In 1984, I began researching the life of the first blacks to attend the Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy at Annapolis. I was overwhelmed to learn that South Carolina was home to these “firsts.” James Webster Smith, a former slave from Columbia who later taught at what is now South Carolina State University, enrolled at West Point in 1870, and John Henry Conyers of Charleston started at the Naval Academy in 1872.
Unfortunately, while making this historical mark, neither Smith or Conyers graduated. Henry O. Flipper of Georgia received the distinct honor of being the first black to graduate from West Point in 1877, and Wesley A. Brown of Baltimore, Md., completed the Naval Academy in 1949.
James Webster Smith was born in June 1850 to Israel and Catherine Smith. Israel, the slave of Sandres Guignard, was a “mulatto” who stood at 5 feet, 8 inches, and had an olive complexion and freckles. He was a carpenter, and served as a city alderman in Columbia after slavery.
At the end of the Civil War, black South Carolinians gained their freedom and the chance to live in America the same way that whites did, including becoming literate. Smith attended a Freedmen’s Bureau school, one of the first to provide black children with the tools they needed to read and write.
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While teaching at the Freedmen’s school, a white woman from Connecticut recognized the skills and academic accomplishments of Smith. That teacher, Miss Loomis, contacted David Clark, a philanthropist from Hartford, Conn., about Smith’s progress after being enslaved. In 1867, Clark arrived in Columbia to meet Smith and his family. He offered Smith’s parents the opportunity for their child to be educated in one of the best schools of that time in the nation. The Smiths agreed for James to move in with Clark’s family and attend Hartford Public High School.
Not long after Smith enrolled in Hartford, his scholarship hurled him near the top of the class. He became a bookworm in every sense of the word, and on April 22, 1870, Smith graduated with honors. During the graduation, he performed an oration on the poetry of Homer.
After graduation, Smith enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The school was named in honor of Gen. Oliver O. Howard, a close friend of Clark’s. Clark became more involved in Smith’s education.
On May 28, 1870, the Hon. Solomon L. Hoge of South Carolina’s Third Congressional District appointed Smith to West Point. The telegraph read: “Please Send the appointment of Jas. W. Smith at Howard University, so that he can be examined June eighteen hundred seventy.”
On May 29, Smith’s father signed the paperwork for his son to enroll at West Point. It stated, in part: “I hereby assent to the acceptance by my son of his conditional appointment as Cadet in the military service and he has my full permission to sign articles binding him to serve the United States eight years, unless sooner discharged.”
James Smith landed in West Point on a ferry boat days later. Seeing a cadet, Smith asked for directions to the Rose Hotel, which was owned by the government. He then registered and told the clerk, “I’m hungry and I should like to buy something to eat.” The clerk called him a “nigger” and said, “Well, you’ll have to be hungry a good while if you wait to get something to eat here.”
Although West Point was in the North, racism reared its ugly head when Smith stood before the leaders of the academy as he read his appointment. Word traveled around campus that a “colored cadet” had enrolled. Several cadets “threatened to resign,” while some advocated maiming him for life. One cadet said, “I’d rather die than drill with the black devil.”
During these ground-breaking, historic days, Smith endured the ultimate in bigotry and hatred, but he did not lose sight of his mission — to complete his education at the military school. Smith was officially admitted to the corps on July 9, 1870.
Late one night, shortly after his admittance, someone came into the room he shared with another black cadet, Michael Howard of Mississippi, who had enrolled just days after him, and poured the contents of a slop pail over the two. Howard failed the exam and returned home, leaving Smith as the lone black cadet at West Point.
Highly disturbed by the incident, Smith’s benefactor Clark wrote a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant on July 8, 1879, stating: “Am begging in the name of humanity that an inquiry be made into the case of young Smith, such treatment of the noble boy is disgraceful to the country.”
On Aug. 13, 1870, Smith was on guard and was sent to get a pail of water. He had to use a dipper to fill the pail and returned back to his post within 10 minutes. A classmate, J.W. Wilson, was standing in front of the faucet drinking water and seemingly taking his time after observing Smith. Smith asked him to move so that he could get back to his post. Wilson refused, saying, “I’d like to see any ... nigger get water before I get through.” Smith pushed the pail towards the faucet and Wilson kicked it over, resulting in a scuffle between the two. At the end of the physical confrontation, Wilson was severely cut by Smith’s dipper on the left side of his head near the temple and bled profusely. Smith was placed under arrest, and Wilson was arrested three weeks later after his release from the hospital.
Throughout Smith’s tenure at West Point, from June 1870 to June 1874, such acts of resentment continued, from cadets stepping on his toes during drill to cafeteria situations at meal time, vandalism of his room and clothes, and more. According to his records at West Point, on Nov. 14, 1870, “Cadet Smith was tried for conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline and conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman.” The sentence was disapproved. On June 13, 1872, he was tried for conduct unbecoming a gentleman and found guilty. Smith was sentenced to be dismissed from the services of the United States, but the sentence was mitigated to reduction in his academic standards for one year.
In June 1874, Smith was found deficient in philosophy and formally discharged from the academy. Desperate in requesting one last recourse, he traveled to Washington to see Secretary of War William W. Belknap, accompanied by Sen. John J. Patterson of South Carolina. James asked for a re-examination, but was refused. The following month, Smith returned to his family in Columbia, where he let out his bitterness at the world in a series of articles in the Washington New National Era, a black newspaper.
Faced with the disheartening experiences and events in his life, Smith searched for new direction in his future. Social, educational and political life in South Carolina was nearing the end of Reconstruction, and blacks in prominent positions included Lt. Gov. Richard Gleaves, Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Wright, State Treasurer Francis L. Cardozo, Secretary of State Henry E. Haynes, Adjutant and Inspector General Henry Purvis, and Orangeburg County Sheriff Edward Cain.
In 1875, Smith arrived in Orangeburg to take a teaching position at the State Agricultural College & Mechanics Institute — now South Carolina State University — which, at the time, was housed on the same campus as Claflin University. He was professor of mathematics and military tactics, and earned a salary of $900 a year.
At the school, Smith met his wife, Elizabeth, who taught music. Smith was well-liked by the students and others for his stern, professional approach to education.
Smith served the school until Nov. 30, 1876, when he died of tuberculosis and was buried in Columbia. His funeral cost $50. The location of his grave is unknown. Smith was survived by his wife, an infant child and his family in Columbia. A search for his descendants in the Columbia area has been unsuccessful.
Smith’s name became obscured in the black history of America because Flipper completed the courses at West Point and graduated. In Smith’s position of breaking racial barriers, the incidents surrounding the resentment of his presence at the academy were constantly displayed by many cadets. His endurance and tolerance carried him through the buildings and halls of West Point for four years. Smith’s trials and tribulations are a testament to the life he endured, and should forever be engraved in the history books of black America and the state of South Carolina.
Richard Reid is president of the Orangeburg Historical and Genealogical Society. His mission is researching Orangeburg history, with a particular emphasis on the role of blacks in that history.