Black women made military history last Saturday, as the West Point military academy graduated its class of 2019 with its highest-ever number of female African American cadets.
There are 34 black women cadets who graduated from the academy on May 25 – a record high number, the school confirmed to HuffPost. All received a Bachelor of Science degree and commissions as 2nd lieutenants in the U.S. Army.
“My hope when young Black girls see these photos is that they understand that regardless of what life presents you, you have the ability and fortitude to be a force to be reckoned with,” cadet Tiffany Welch-Baker told online publication Because of Them We Can earlier this month.
There were about 1,270 cadets in the 2019 graduating class, of which 280 were women – around 22% per the school. And there were 189 black students in the class, around 15%.
This racial and gender milestone comes just one year after Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams broke barriers as the first Black officer to be superintendent and command the academy, founded in 1802.
It’s been less than two years since Simone Askew made history as the first Black woman to be named first captain of the corps of cadets, the highest student position at the academy.
The first woman to graduate from the academy, Andrea Hollen, was in the class of 1980, and in that same class was Vincent Brooks, the first Black cadet to serve as first captain.
Two more records for West Point were also set on graduation day this year: The graduating class’s 223 female cadets is the largest number since 1980, and the 2019 class also included greatest amount of Latin-Americans graduating in the school’s history with a total of 88. This year marked the 5,000th woman to graduate and its 1,000th Jewish cadet.
Clearly, there’s still a long way to go until there’s representative diversity at West Point—1,000 cadets in total graduated on Saturday. But the grads are already thinking about the next generation.
“I want women to be soldiers,” cadet Welch-Baker told NBC. “I want these little black girls to say ‘Hey, I can do it too. I have the strength to defy the odds.’ Which is what we did. We defied the odds.”
Women were not allowed to attend West Point until 1976. The first co-ed graduating class consisted of 62 women in 1980. In that class were the first Black female graduates, Joy Dallas and Priscilla (Pat) Walker Locke. West Point has graduated more than 400 Black women in its 117-year history.
Blacks have contributed to West Point’s legacy for centuries, from the first African-American cadet, Henry O. Flipper, who graduated in 1877, to 2nd Lt. Emily Perez, a Black woman who was the first member of the “Class of 9/11” to die in combat in 2006.
According to admissions director Col. Deborah McDonald, about 15,000 students apply to West Point each year, and about 9% enroll.
Once cadets graduate from the academy, located in New York, they serve on active duty in the military for at least five years.
The Huffington Post, Teen Vogue and Birmingham Times contributed to this report.