1st Lieutenant Johnson Chesnut Whittaker, Jr. appears on the list of Kansans that went to Fort Des Moines, but he was in a way an accidental Kansan.  Born September 25, 1896 in Sumter, South Carolina, Whittaker was raised in Oklahoma City, but in 1917 he was a student at the University of Kansas. That certainly qualified him for the officers’ training school.

While Whittaker left the school as a 1st lieutenant, he was promoted to the rank of Captain, serving in the 317th Ammunition Train of the 92nd Division.

In his post-war years he lived in Michigan.  When he registered in 1941 for the draft in preparation for World War II, he was working for the Michigan State Highway Department at Lansing.  He died at Detroit on March 18, 1946, and returned to his native South Carolina for burial.

But the back story is his family.


First, his older brother, Miller Fulton Whittaker.  Miller was born December 30, 1892 in Sumter, South Carolina, and like his brother, was raised in Oklahoma City.  He graduated from Kansas State College in 1913, and while he did not attend the officers’ training school at Fort Des Moines, he did serve in World War I as well.  He was a 2nd Lieutenant with both the 371st and 368th Infantries of the 92nd Division.

His post war studies placed him at Cornell and Harvard, and he became an influential educator.  He 1932 he became the president of South Carolina State College at Orangeburg, South Carolina.  He died at Orangeburg on November 14, 1949.

And that brings us to the father.


Johnson Chesnut Whittaker, Sr. was born a slave in 1859 at Camden, South Carolina.  He may be the best known of the Whittakers, but for terrible reasons. He was one of the first three African American cadets admitted to West Point.  In 1880 three white cadets attacked him, trying to force him to resign. He was slashed with a razor, tied to his bed and left bleeding and unconscious.

It only got worse.  Whittaker was accused of faking the assault as an attempt to discredit West Point. He was court-martialed, convicted and expelled. President Chester A. Arthur overturned the conviction, but he was later expelled, claiming he had failed to take a test. In 1995, President Bill Clinton cleared him and presented his descendants with the long overdue and posthumous commission as a 2nd lieutenant.

It raises the thought that the white cadets who assaulted Whittaker–and others in the cadet corps–could still have been active officers in World War I, and while you really don’t have to look far for the roots of prejudice, certainly it says something about the treatment of the African American soldiers in that war.

Whittaker would have a long career as a lawyer, teacher, school principal, and college professor, before dying in 1931 at Orangeburg.

For good measure, a grandson was a Tuskegee Airman in World War II. Quite an incredible family.

Continuing the recognition of African Americans from Kansas who attended the officers’ training school at Fort Des Moines, Iowa:  https://www.kansasww1.org/the-african-american-soldier-kansans-at-fort-des-moines/

Blair Tarr is the Museum Curator of the Kansas State Historical Society. He oversees the three-dimensional collections of the Society, but has special interests in the Civil War, Wichita-made Valentine diners, and Leavenworth's Abernathy Furniture. In the last few years he has also done a lot of cramming on The Great War. He is a past president of the Kansas Museums Association and the Civil War Round Tables of both Kansas City and Eastern Kansas. He is currently a board member of the Heritage League of Greater Kansas City.