There are few college experiences more prestigious than attending and graduating from West Point, the United States Military Academy in upstate New York.
The school, which accepts just 10 percent of all applicants, has been a source of pride for American families for generations. The academy didn’t start admitting women until 1976, though—and although the first black cadet attended West Point back in 1870, when former slave James Webster Smith broke the school’s color barrier in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, it still remained a largely segregated institution for decades.
Efforts to improve the school’s diversity began in 2013 when then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told the school that they weren’t doing enough to accept women and minorities. Since then, they’ve made historic gains—and in May of 2019, the school made history with the largest graduating class of black female cadets ever.
The momentous occasion was documented when the 34 women posed together on the school’s steps, showcasing just how many of them were able to break down barriers together.
34 African American women are expected to graduate from West Point—the highest number of black women to graduate in the same class in the history of the military academy. https://t.co/EpV4rKsm3r pic.twitter.com/00NwnT7v7y
— ABC News (@ABC) May 18, 2019
It wasn’t an easy road to get to the point where those 34 women could gather together for an iconic photograph. Just two years ago, U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Simone Askew made history as the first-ever black woman to be appointed as First Capt at the academy—and even with Askew’s remarkable success at the school, one of the 2019 graduates admitted that she had been discredited when she first arrived on campus her freshman year.
“Even a classmate told me, I think our freshman year, that I only got in because I was a black female,” 2019 senior cadet Stephanie Riley recalled in an interview with AP.
Riley wasn’t alone in admitting that being a black woman at West Point wasn’t always easy.
“As with anything that is new, there is sometimes hesitation and reluctance to change,” Brig Gen Anne F Macdonald, a member of that class, has said. “Unfortunately, there was animosity toward us. Really, the reaction from the men ran the gamut: some were curious, some ignored us, some were helpful and some were hostile and difficult.”
That mixed reaction made it all the more important that there were 34 women who all shared the experience together. Their ability to band together and support one another gave them strength as a class, helping them surpass the number of female black graduates set the year prior by a full seven cadets.
They weren’t the only group that saw historic gains, either. The school saw an academy-high 19 Hispanic women join the class of 2019 at their commencement as well, while the class marked a momentous milestone with the school’s 5,000th woman getting to walk a full 39 years after the first graduating class with women made it across the stage in 1980.
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For the black women in particular, though, the class was a source of validation—and, hopefully, inspiration for future West Point hopefuls.
“I just showed myself and those who thought I could do it initially that yes, I can,” Riley told the AP. “And not just, ‘yes, I can.’ I can show other little girls that, yes, you can come to West Point. Yes, you can do something that maybe the rest of your peers aren’t actually doing. And yes, you can be different from the rest of the group.”