John Hanks Alexander was the second African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, following Henry O. Flipper; but was the first African-American officer in the United States armed forces to hold a regular command position.
John Alexander was born on January 6, 1864, the son of James Milo Alexander and Fannie Miller Alexander, both of whom were born enslaved. In 1849, while still enslaved Alexander’s father began working as a prominent barber who attracted many customers in Helena, Arkansas. His father’s financial success allowed him to purchase freedom for himself and his family along with property. Alexander’s parents were determined that he and his six siblings would be educated, and all seven graduated from high school, and three attended Oberlin College in Ohio.
In 1879, Alexander graduated from high school at the head of his class and, shortly thereafter, taught for a term in Carrollton, Mississippi, in the spring of 1880. In the fall of 1880, he traveled to Ohio to visit an uncle, Nicholas Alexander, a well-known citizen of Cincinnati. While working at an assortment of odd jobs, he enrolled in Oberlin College in 1881, and at the end of his second year in college, he successfully passed the examination for admission to West Point. He received an appointment to the academy by Democratic Congressman George W. Geddes of Ohio in 1883.
During his four years at West Point, Alexander was popular with the corps and escaped some of the mistreatment experienced by previous Black cadets. A strikingly handsome young man and a skilled boxer, he was an apt student who excelled in languages and mathematics. An academy official described Alexander as a “splendid scholar” who had achieved an enviable record.
After graduation, Alexander was stationed with the Ninth Cavalry, a Buffalo Soldier regiment, at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. At the time of his posting he was the only black officer in the United States Army commissioned to lead troops in combat. At Fort Robinson his duties mostly revolved around patrolling nearby Indian reservations. In 1890 he was transferred to Fort Washakie, Wyoming, where his duties included escorting prisoners and supervising construction projects. On February 12, 1894, Alexander was assigned to to Wilberforce University, an African-American school in Ohio, as professor of military science and tactics. This appointment was popular in the black community because it was the first of its kind in the history of the U.S.
Tragically, on March 26, 1894, at age 30, Alexander died from what was diagnosed as the “rupture of a large artery near the heart.” He was buried in Xenia, Ohio, near Wilberforce University with full military honors.
The Department of War, citing Alexander as a “a man of ability, attainments, and energy,” honored him by giving a military installation at Newport News, Virginia, the name of Camp Alexander in 1918.