September 15, 1997
WASHINGTON A posthumous commissioning ceremony for Columbia native James Webster Smith, the first black cadet at West Point who was wrongfully expelled in 1874, will take place in South Carolina next week. Smith's commissioning was approved by President Clinton in 1996 at the request of the U.S. Reps. John Spratt (D-SC) and Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC).
Spratt, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, discovered Smith. "I came across Mr. Smith's case years ago," said Spratt, "in McFeely's excellent biography of Ulysses S. Grant." Spratt said McFeely devotes a whole chapter to James Webster Smith, who McFeely says "had been spotted in Columbia by a northern philanthropist, David Clark, as 'a remarkable scholar' of 'excellent character.'" Smith was carefully selected ---literally hand- picked --- to become the first black to graduate from West Point because of his scholarship and character. "He was no random choice," Spratt said.
Smith's commissioning ceremony is slated for 11:00 a.m., Monday, September 22, at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.
Spratt said McFeely tells in moving detail how Smith suffered terribly at West Point. From the moment he arrived, he was given the silence treatment from the cadet corps. "He suffered racist slurs and taunts; he had slop poured over him in the night; he had to eat his meals served cold. According to McFeely, one participant in the abuse was the President's own son, Fred Grant, who is alleged to have said that no black --- he used another derogatory term --- 'will ever graduate from West Point.'"
Smith was expelled under extremely suspicious circumstances. On leaving West Point in June 1874, he was appointed Commandant of Cadets at the all-black S.C. Agricultural Institute at Orangeburg. He held the position until he died of tuberculosis in November 1876 at age 26.
"I am pleased we are about to right this longstanding wrong," said Spratt. "It's an atonement, long overdue, for what James Webster Smith was forced to suffer at West Point."