A Case of Downright Malice – Henry Flipper

The only case of downright malice that has come to my knowledge and I’m sure the only one that ever occurred is the following:

It is a custom, as old as the institution I dare say, for cadets of the first and second classes to march in the front rank, while all others take their places in the rear rank, with the exception that third-classmen may be in the front rank whenever it is necessary for the proper formation of the company to put them there. The need of such a custom is apparent. Fourth-classmen, or plebes not accustomed to marching and keeping dressed, are therefore unfit to be put in the front rank. Third classmen have to give way to the upper classmen on account of their superior rank, and are able to march in the front rank only when put there or allowed to remain there by the file closers. When I was a plebe, and also during my third-class year, I marched habitually in the rear rank, as stated with reason elsewhere. But when I became a second-classman, and had by class rank a right to the front rank, I took my place there.

Just about this time I distinctly heard the cadet captain of my company say to the first sergeant, or rather ask him why he did not put me in the rear rank. The first sergeant replied curtly, “Because he s a second-classman now, and I have no right to do it.” This settled the question for the time, indeed for quite a while, till the incident above referred to occurred.

At a formation of the company for retreat parade in the early spring of 76, it was necessary to transfer some one from the front to the rear rank. Now instead of transferring a third classman, the sergeant on the left of the company ordered me, a second classman, into the rear rank. I readily obeyed, because I felt sure I d be put back after the company was formed and inspected, as had been done by him several times before. But this was not done. I turned to the sergeant and reminded him that he had not put me back where I belonged. He at once did so without apparent hesitation or unwillingness. He, however, reported me for speaking to him about the discharge of his duties. For this offence, I submitted the following explanation:

West Point, N. Y., April 11, 1876.
Offense: Speaking to sergeant about formation of company at parade.

Explanation: I would respectfully state that the above report is a mistake. I said nothing whatever about the formation of the company. I was put in the rear rank, and, contrary to custom, left there. As soon as the command ” In place, rest,” was given, I turned to the nearest sergeant and said, “Mr. , can I take my place in the front rank?” He leaned to the front and looked along the line. I then said, “There are men in the front rank who are junior to me.” I added, a moment after, “There is one just up there,” motioning with my head the direction meant. He made the change.

Respectfully submitted,
Henry O. Flipper,


Cadet Priv., Comp. “D,” First Class.

To Lieut. Colonel , Commanding Corps of Cadets.

This explanation was sent by the commandant to the reporting sergeant. He indorsed it in about the following words:

Respectfully returned with the following statement: It was necessary in forming the company to put Cadet Flipper in the rear rank, and as I saw no third-classman in the front rank, I left him there as stated. I reported him because I did not think he had any right to speak to me about the discharge of my duty.

Cadet Sergeant Company “D.”

A polite question a reflection on the manner of discharging one s duty! A queer construction indeed! Observe, he says, he saw no third-classman in the front rank. It was his duty to be sure about it, and if there was one there to transfer him to the rear, and myself to the front rank. In not doing so he neglected his duty and imposed upon me and the dignity of my class. I was therefore entirely justified in calling his attention to his neglect.

This is a little thing, but it should be borne in mind that it is nevertheless of the greatest importance. We know what effect comity or international politeness has on the relations or intercourse between nations. The most trifling acts, such as congratulations on a birth or marriage in the reigning family, are wonderfully efficacious in keeping up that feeling of amity which is so necessary to peace and continued friendship between states. To disregard these little things is considered unfriendly, and may be the cause of serious consequences.

There is a like necessity, I think, in our own case. Any affront to me which is also an affront to my class and its dignity deserves punishment or satisfaction. To demand it, then, gives my class a better opinion of me, and serves to keep that opinion in as good condition as possible.

I knew well that there were men in the corps who would readily seize any possible opportunity to report me, and I feared at the time that I might be reported for speaking to the sergeant. I was especially careful to guard against anger or roughness in my speech, and to put my demand in the politest form possible. The offence was removed. I received no demerits, and the sergeant had the pleasure or displeasure of grieving at the failure of his report.

I am sorry to know that I have been charged, by some not so well acquainted with West Point and life there as they should be to criticize, with manifesting a lack of dignity in that I allowed myself to be insulted, imposed upon, and otherwise ill-treated. There appears to them too great a difference between the treatment of former colored cadets and that of myself, and the only way they are pleased to account for this difference is to say that my good treatment was due to want of “spunk,” and even to fear, as some have said. It evidently never occurred to them that my own conduct determined more than all things else the kind of treatment I would receive.

Every one not stubbornly prejudiced against West Point, and therefore not disposed to censure or criticize every thing said or done there, knows how false the charge is. And those who make it scarcely deserve my notice. I would say to them, however, that true dignity, selon nous, consists in being above the rabble and their insults, and particularly in remaining there. To stoop to retaliation is not compatible with true dignity, nor is vindictiveness manly. Again, the experiment suggested by my accusers has been abundantly tried, and proved a most ridiculous failure, while my own led to a glorious success.

I do not mean to boast or do any thing of the kind, but I would suggest to all future colored cadets to base their conduct on the aristonmetpon, the golden mean. It is by far the safer, and surely the most Christian course.

Before closing this chapter I would add with just pride that I have ever been treated by all other persons connected with the Academy not officially, as becomes one gentleman to treat another. I refer to servants, soldiers, other enlisted men, and employees. They have done for me whatever I wished, whenever I wished, and as I wished, and always kindly and willingly. They have even done things for me to the exclusion of others. This is important when it is remembered that the employees, with one exception, are white.

National Schools And Snobocracy.

“Cadet Smith has arrived in Columbia. He did not “pass.” Phoenix

“Alexander Bouchet, a young man of color, graduates from Yale College, holding the fifth place in the largest class graduated from that ancient institution. Exchange.

“These simple announcements from different papers tersely sum up the distinction between the military and civil education of this country. One is exclusive, snobbish, and narrow, the other is liberal and democratic.

“No one who has watched the course of Cadet Smith and the undemocratic, selfish, and snobbish treatment he has experienced from the martinets of West Point, men educated at the expense of the government, supported by Negro taxes, as well as white, who attempt to dictate who shall receive the benefits of an education in our national charity schools no one who has read of his court martialings, the degradations and the petty insults inflicted upon him can help feeling that he returns home today, in spite of the Phoenix s sneers, a young hero who has passed in grit, pluck, perseverance, and all the better qualities which go to make up true manhood, and only has been found because rebel sympathizers at West Point, the fledglings of caste, and the Secretary of War, do not intend to allow, if they can prevent it, a Negro to graduate at West Point or Annapolis, if he is known to be a Negro.

“Any one conversant with educational matters who has examined the examinations for entrance, or the curriculum of the naval and military academies, will not for a moment believe that their requirements, not as high as those demanded for an ordinary New England high school, and by no means equal in thoroughness, quantity, or quality to that demanded for entrance at Yale, Amherst, Dartmouth, or Brown, are too high or abstruse to be compassed by Negroes, some of whom have successfully stood all these, and are now pursuing their studies in the best institutions of the North.

“No fair minded man believes that Smith, Napier and Williams, Conyers and McClellan, have had impartial treatment. The government itself has been remiss in not throwing about them the protection of its authority. Had these colored boys been students at St. Cyr, in Paris, or Woolwich, in England, under despotic France and aristocratic England, they would have been treated with that courtesy and justice of which the average white American has no idea. The South once ruled West Point, much to its detriment in loyalty, however much, by reason of sending boys more than prepared. It dominated in scholarship. It seeks to recover the lost ground, and rightly fears to meet on terms of equality in the camp the sons of fathers to whom it refused quarter in the war and butchered in cold blood at Fort Pillow. We cannot expect the sons to forget the lessons of the sires; but we have a right to demand from the general government the rooting out of all snobbery at West Point, whether it is of that kind which sends poor white boys to Coventry, because they haven t a family name or wealth, or whether it be that smallest, meanest, and shallowest of all aristocracies the one founded upon color.

“If the government is not able to root out these unrepublican seeds in these hot beds of disloyalty and snobbery, then let Congress shut up the useless and expensive appendages and educate its officers at the colleges of the country, where they may learn lessons in true republican equality and nationality. The remedy lies with Congress. A remonstrance at least should be heard from the colored members of Congress, who are insulted whenever a colored boy is ill treated by the students or the officers of these institutions. So far from being discouraged by defeats, the unjust treatment meted out to these young men should redouble the efforts of others of their class to carry this new Bastile by storm. It should lead every colored Congressman to make sure that he either sends a colored applicant or a white one who has not the seeds of snobbery and caste in his soul. Smith, after four years of torture, comes home, is driven home, because, forsooth, he might attend the ball next year! He is hounded out of the Academy because he would have to be assigned to a white regiment! There are some Negroes who feel that their rights in the land of their birth are superior to the prejudices of the enemies of the Union, and who dare to speak and write in behalf of these rights, as their fathers dared to fight for them a very few years ago.

“Bouchet, under civil rule, enters Yale College the best prepared student of one hundred and thirty freshmen, and all through his course is treated like a gentleman, both by the faculty and the students, men who know what justice means, and have some adequate idea of the true theory of education and gentlemanly conduct. Two freed boys, from North Carolina and South Carolina, slaves during the war, prepare at the best Northern academics, and enter, without remonstrance, Amherst and Dartmouth. What divinity, then, hedges West Point and Annapolis? What but the old rebel spirit, which seeks again to control them for use in future rebellions as it did in the past. The war developed some unwelcome truths with regard to this snobbish and disloyal spirit of our national institutions, and the exploits of some volunteer officers showed that all manhood, bravery, skill, and energy were not contained in West Point or Annapolis, or, if there, did not pertain solely to the petty cliques that aim to give tone to those academies. It is not for any officer, the creature of the government it is not for any student, the willing ward of that government to say who shall enter the national schools and be the recipients of my bounty. It is the duty of every member of Congress to see that the government sanctions no such spirit; and it becomes every loyal citizen who wishes to avoid the mistakes of the former war to see to it that no class be excluded, and that every boy, once admitted, shall have the strictest justice dealt out to him, a thing which, thus far, has not been done in the case of the colored cadets.

“The true remedy lies in the feelings and sympathies of the officers of these academies, in the ability and fair investigations of the board of examiners; not from such gentlemen as at present seem to rule these institutions.

“Niger Nigrorum.”

This article was taken from some South Carolina paper during the summer of 74. Its tone is in accordance with the multitude of articles upon the same subject which occurred about the same time, and, like them all, or most of them, is rather farfetched. It is too broad. Its denunciations cover too much ground. They verge upon untruth.

As to Conyers and McClellan at the Naval Academy I know nothing. Of Napier I know nothing. Of Smith I prefer to say nothing. Of Williams I do express the belief that his treatment was impartial and just. He was regularly and rightly found deficient and duly dismissed. The article seems to imply that he should not have been “found” and dismissed simply because he was a Negro. A very shallow reason indeed, and one “no fair minded man” will for an instant entertain.

Of four years life at the Academy, I spent the first with Smith, rooming with him. During the first half year Williams was also in the corps with us. The two following years I was alone. The next and last year of my course I spent with Whittaker, of South Carolina. I have thus had an opportunity to become acquainted with Smith s conduct and that of the cadets toward him. Smith had trouble under my own eyes on more than one occasion, and Whittaker* has already received blows in the face, but I have not had so much as an angry word to utter. There is a reason for all this, and had “Niger Nigrorum” been better acquainted with it he had never made the blunder he has.

Johnson Chestnut Whittaker, of Camden, South Carolina, appointed to fill vacancy created by Smith s dismissal, after several white candidates so appointed had failed, entered the Academy in September, 1876. Shortly after entering he was struck in the face by a young man from Alabama for sneering at him, as he said, while passing by him. Whittaker immediately reported the affair to the cadet officer of the day, by whose efforts this belligerent Alabama gentleman was brought before a court martial, tried, found guilty, and suspended for something over six months, thus being compelled to join the next class that entered the Academy.

I cannot venture more on the treatment of colored cadets generally without disregarding the fact that this is purely a narrative of my own treatment and life at West Point. To go further into that subject would involve much difference of opinion, hard feelings in certain quarters, and would cause a painful and needless controversy.



MLA Source Citation:

Flipper, Henry Ossian. The Colored Cadet at West Point: Autobiography of Lieut. Henry Ossian Flipper, first graduate of color from the U. S. Military Academy. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 23 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/black-genealogy/a-case-of-downright-malice-henry-flipper.htm - Last updated on Mar 7th, 2013


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