West Point football was all-White until 1966. So why does this 1920s photo show an all-Black squad?
By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: February 22, 2021
Richard Schneider had just scanned the old negative of a West Point football team into his computer. It was a classic black-and-white shot from the 1920s — linemen posed in formation, the center about to snap the ball.
It was one of thousands of fragile West Point nitrate images he had retrieved from a refrigerated vault at the National Archives' site in College Park, Md. He opened a program to flip the negative to positive and clicked invert.
To his surprise, the image that popped up showed a team of all African American players. But the U.S. Military Academy did not have its first varsity Black football player until 1966, 40 years later.
"Who are these guys?" he said he wondered.
Schneider had opened a fascinating window into West Point's past — a time when, amid entrenched racial segregation, units of the famous African American troops known as Buffalo Soldiers were brought to West Point to teach horsemanship.
They were part of the rugged cavalry outfits that had served the Army in the West and were named by Native Americans who feared them and fought them. At West Point, they wrangled horses, cleaned the stables and sawed ice for refrigerators.
Superb and experienced riders, they taught cadets the fine points of horsemanship and put on horse shows. But they clashed with White soldiers and were not allowed to walk through the all-White cadets' area of campus unless on business, historians say.
Schneider, an Archives photo preservation expert, later went back and examined the sleeve that held the football negative. It read: "Cavalry Detachment Football Team. 1925-26."
It is possible that the photo hasn't been seen publicly in many decades, he said. And for now, the 11 players are unidentified.
The discovery comes as the academy and the Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point prepare for the installation this year of a new equestrian monument on campus to honor the crucial, but little known, role of the Buffalo Soldiers there.
"Every stellar general that you might name from World War II would have received their riding instruction and instruction in mounted drill from those Buffalo Soldiers," said retired Maj. Gen. Fred Gorden, who was the first Black commandant of cadets at West Point, from 1987 to 1989.
"They brought what other White units did not bring," he said." They brought excellence. They brought mastery. They brought high discipline. They brought soldiers who were exemplary in appearance . . . and conduct."
"Having been the commandant at West Point, you want the example that's brought before [the cadets] to be the best that the Army has to offer," he said.
The football photograph, and another picture of the team posing in front of the goal posts, were among a dozen old pictures showing Black soldiers at West Point that Schneider found during a recent Archives digitization project.
Four years ago, West Point shipped images including 2,500 fragile nitrate negatives to the Archives for preservation and digitization.
Nitrate film is notoriously unstable, Schneider said, and the negatives were stored in fireproof cabinets in a basement refrigerated vault that is kept at 25 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
Most of the negatives were single images of White West Point cadets and academy events taken for inclusion in the yearbook, the Howitzer, Schneider said.
Many of the pictures had been taken by New York's White Studio, which specialized in photographing Broadway theater productions.
Schneider said he would retrieve a box of negatives from refrigeration and let it warm for a while before digitization. A negative would then be placed on a light table, scanned into a computer, and there switched to positive.
After spotting the football picture he kept an eye out for others depicting African Americans at West Point.
It was not clear who the Black football team might have played.
Sanders Matthews, a retired Army sergeant believed to be the last West Point Buffalo Soldier, said in an oral history that Black sports teams were not allowed to play White teams because the Black teams were better.
"We won everything," he said of his time at West Point from the 1930s to the early 1960s.
But historian Brian Shellum said that elsewhere, Buffalo Soldier sports teams served as a way to connect with local communities.
Meanwhile, as Schneider continued the digitization project, he found several more old pictures of Black soldiers at West Point.
Several appear to show horse demonstrations inside the academy's huge riding hall.
In one, a large crowd watches from a balcony as riders perform a routine. In others, the Black troops look like they are playing a game of musical chairs while on foot and leading their horses.
The Buffalo Soldiers were reportedly named in the late 1800s by Cheyenne and Comanche Native Americans because of their dark skin and what the Indians saw as a similarity of their hair to that of the American Bison, according to Shellum.
"There was no love lost " between the two groups, he said. "To the Native Americans, the Black soldiers were just Blacks in blue uniforms who were trying to take away their way of life."
Later, Buffalo Soldiers served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898 and in the Philippine-American War of 1899 to 1902.
Technically members of the Black 9th and 10th cavalry regiments formed after the Civil War, the troopers were brought to West Point in 1907 because the previous detachment, made up of White cavalrymen, had performed poorly, Shellum said.
The White outfit "had a high rate of desertion . . . low reenlistment rates [and] terrible morale," he said last week.
"So the adjutant general of the Army came up with the idea of replacing the White cavalry detachment . . . with one composed of Buffalo Soldiers . . .[who had] the lowest desertion rate . . . and the highest reenlistment rates," Shellum said in a telephone interview.
At first, it was the 9th Cavalry Regiment that was asked to send about 80 troops to West Point. The 10th did so later. The Buffalo Soldiers served at West Point until 1947; the next year, the Army was racially desegregated, Shellum said.
The Army wanted "old soldiers," men who had more than one enlistment, Shellum said, because they "were reliable, not averse to heavy work, heavy workload."
The trouble with the prior cavalry detachment was solved "pretty much over night," Army reports showed.
Buffalo Soldier professionalism came from several sources, Shellum said.
"Many of them had worked with horses before they enlisted," he said.
In addition, "Blacks didn't have many choices of employment in those days, especially if you came from the South," he said. "So to a Black young man, the Army was a much better option than for a White young man."
And the Army was a place where Black soldiers received the same pay as White soldiers, Shellum said.
Still, it could be a tough job. The Black soldiers' barracks were adjacent to the stables, which the Black soldiers had to clean. The horses had to be cared for, and the cadets — and others — trained.
"Monday through Friday we taught cadets to ride," Matthews said in his oral history interview in 2015.
"Saturdays, Sundays and holidays we taught cadets to ride, their girlfriends, the officers . . . their children, their wives," he said. "We had no time off for ourselves."
"We cut ice . . . up on the reservoir," said Sanders, who joined the 10th Cavalry at West Point in 1939 and served until 1962.
"It got 19, 20 inches thick," and had to be cut with a saw, he said. "We . . . cut ice for everyone on the post."
"Segregation was the law of the land at that particular time," he said. "We had to build our own swimming pool," because the Black soldiers were not allowed to swim with Whites.
There were regular clashes with White soldiers. "We fought practically every day," he said. Often it was with the White field artillery detachment at the academy.
Entering the post, "we had to pass their barracks to get to our barracks," he said. The Whites would shout racial epithets, and a fight would ensue. "Always," he said. "Every day."
But he said he loved West Point.
"It taught me lot," he said in the interview the year before he died. "It taught me to be a human being."
And his granddaughter Aundrea Matthews, the military academy's cultural arts director, said that the face of the rider on the statue being unveiled this year is modeled on Sanders Matthews.
The Washington Post's Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this story.