wells, USMA Class of 1814, from your list of Native American graduates? Why did you exclude Ting Chen, also USMA Class of 1909 like Wen, from the list of Asian graduates?”
Friel-Watanabe said the team went into this project, understanding the list is not entirely comprehensive.
“We did want to make sure that we at least hit on the representation that does represent our current student body,” Friel-Watanabe said. “However, we are still talking about names to this day that we’ll be adding to the list. One of the reasons we’re so excited to present to faculty, students and older grads is that we would love for them to get in touch with us to work on adding names to this list.”
Friel-Watanabe added it will take time for the list to evolve because this project is more significant than the point of view of three yearlings putting names through a process deciding what comes in or out.
“This list is not meant to be a period on a statement but more of an ellipsis. The list is saying, ‘these are notable graduates, and ...’ and so there’s always a need to add and improve this list,” Manetti said. “This list is evolving, the Corps is evolving, America as a nation is evolving, so this is by no means meant to be a complete list. Rather, it’s meant to spark questions that will begin a discussion.”