Episode 5

The Black History Project at West Point with Lieutenant Colonel Rory McGovern

Published on: 3rd July, 2023

Welcome to another episode of Inside West Point, Ideas That Impact! In this episode, West Point Dean Brigadier General Shane Reeves and Lieutenant Colonel Rory McGovern explore the importance of studying history in shaping strategic thinkers, especially within the military and national security sectors. They discuss stories McGovern uncovered through his research with the Black History Project at West Point. 


McGovern, a well-respected faculty member at West Point, provides valuable insights on the subject and emphasizes the crucial role history plays in preparing future leaders to navigate challenging and unpredictable battlefields.  


Join in on this conversation with McGovern in this thought-provoking episode as they shed light on history's crucial role in fostering strategic thinking and preparing leaders to face complex challenges.  


In this episode, you will learn the following:  


  1. How does studying history contribute to the development of strategic thinkers, particularly in the military and national security sectors?  
  2. What challenges did the earliest Black cadets at West Point overcome, and how can these stories inspire others?  
  3. What are the practical skills and perspectives gained from studying history that can be applied to solve wicked problems and lead teams effectively?  



[0:00:28] Introduction of Lieutenant Colonel Rory McGovern on his Background in History 

[0:01:17] McGovern’s discussion of the West Point Black History Project 

[0:14:50] Student Involvement in the Black History Project Research 

[0:16:55] Lessons from the Archives 

[0:21:00] Preview of Upcoming Book  

[0:24:45] Historical Biographies as a Tool for Leadership Development  

[0:29:30] History's Relevance to Navigating Complexities in National Security  

[0:32:15] History and Creating Strategic Thinkers  

[0:36:45] McGovern's Journey to Teaching at West Point  

[0:38:50] Closing Remarks: How has Teaching at West Point impacted McGovern  


Loved this episode? Remember to rate, review, follow, and share this podcast with others.   


Resources mentioned in the episode:  


Connect with us:    


This episode does not imply Federal endorsement.  


Black History Project with LTC McGovern

Dean: [:

This episode of Inside West Point features the impactful work being done by Lieutenant Colonel Rory McGovern. Lieutenant Colonel McGovern is an academy professor in the Department of History at West Point where he has served since 2020 and where he currently leads the American History Division. Rory commissioned from Boston College in 2005 as a field artillery officer before being assigned to West Point.

d in Kaiser slot in Germany. [:

McGovern: Thank you, sir. Pleasure to be here.

Dean: Yeah, we're glad to have you. I'm looking forward to the today's conversation specifically looking at some of the work you're doing on the Black History Project at West Point and what got you started working on this particular project?

he Army entered West Point in:

Graduated in 1880. And he ended up serving a variety of engineer assignments throughout a period of great change in the army, structurally and culturally. And in tracing his career, he came upon an episode in [00:02:00] his, career where he was here, he was a, an assistant professor of civil and, and of civil engineering.

And he was, one of the cadets that he was teaching was Charles Young, who would, who would go on to become the third black graduate in West Point's history. And Charles Young failed the final examinations, went before the academic board was, was about to get dismissed.

And then Captain Go's interceded and said, Hey, I I'm leaving in August. Don't dismiss him. He's close. Let me work with him for the next couple months. Reexamine him in August. And he did. And they established a, good and an effective working relationship. ALS moves on to his engineering command.

historical project that one [:

Dean: Can you talk uh, just a little bit about Charles young?

He, and from the period from:

So we have Henry O Flipper in 77, John Hanks Alexander in 188 77, and Charles Young in 1889. Charles Young was on the, back end of this initial wave of integration at, at West Point. He came from Ohio. He was very well prepared to be here, but he faced the same challenges that every black cadet who was here and the reconstruction and post-reconstruction era have faced.

llow African-American cadets [:

He, he struggled with the isolation. The core cadets with African American cadets at the time would, would silence them, which means that they would refuse to speak or interact with them unless in the course of their, their duties, their cadet leadership duties compelled them to which, made for a tough time especially because common practice here was as it is today.

The core curriculum is challenging and it's going to expose you to many different subjects, and no one cadet is going to be naturally inclined to all of them. So cadets would lean on each other and too, they called it boning up, lean on if, if I'm not good at math and I'm in math class, I'm gonna lean on a talented friend to help me.

Yet, at least [:

Dean: We often say that's cooperate and graduate. Right? Absolutely.

McGovern: Yeah. Absolutely. Yes, sir. So, Charles Young as with his his fellow Black Cadets at the time did not have that opportunity. So he had to struggle through more or less on his own. He did run into some academic issues.

a year. But he, graduated in:

But he dies unfortunately early. He has a heart condition. So by the time Charles Young has been in the Army for five years, everything he does from that point forward. Is the first time a black officer has done that. So his, career trajectory [00:06:00] was a series of, firsts from the rank of Captain Forward.

He served time with the tours of duty with the ninth and 10th Cavalry regiments the famous Buffalo Soldier Cavalry Regiments. Officer development at the time was highly experiential and the army was hesitant and refused to put black officers in a position where they would command white troops.

So knowing that to meet an experiential officer development, you couldn't just keep an officer in the line at all times. What they would do with Charles Young is he complete a tour duty on the line. And then he'd go be a professor of tactics and military science at a historically black college.

g very well, earning lots of [:

He's falling into very influential circles. Theodore Roosevelt knows his name. W. E. B. Du Bois is, is a personal friend of his and he's on a trajectory upward. He does make Colonel and World War I World War I, of course, breaks out in 1914, but the United States gets on a path to intervention in 1917.

And the Army decides to medically retire Colonel Young. The official finding was that on, on a review of his medical file, they, found a heart issue and, and decided to medically retire him. But what seems more likely is that as the army looked out at, its. Its current roster of colonels.

s he gets on a horse at Fort [:

He is brought back onto active duty in 1918. And Charles Young closes out his, career as a military attache in, in Liberia. He takes over the attache mission in Liberia. He ultimately dies in Liberia in the, in the early twenties.

oung, you said, graduating in:

McGovern: Yes, sir.

n graduate isn't, isn't until:

McGovern: Yes, sir. It absolutely it, it absolutely does. There were a small handful of African-American cadets in their intervening years, but much like nine of the 12 during the greater reconstruction period. They lasted six [00:09:00] months to a year before, before being dismissed.

But, and it's a, it's a small handful, single digits. There were two that I know of who are here in the World War I years very, very briefly. And on a trail there might have been another two in the twenties, but I need, I need to follow up. But the impetus to, to send African-American cadets to West Point in the first place, largely grew out of reconstruction in political realities.

that takes shape is that from:

Is that the center of gravity for [00:10:00] nominating black cadets shifts to northern states, particularly Ohio Ohio, and, New York. And as we get into the 1890s and the Jim Crow era is really taking hold, even the northern impetus to nominate Black cadets is starting to fall by the wayside as we get into the 19 teens.

attitude persists in into the:

And the Army is so vanishingly small that they're all connected. So Charles Young while he was in the serving in the Buffalo Soldier [00:11:00] regiments, mentored, then Sergeant Benjamin Davis Senior. Mentored him, prodded him to to pursue ocs, their version of ocs, pursue a commission successfully and did have continued contact with the Davis family, after Benjamin o' Davis Jr. was born.

There is a direct link from Charles Young to Benjamin o' Davis. Amazing. Even, even at the span of half a century.

Dean: Yeah. So you've been really busy over the last few years researching a number of different people on topics. And I mean, it's, it's interesting to hear you able to spin off just kind of the, you know, your, your thoughts on all these different individuals.

Can you just tell me about your work in general on the Black History Project at West Point, and how's it including cadets?

o, when I arrived back in, in:

So sat down with a civilian professor that we had at the time, professor Elara Hooton who has, who has since moved on to another university. And two of our junior rotators major Louisa Corick, major Mac Campbell. And we put together an idea for a long ranging black history project that accepted that archive as an element, but was a little more ambitious, looking at how we can get cadets and faculty involved in researching more and filling in more of the gaps and the black military experience generally. And to some extent the, the [00:13:00] black experience of West Point specifically.

And so we mapped out a campaign plan that works along three lines of effort over 10 years. But the campaign plan is really not meant to dictate action as much as frame what actions we want to take advantage of when, when they arise. And so as we moved outta that year, a number of opportunities ca started to fall into place.

So the first thing that we, we got going on was a faculty research project on James Webster Smith, who was the first black cadet admitted to West Point.

Dean: What year was he admitted?

McGovern: He was admitted in:

And so we had seen in the literature before that they're just, when Smith shows up, it just echoes these two interpretations that came up in the 1960s that try to portray Smith [00:14:00] as the Malcolm X to Henry O Flippers, Martin Luther King. In the 1960s, that metaphor made, made sense to many readers, and it was included in two different histories of West Point that are very influential and has just been parroted over time.

But as we pulled the threads, we discovered there's a lot more to the story. And in fact It seems that Smith staying power shifted conditions so that they would allow at least the possibility for later arriving Black Cadets to graduate.

ere some of our, majors were [:

Then there were another couple cadets that were interested in producing some sort of an exhibit, some sort of an exhibit that can reach a public audience and, educate the West Point community about black history at West Point. So that led to a meeting with Chris Barth in the library in a connection with, with Lisa [00:16:00] Gomez in the library.

And we put our heads together and, and decided to stand up a small team of two cadets Caroline Robinson and Deloria Wilson. Working with me and Lisa Gomez to set up an exhibit in the library and we, range broadly. This was a real team effort. We had help coming in from all over the West Point community.

And we were able to put on a really impactful exhibit up in the library for two months, February and March, and have since digitized it so it's available to the public through the through the Ismail Library website in indefinitely.

Dean: Yeah. And I'll tell, I'd recommend anyone look at it. It, it was a really amazing exhibit. And so it's nice to know it's been digitized and you can, you can access it or anyone can access it. What was the most exciting thing you've uncovered in all this research?

McGovern: Oh that's a great question because you always find things that the archives surprise you.

And we [:

Dean: but I, so Charles Young was scrolling Instagram,

McGovern: Not, not quite, But you do think of, when we think of say, 19th century West Point, we think of this parade of generals that we know of, and they all, we think of these very stern looking black and white photographs, and we assume that that's what they were.

ous court marshals that went [:

And two more egregious breaches of discipline, which is one that I, I found I encountered in the archives. Others have found it too, but I, I encountered it in the archives Where in 1870, the, the fall semester, 1870. There were these three plebes who, when it came time for evening recall or the evening report, two of them.

the first class, the class of:

So they went to their rooms, said, You can't stay here anymore. Come with us, we'll give you time to pack. They walked them out the up the road to the back gate, which is basically up behind by Fort Putnam and out the back gate, got them to the gate, handed them a pile of money and said, this will sustain you until you can get to relatives.

And off they went. Meanwhile, the post. The next morning when they realized there are three cadets that are missing. And of course, since the cadets had the core of cadets, had effectively expelled them, everybody said, I don't know where they are. They searched wider and wider. Eventually find these three, these three cadets in in Poughkeepsie.

e commandant is Emory Upton. [:

Yeah. And, and they did. It was, it is just one of the wilder stories of it.

Dean: Yeah. There's a lot of unbelievable things that, you know, are figuratively buried in the archives. Mm-hmm. You'll find when you go look at, say, as you mentioned president Grant he'll have little doodling in in his textbooks, you know, or Whistler will have some whimsical drawings in his book. So, yeah, I mean, the, there's a lot of things you can uncover in the archives that I don't know a lot of people know about, but it'd be quite interesting. Mm-hmm. Can, can you tell me about the current book you're working on with the West Point Press?

McGovern: Yes, sir. So that is a product of momentum generated from the exhibit which we mentioned earlier. So the West Point Press offers excellent venue to, to put out projects like this. What we're going to do it is a interdisciplinary team of faculty and cadets.

the full team of course I am [:

And we're gonna produce an annotated edition of Henry o Flipper's memoir of his, his cadet years at West Point. So annotated memoirs are excellent tools for modern readers, and when you look at Flipper's memoir it was published in 1878. So there are things that Flipper, there are ex turns of a phrase or expressions, idioms, that Flipper uses that modern readers will no longer recognize.

will help with interpretation[:

We can, we can illustrate that if there's a mention of a figure that Flipper does not explain, because an audience in 1878 would know exactly who that person is. But audience in 2023 wouldn't we can explain that. But. More importantly, it helps readers interpret the work. Tony McGowan from the English department is, will be helping us out specifically because Flipper's memoir is one of the earliest examples of an auto autobiography of a black man in American literature.

nce. There's also historical [:

It's easy when you read Flipper's memoir to take everything at surface at surface value, which as a historian, I would argue that you can't because context matters. And when Flipper wrote this, he published it in 1878, so it's published the year after he left West Point. And to Flipper's mind.

be dismissed from the Army in:

It is the foundational point for every regular. Almost every regular officer in the Army, it's their starting point. It is the living, breathing, beating heart of the army. Say one thing bad about West Point and your career is over.[00:24:00] So Flipper tells us some powerful testimony that we can take.

Gives us powerful testimony that we can take at face value. And there are some things that are more left between the lines and an annotated addition can point to where that is happening.

Dean: Yeah, I think it's gonna be an incredible contribution to the literature and I think it's gonna offer something quite unique.

Henry o Flippers is clearly of prominence to, to the West Point community and to West Point at large. But I think there's potential that an annotated bibliography can make him an a national figure, which I think he really is, but he's oftentimes not known as a national figure. So. So let me just transition a bit.

Several of the projects you mentioned seem to revolve around individuals. Many historians favor more collective studies. What advantages do you see in historical analysis that are more biographical in nature?

aches, in my opinion, it can [:

When we think about our mission here to educate, train, and inspire, I can educate more easily if my approach also inspires. Mm-hmm. And there's something inspirational in deeply personal stories, something very inspirational. We were just talking about Flipper. Flipper had a hard time while he was here, but his perseverance is inspirational.

nd educate at the same time, [:

The, the lessons that I'm trying to, that we're trying to impart in them are more accessible, more digestible. Also it's, to me, it, it, there's just something deeply fascinated in people's stories. I mentioned my dissertation in book projects. That's, it's about George Hels, but it's not about George Goethals.

It's about how and why the army changed in this great period of transformation from the reconstruction era to the postwar years in between the interwar years between World War I and World War ii. But I. Could present that story through congressional reports, through chiefs of staff of the Army, through secretaries of the of war, secretaries of the Army.

working his way through the [:

And also for me, my sense of when most people touch history, think about history, they look at it through their own lens and they relate it to their own lives. Presenting subjects that are people makes the history that much more relatable, that much more accessible. Presenting it as. An inanimate thing you know, the story of an institution versus the story of a person in which you can, you can weave the story of the institution, then people can see themselves [00:28:00] in it and understand themselves a little better, understand their condition, the condition around them better, and come to a deeper understanding of the institution and our past because it's so personal.

It seems like it's more real and more understandable.

Dean: I think, and I think that that makes sense, right? The, the study of the human condition and those experiences are allow people, as you stated, to touch history, but it also allows for inspiration at the individual level, but also tells the history of the institution as you point out, weave throughout.

And that's so important for us with our job, is to train, educate, and inspire with that emphasis on inspire cadets. And I think that's, I think being able to, to look at the human experience in historical context allows for that inspiration, which leads into a broader question. Why, why is history the study of history important for an army officer?

biased on this, but I think [:

I am. Familiar with, and in some circumstances, a great fan of Occam's Razor. The, the simplest solution is always the best, but the danger of Occam's Razor is that oftentimes the simplest solution that presents itself is a solution to a misdiagnosed problem. And what the discipline of history allows us to do [00:30:00] is to think.

In a disciplined and multifaceted manner about problems so that we can take the time to think about all the factors that all the conditions, the broader context of any given problem. How did we get to this point? How did we arrive at, at this problem? What's influencing the problem? What's driving it?

What's influencing the various ways that we as an army, as a nation can approach the problem? What's, what are the limitations that our, context imposes upon us? That could limit our ability to act and solve the problem. So in that way, somebody who thinks historically when they come upon a problem, as long as time allows, they don't, you don't just drive right into it.

if I apply pressure to this [:

And in my role as as Deputy G five, I acted as the chief of plans for the theater, army, air and Missile Defense Headquarters in Europe and Israel. Lots of work with nato, lots of work on high level plans and I used the skills that I developed as a historian. The ability to ask the right questions, to get at the essence of the problem, to in order to frame, the right approach to it.

I used that on a, on a daily, daily basis. I, I think it's, it's an essential, essential piece of a, of an Army officer's toolkit.

're helping prepare our, our [:

And I couldn't agree more, but let me ask you what, it's not simply you know, knocking down the 50 meter target. It's not just tactical thinking. What's the connection between the study of history and creating strategic thinkers? In our Senior Army leadership, say for example, you have a cadet today, 30, 35 years from now, they may be, you know, division commander, corps commander, or perhaps chief staff of the Army.

How do you see studying history now translating into creating the strategic thinkers that we need to, to be successful? Mm-hmm.

McGovern: Studying history now provides people the tools that they need to become strategic thinkers. Above all it, it trains them to ask the right questions and thoroughly, thoroughly investigate any problem as we move from the tactical level to the, to the operational, and then from operational to strategic level, the problems get just more and more.

Complex, [:

Right? And while history will not give them a step action drill that say, okay, this worked for Grant to do exactly what, what Grant did. They will see myriad examples of how people have approached similar problems. And it may reveal ways that they can adjust their own approach, options that they can take, factors that they must take into consideration.

eed strategic leaders to do, [:

And strategic leaders need to understand the significance and the importance of chance contingency and, and human agency. And in doing so, that will allow them to leverage the, skills, talents and motivations of everybody on their team.

erstand that if we interject [:

Dean: So how would you respond to those? Who would say, with the proliferation of technology special, especially like artificial intelligence chat, G P T, or let's say even more. Rudimentary Wikipedia, right? I can access knowledge so quickly now. Mm-hmm. That the, the study of history seems as if it's a bit unnecessary.

I mean, if I really want to find something that is, that is common or similar or a situation that maybe is played out in the past, I can find that I don't really know if I need to be studying in depth history when there's access to, to knowledge right at the tip of my fingertips. What's, how would you respond.

McGovern: There's, there's a difference between facts and knowledge and understanding. Above all, the most essential characteristic is strategic of a strategic leader is the ability to be a critical thinker, chat, g p t, and can quickly reach back and present a historical fact. But it cannot give us nuanced analysis.

It can't, [:

Dean: Yeah, i, I, I couldn't agree more, especially on that emphasis on critical thinking and the, the misunderstanding that access to knowledge means that you have an understanding, and our job is to ensure that there isn't an atrophy of those critical thinking skills that create understanding, which again, gets into your point of strategic thinking, and really the, the advantage of the United States military is our officers to be able to think through a problem.

And you can't do that simply by accessing knowledge. Okay. So lemme just ask you a few different questions. You didn't go to West Point. And one of the things I like to always put in this podcast, I highlight our, our incredible faculty in the the breadth of our faculty. We obviously have civilian faculty, we have permanent military, we have rotating military.

come to West Point to teach?[:

McGovern: It was an idea planted in my head when I was in rot, o c by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Nado who is the professor of military science. He was the ROTC battalion commander. So when I was a senior his rhythm was once a month. He would have a one-on-one weight room session with, with all of the, with each one of the seniors.

And this was, it was a double-edged sword. He was a big barrel chested guy. So he is, so while he's there abusing me in the weight room and I'm questioning life decisions he, he's just casually pulling the bench press bar off of me and saying, Hey, you know, it's one of the most fun assignments I had was I was a rotational military faculty in the math department at West Point, and I don't know if you know that that's an option that you can take advantage of after you complete your, your standard lieutenant assignments and your company level command.

e, then you should apply and [:

And uh, so it stayed with me and I thought there's got, there's a certain amount of luck with, with timing involved in this, but I ended up landing at Fort Stewart. Going to camp's, career course early landing at Fort Stewart early, had plenty of time to complete two commands and, come here. So, threw my hat in the ring and, and was fortunate that the history department hired me and here I still am.

Dean: What would you say to other non West Point graduates? You know, however they got commissioned about an assignment at, at at West Point.

McGovern: It's the best assignment I ever had, which is, is probably, not surprising since being a permanent faculty member here, I threw my hat in the ring to come back.

points in your career where [:

The most single, most fulfilling thing I've done in the army. They're optimistic, energetic, bright, talented, dedicated, working with them day in and day out and working in and amongst faculty that's filled of just full of just brilliant people who are doing their level best to develop that next generation.

It's, it's like no, no assignment I've seen before. And the fact I would tell ROTC grads that the fact that you are not a West Point grad will not hold you back a bit. We don't have a secret handshake, but we call ourselves goofies graduates of other fine institutions but there are plenty of us here.

re other officers from other [:

Dean: You know, and you just said something, Rory, that triggered a thought in my head.

I had a, I have a mentor who has laid out. You know, just some very basic tenets of, of what it means to be a leader. And the the last one, and he reiterates it to me all the time, is make sure you're building the bench right? You have to set the vision, you have to resource it, you have to do those things, but you have to build the bench.

And I can't think of an assignment where you get to influence and impact the next generation of, of army leaders at such a broad level as you as teaching here. And as you know, it's not simply we're in the classroom educating them on whatever your particular discipline is. There's a developmental component to it and you really will stay in, connect, contact with these young officers and see them go do great things.

t after being stationed here?[:

McGovern: That the plebes have to brace when they go up the stairs.

I see that happening and, and I still don't understand it, but I, I acknowledge that it is a thing. Yeah. Yeah.

Dean: You've lived in some great college towns. What's, what's the best Boston, Chapel Hill, or West Point?

McGovern: You know, it's, it's, it's tough cuz I think the answer changes at what stage in life you are.

Dean: That is the most un like that, that's, you should have been a lawyer, not a historian. That, that's a, that's not a, that's not an answer. I'll leave you there. Hey, I want to thank you, Rory, for being here with us. This has been fascinating. Thank you for all that you're doing. Like I said, I get so much joy and excitement about doing these podcasts cause I get to highlight our, our incredible faculty.

s the other podcast journals [:

So again, Roy, thank you. Thank you, sir. And until next time.

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About the Podcast

Inside West Point: Ideas That Impact
Join Brigadier General Shane Reeves, Dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, as he takes you behind the scenes to explore the applied research and cross-disciplinary work being done by the Academy's scholars.

From high-energy lasers and artificial intelligence to civil-military relations and ethics, this podcast goes beyond the textbook to give you a deeper understanding of the complex issues shaping the modern battlefield. Hear directly from the experts as they make even the most complex topics accessible to a broad audience. Get inside access to West Point's work and see how it's being applied today.

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