John Hanks Alexander was born on January 6, 1864, in Helena, Arkansas. His parents were James Milo Alexander and Fannie Miller Alexander. The elder Alexander was a prosperous barber and grocery salesman, who succeeded in purchasing a home and several other properties in Helena by the time John was born. Mrs. Alexander was a sought-after domestic servant whose favorable reputation kept her consistently employed.
Education played a significant role in the lives of all the Alexander children. As a youth, John Hanks ranked first in his class. After graduating from high school, he worked as a teacher in Carrollton, Mississippi. In 1881, at the age of 17, he enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio.
At Oberlin, he was an excellent student. A fellow Oberlin classmate recalled that he “got a perfect mark on the daily recitations…and also the highest marks possible on examinations for a period of two years.” At the end of his second year at Oberlin, he decided to try for an appointment to West Point, passing his initial examination on May 14, 1883. John Hanks was appointed to the United States Military Academy by Congressman George W. Geddes of Mansfield, Ohio.
The news of Alexander’s appointment garnered widespread notice in the press. Both The New York Times and the New York Tribune reported on his acceptance. The story got wide coverage in African American newspapers in Little Rock and Hot Springs, Arkansas, Cleveland, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
During his time at West Point, Alexander did well academically. In 1884, a West Point official noted that he was “making a better record than any other colored cadet ever admitted” and described him as “a splendid scholar, getting along finely.” Despite his exceptional academic standing, John Hanks Alexander was not welcomed at West Point. He suffered racial slurs from his classmates. He was excluded from extracurricular activities. Most of the time, he was “silenced,” a form of extreme social ostracism; other cadets would speak to him only in official capacities. When attending Sunday Chapel, Alexander routinely sat in a pew by himself or with the other Black cadets, including Charles Young. The white cadets refused to sit near him. The academy did not allow Alexander to room with white cadets.
In all these ways, Alexander spent his first years at the academy in social isolation. However, after his second year, he roomed with Charles Young until he graduated. This helped alleviate some of the stress both men felt in this hostile environment. Alexander helped mentor Young, who was two years behind him at West Point, and helped Young navigate the academic and social realities of the academy.
From the moment Alexander was accepted to West Point he looked forward to having his mother attend his graduation. He regularly put money aside so that he could buy a train ticket for her from Helena to West Point. Alexander graduated 32nd out of 64 cadets in his class on June 11, 1887. He received his diploma from General Philip Sheridan with “thunderous hand clapping.” His mother, who was born enslaved, was fiercely proud of her son.
On September 30, 1887, Alexander reported to his first duty station at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. He was assigned to the Ninth U.S. Cavalry, one of two segregated all-Black cavalry regiments in the U.S. Army. Alexander was the first African American officer to serve in the Ninth Cavalry. At the time, he was the only Black officer in the military; Henry O. Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point, was dismissed from the army in 1882.
Alexander remained at Fort Robinson until March 1888, when he and M Troop, Ninth U.S. Cavalry, were transferred to Fort Washakie, Wyoming. During his time at Fort Robinson and Fort Washakie, he performed the duties of a second lieutenant. On June 11, 1888, Alexander along with M Troop started a 17-day march from Fort Washakie to Fort Duchesne in Utah. Alexander described the land as “beautiful and grand beyond description.” In 1891, Alexander was transferred back to Fort Robinson, where he received a commendation from superior officers for his accomplishments as an assistant commissary officer in charge of the post exchange.
On January 6, 1894, the War Department assigned Alexander to detached service at Wilberforce University in Ohio as professor of military science and tactics. The military science and tactics program at Wilberforce University was the first of its kind for African Americans in the country. Alexander’s appointment got a great deal of coverage in Black newspapers. Wilberforce University, founded in the 1850s as a joint venture of the Cincinnati, Ohio Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), was the nation’s first private college for African Americans. By the 1890s, the AME Church owned the university.
On March 26, 1894, while at a barber in Springfield, Ohio, Alexander complained of a severe headache, collapsed, and died. The official cause of death was listed as apoplexy. A white militia company escorted Alexander’s body back to Wilberforce for burial. With his brother in attendance representing the family, John Hanks Alexander was buried with full military honors at Cherry Grove Cemetery in Xenia, Ohio.