Jennifer Gail Thomas graduated this May with a 4.25 GPA from McKinley Classical Leadership Academy, where she was the captain of the cheerleading squad for three years. She was also heavily involved in FIRE (Firefighters Institute for Racial Equality), where her father sits as a vice chairperson.
Entering the military was not on her radar, she said. She always thought that she’d end up at a historically black college or university (HBCU) like Howard or Hampton.
Although no one in her family has military experience, she decided to apply for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy Prep School at West Point. The application process for West Point is notoriously long and grueling. It includes a congressional interview process and extensive paperwork, among other things.
Once you’re accepted, it’s a free ride to earn one of the most prestigious college degrees and potential leadership positions in the U.S. Army.
“West Point is a golden ticket to success,” she said.
Thomas is one of four African-American students in Missouri who will be attending either the U.S. Military Academy or its Prep School in the fall. The others are Nile Trice from Pattonville High School, Laryn Grant from McCluer North High School and Samuel Howard, a 2015 graduate of Clayton High School.
In total, 22 students from Missouri were selected to attend West Point in the fall. By law, each congressman is allowed to make a nomination. This year, all the appointments for black students came out of the St. Louis congressional districts.
Malik Mitchell, a graduate of O’Fallon Township High School, is the only African American from Illinois’ 12th Congressional District in the Metro East who will start at West Point this fall.
This spring, Thomas and her father, Guy Jennings, attended an event held for all the academy’s incoming recruits in the area. In the entire room, the only African-American students were Thomas and Mitchell. Jennings said it made him raise his eyebrows.
“Surely the schools need to take more responsibility and reach out to urban black students,” he said. “How many more kids had good scholarships, but because of their financial means had to take another route?”
He knows of cases where minority students got scholarships for half their tuition but decided to enter the U.S. Army Reserves to help pay for the rest. These students could have been groomed to be military leaders, as West Point does, but instead they are entering the military at low levels – just as minorities have historically done.
West Point has about 4,400 students and 15 percent are African-American, according to the academy’s diversity office.
The academy’s incoming class of 2020 has 1,307 students and 172 were African American, 128 were Hispanic, 282 were women and 164 were other minorities.
The Prep School, or West Point Prep, is designed for students with no military experience, like Thomas. The idea is to help ease those students into West Point’s grueling academic, physical and military challenges.
There are 242 students going into West Point Prep this fall, and about half are African-American.
Captain Benjamin Johnson, who is in charge of the academy’s minority recruitment in the region, said a majority of minority recruits in the Midwest come from Texas. That’s largely because Texas has many more congressional districts than Missouri.
Johnson said he can’t visit every school, but he does focus on urban schools.
Unlike Thomas, both of Mitchell’s parents come from a military background. As a teen, his father took him to visit West Point.
“I fell in love with the school and wanted to go there since freshman year,” he said.
What stood out to him was the unity among the students and the opportunities the academy presented. Mitchell is heavily involved in his school and community. While maintaining a 3.85 GPA and his part-time job at the YMCA as a lifeguard, he also was part of the football, wrestling, cross-country and swim teams. He believes all “great things are possible” through his faith in God and support of his family.
In his view, he believes the academy’s diversity officers are engaged with recruiting in the black community.
“They are doing everything they can,” Mitchell said. “I just think not many people know about West Point.”
Trice will begin boot camp on June 26, and she said she’s very excited. Trice is the second student from Pattonville High to earn an appointment to West Point, and she’s the school’s first female and first minority.
She has been getting in touch with her future classmates, and many of them are minorities and women.
“Diversity is very important because it brings the different ideas and perspectives that people can offer,” Trice said.
She plans to double major in law and Chinese.
This spring, 16 black female cadets who were set to graduate in May dressed in traditional uniforms and posed for a picture with their fists raised. The academy nearly disciplined them for violating military restrictions on political activity. Some assumed that the fists represented support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
However by campus tradition, groups of cadets often take pictures in traditional dress uniforms as a nod to the generations of cadets that preceded them.
As a father who was about to send his black daughter to the academy, the incident was disturbing, Jennings said. The cadets’ white counterparts would never been questioned for raising their fists in the air, he said.
“It was interpreted to be a political, and it scared non-African-American society,” Jennings said. “If you paid attention, it did not mean to go out and attack anyone. It was a symbol of overcoming. They have made their part of history.”
The academy dropped the charges on the women, saying that the photo was meant to show pride for the academy.
Thomas said she followed the incident alongside her father. As a black female, these kinds of potential confrontations or miscommunications don’t scare her away from West Point, she said.
“It’s always been a struggle for African Americans,” she said. “I believe it’s my responsibility to break through those barriers to make African-American history.”