COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Nearly a half-century after African-Americans were admitted to predominantly white Texas A&M University, a black student has finally reached the pinnacle of one of its signature organizations.
Marquis Alexander next school year will become commander of A&M's Corps of Cadets, a high-profile post that involves establishing the cadets' dress codes for their military-style uniforms and setting their daily schedule, including physical training that can begin before dawn.
"I'm not going to lie. There is a sense of pride that's there," Alexander, 22, said Wednesday, standing in front of the "Corps Arches," an arched brick wall that marks the entrance to the dormitory area for the 2,100 members of the Aggie Corps of Cadets. "I look at it as encouragement to other people to get out and do whatever they want no matter what their background is."
Texas A&M is about 100 miles northwest of Houston where Alexander, the oldest of 10 children in his family and the first to go to college, grew up and attended high school. Despite recruiting efforts by the school, Houston's inner-city areas typically don't produce future Aggies, and black students represent less than 4 percent of the 40,000 undergraduate students at the College Station campus.
"A lot of people from that part of town don't come here," said Alexander, who already spent a year and a half in the Marine reserves before enrolling at Texas A&M in 2009. "Everyone has their views and I knew what I was coming into when I came here, but it's been very positive."
The corps' racial makeup largely reflects the university, but Alexander suspects that will eventually change.
"We're working on that," he said. "We're growing steadily. I can serve as a testament."
His first exposure to A&M was during a high school visit. The Corps of Cadets was his group's first stop and where he got his first "Howdy," a greeting so synonymous with the school that people who enter an elevator at A&M's Rudder Tower get an automated "Howdy" over a speaker.
When his acceptance letter from A&M, the only school to which he applied, didn't arrive promptly, he signed up for the Marine reserves. The acceptance note eventually came but too late to renege on his Marine commitment. A year and a half later, he enrolled.
His continuing duty as a reservist, where he's a corporal, also makes him the first person with actual military experience to head the corps, whose graduates are outnumbered only by the nation's military academies in the amount of men and women who head from college to the armed forces. In A&M's case, however, membership in the corps doesn't require graduates to join the military, although nearly half do.
He acknowledges becoming the "face of the university" and he hopes to participate in efforts to encourage people from areas like his at home to make something positive of their lives.
"Coming out of that area, you don't see a lot of success stories," Alexander said. "There's not a lot of role models for that particular area. What you see is this guy living on the street or this guy selling drugs or this guy going to go to prison. Things like that. I hope to serve as a beacon of hope that: Hey, you can do this too."
A number of cadets applied for the commander position for the 2012-13 school year, then underwent scrutiny that included a five-minute presentation before an 11-member panel that included school officials, the reigning corps leadership and the Corps commandant, retired Brig. Gen. Joe Martinez.
"This is a young man who has all the right qualities," Martinez said. "You can see has a level of maturity that's probably not common among the cadets of that same age. He brings a command presence, leadership ability. He's comfortable speaking. ... He looks the part of a leader."
Texas A&M opened its doors in 1876. Blacks and women weren't allowed until 87 years later. The first African-Americans joined the corps in 1964. The first women cadets came a decade later. By contrast, rival University of Texas was racially integrated in 1950.
In A&M's centennial year, Fred McClure won election as body president, making him the first black student to assume the post that's considered a campus equal to corps commander and Aggie yell leader, a position once held by Gov. Rick Perry. McClure estimated that in 1976, only about 250 black students were at the school.
"I think he and I share the same passion for Texas A&M," McClure said, referring to Alexander. "It just so happens that we happen to share the same skin color. That's pretty cool too."
Albert Broussard, an African-American history professor, said Alexander's achievement was "an important event but largely symbolic."
"I don't want to minimize the importance of this event, but I would not refer to this as a turning point," he said. "Turning a new page in the long history of this university ... would be more appropriate."
Alexander, who hopes for a career as a military lawyer or intelligence work, said he wasn't even aware he was the first black cadet commander until someone told him.
"I don't know why it's taken so long," he said. "But I know the corps' process is that they will always put the best people in the spot. I can honestly say my race didn't play a factor. I hope it's because I was legitimately the best person for the job."