Archie Elam grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of five children in his family. His father was a career Non-Commissioned Officer, who enlisted during WWII and also served in Korea and Vietnam. His family had a tradition of military service. Even though he had a supportive family life, he and his brothers were not immune from racial tensions and violence on the streets of Philadelphia, sometimes at the hands of local gangs and sometimes at the hands of the police. In high school, he was in the Civil Air Patrol and thought he wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, but as a fencer, he caught the eye of the West Point fencing team, and was recruited by the Military Academy. At West Point, he experienced occasional racism, but felt that the academy was committed to fighting discrimination. As an African-American Cadet, he felt part of a tight-knit community of peers and faculty who provided encouragement and support. After his first assignment in the Army, he returned to West Point and served as a Diversity Outreach Officer in the Admissions Office.
In this interview, he talks about his family history, his father’s service, and his childhood. He describes being unlawfully detained by the police and shot at by gang members, and traveling to Huntsville, Alabama, to watch the moon landing. He discusses his experiences at West Point, reflecting upon his worst day at the academy and how the leadership addressed the issue. He provides a detailed analysis of several important mentors who helped shape the type of Cadet he was and the officer he became. Finally, he describes his role as an outreach officer, how he recruited minority candidates for West Point, and how he gained a greater appreciation for the Military Academy’s efforts to “get better at diversity.”