• Exploring American History

Roscoe Robinson was the US Army’s first black four-star general

In the late 1990s, a West Point cadet was questioned why the number of black candidates at the Academy was so small in number. The cadet responded, “Look around. Where are the examples that tell us that an African-American officer can be successful in the combat arms?"

Shortly thereafter, a committee was appointed to search West Point’s alumni for a graduate who would serve as an exceptional role model for future black cadets to emulate. The graduate they chose was Roscoe Robinson Jr., U.S. Military Academy Class of 1951; the first black officer to rise to the rank of Army four-star general.

Born on October 11, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Roscoe attended St. Louis University for one year prior to transferring to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1947. He graduated with a degree in military engineering in 1951.

Roscoe served in the Korean War in 1952 as a platoon leader and rifle company commander, during which he received a Bronze Star. Returning to the US a year later, Robinson became an instructor at the US Army Infantry School in the Airborne Department. In 1963, he graduated from the Command & General Staff College located at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. A year later, he completed his Master’s degree in international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

While serving as a battalion commander in Vietnam in 1967, Robinson received the Distinguished Flying Cross, 11 Air Medals, the Legion of Merit and two Silver Stars for his heroism and achievements.

Following Vietnam, Robinson served three years as the executive officer to the Chief of Staff at the National War College. He was promoted to Brigadier General and then appointed Commanding General of the United States Army Garrison, Okinawa in 1975.

Major General Robinson commanded the 82nd Airborne Division, America’s Guard of Honor at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 1976 where he had a reputation for earning the love and respect of the men under his Command. General Robinson was the first black general to command the All-American Division.

U.S. Military Representative to the NATO Military Committee was General Robinson’s final military assignment from 1982-1985. He retired in 1985 after completing 34 years of military service. He received two Distinguished Service Medals and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.

On July 22, 1993, General Roscoe Robinson, Jr. succumbed to an enemy he could not defeat when he died after battling leukemia. He was 64 years old at the time.

Roscoe's funeral was attended by a large number of classmates, friends, and Washington Officialdom - from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of the Army, the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Color Guard of the 82nd Airborne Division. Classmate and Chief of Chaplains, Kermit Johnson read the Cadet Prayer, and Shy Meyer offered the eulogy in a magnificent and very personal ceremony.

General Roscoe Robinson, Jr. is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, not far from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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In 1993, West Point recognized General Robinson as a ‘Distinguished Graduate.’ Criteria for receiving this award is as follows: Recipients will epitomize the academy's motto of ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ and underscore ‘the broad national significance of West Point as one of America's cherished institutions.’ The general was an outstanding example of someone who fulfilled these requirements.

General Robinson is remembered on the campus of West Point with the auditorium which was dedicated in April 2000 and named ‘General Roscoe Robinson, Jr. Auditorium’.

At Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center, the Roscoe Robinson Health Clinic also wears his name.

Unique, special, and one of a kind, he will continue to be remembered for a myriad of other reasons as well:

- Class members who graduated with General Robinson carry fond memories of this special man – over and above the fact he was the first black four-star general. He was totally convinced of the fact he was not only the Army’s best handball player, but also its best paratrooper as well. His warm smile and personal confidence were coupled with an enormous sense of humor.

- The primary source of their pride in ‘Robby’ is the fact he was the type of soldier who set the example and was an outstanding role model for thousands of young black soldiers during his 35 years of service and on through to this day. The time Roscoe spent as a rifle company commander in the 7th Infantry Division during the Korean War made a lasting impact on him and his desire both to accomplish the mission and to take care of the troops.

- Roscoe received many honors from his friends and admirers. One special note was a dinner that hosted the famous Tuskegee Airmen of WWII.

- When Roscoe received the Distinguished Graduate Award at West Point in May of 1993, it was a thrilling experience for him to be recognized by his fellow graduates; the people who knew him best.

This occurred on one of Roscoe’s ‘bad’ days physically and he had to be taken in front of the Corps in a wheelchair. Wheelchair or not though, the general was seen standing firmly at attention during the playing of the National Anthem.

During the award presentation in Washington Hall, General Robinson gave a short acceptance speech. He reminded everyone in attendance to always do their best regardless of the job, then repeated what his mother told him when he left home for West Point. She said, "If they don't treat you right, come on back home." He reminded all who were there that he stayed.

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