To the Editor of the New National Era – Henry Flipper

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Columbia, S.C., August 19, 1874.

To the Editor of the New National Era:
“Sir: My communications, thus far, have brought me to the end of my first year at the Academy, and now we come to the events of the second. In June of 1871, the proverbial silver lining, which the darkest cloud is said to have, began to shine very faintly in the West Point firmament, and I thought that at last the darkness of my cadet life was to be dispelled by the appearance above the horizon of another colored cadet. And, indeed, I was not disappointed, for, one day, I was greeted by the familiar face and voice of Mr. H. A. Napier, a former fellow student at Howard University. Soon after his arrival, and admittance, the corps of cadets, accompanied by the plebes, took up quarters in camp plebe camp to the latter, and yearling camp to us who had entered the previous year.

“During the cadet encampment there are certain dances given three times each week, known as Cadet Hops. These hops are attended by the members of the first and third classes, and their lady friends, and no plebe ever has the assurance of dreaming of attending the hops until he shall have risen to the dignity of a yearling third-classman. So long as I was a plebe, no one anticipated any such dire calamity as that I would attend the hops, but as soon as I became a yearling, and had a perfect right to go, if I wished, there was a great hue and cry raised that the sanctity of the hop room was to be violated by the colored cadet.

“Meetings were held by the different classes, and resolutions passed to the effect that as soon as the colored cadet entered the hop room, the hop managers were to declare the hop ended, and dismiss the musicians. But the hops went on undisturbed by the presence of the colored cadet for two or three weeks, and all began to get quiet again, when one day my brother and sister, with a couple of lady friends whom they had come to visit, came to camp to see me.

“This started afresh the old report about the hops, and every one was on the qui vive to get a glimpse of nigger Jim and the nigger wenches who are going to the hops, as was remarked by a cadet who went up from the guard tent to spread the alarm through camp.

“In a few minutes thereafter the gentlemen had all taken position at the end of the company street, and, with their opera glasses, were taking observations upon those who, as they thought, had come to desecrate the hop room. I was on guard that day, but not being on post at that time, I was sitting in rear of the guard tents with my friends that place being provided with camp stools for the accommodation of visitors when a cadet corporal, Tyler, of Kentucky, came and ordered me to go and fasten down the corner of the first guard tent, which stood a few paces from where we were sitting.

“I went to do so, when he came there also, and immediately began to rail at me for being so slow, saying he wished me to know that when he ordered me to do anything, I must step out about it, and not try to shirk it. I said nothing, but fastened down the corner of the tent, and went back to where my friends were.

“In a few minutes afterwards he came back, and wanted to know why I hadn t fastened down that tent wall. I told him that I had.

“He said it was not fastened then, and that he did not wish any prevarication on my part.

“I then told him that he had no authority to charge me with prevarication, and that if he believed that I had not fastened down the tent wall, the only thing he could do was to report me. I went back to the tent and found that either Cadet Tyler or some other cadet had unfastened the tent wall, so I fastened it down again. Nothing now was said to me by Cadet Tyler, and I went back to where my friends were: but we had been sitting there only about a half hour, when a private soldier came to us and said, It is near time for parade, and you will have to go away from here. I never was more surprised in my life, and I asked the soldier what he meant, for I surely thought be was either drunk or crazy, but he said that the superintendent had given him orders to allow no colored persons near the visitors seats during parade.

“I asked him if he recognized me as a cadet. He said he did. I then told him that those were my friends; that I had invited them there to see the parade, and that they were going to stay. He said he had nothing to do with me, of course, but that he had to obey the orders of the superintendent. I then went to the officer of the guard, who was standing near by, and stated the circumstances to him, requesting him to protect us from such insults. He spoke to the soldier, saying that he had best not try to enforce that order, as the order was intended to apply to servants, and then the soldier went off and left us.

“Soon after that the drum sounded for parade, and I was compelled to leave my friends for the purpose of falling in ranks, but promising to return as soon as the parade was over, little thinking that I should not be able to redeem that promise; but such was the case, as I shall now proceed to show.

“Just as the companies were marching off the parade ground, and before the guard was dismissed, the officer in charge, Lieutenant Charles King, Fifth Cavalry, came to the guard tent and ordered me to step out of ranks three paces to the front, which I did.

“He then ordered me to take off my accoutrements and place them with my musket on the gun rack. That being done, he ordered me to take my place in the centre of the guard as a prisoner, and there I stood until the ranks were broken, when I was put in the guard tent. Of course my friends felt very bad about it, as they thought that they were the cause of it, while I could Not speak a word to them, as they went away; and even if I could have spoken to them, I could not have explained the matter, for I did not know myself why I had been put there at least I did not know what charge had been trumped up against me, though I knew well enough that I had been put there for the purpose of keeping me from the hop, as they expected I would go. The next morning I was put in arrest for disobedience of orders in not fastening down tent wall when ordered, and replying in a disrespectful manner to a cadet corporal, etc.; and thus the simplest thing was magnified into a very serious offence, for the purpose of satisfying the desires of a few narrow minded cadets. That an officer of the United States Army would allow his prejudices to carry him so far as to act in that way to a subordinate, without giving him a chance to speak a word in his defense nay, without allowing him to know what charge had been made against him, and that he should be upheld in such action by the powers that be, are sufficient proof to my mind of the feelings which the officers themselves maintained towards us. While I was in ranks, during parade, and my friends were quietly sitting down looking at the parade, another model officer and gentleman, Captain Alexander Piper, Third Artillery he was president of my second court-martial came up, in company with a lady, and ordered my brother and sister to get up and let him have their camp stools, and he actually took away the camp stools and left them standing, while a different kind of a gentleman an obscure citizen, with no aristocratic West Point dignity to boast of kindly tendered his camp stool to my sister.

“I only wish I knew the name of that gentleman; but I could not see him then, or I should certainly have found it out, though in answer to my brother s question as to his name, he simply replied, I am an obscure citizen. What a commentary on our obscure citizens, who know what it is to be gentlemen in something else besides the name gentlemen in practice, not only in theory and who can say with Burns that a mans a man for a that, whether his face be as black as midnight or as white as the driven snow.

“There is something in such a man which elevates him above many others who, having nothing else to boast of, can only say, I am a white man, and am therefore your superior, or I am a West Point graduate, and therefore an officer and a gentleman.

“After the usual investigation by the Commandant of Cadets, I was sentenced to be confined to the company street until the 15th of August, about five weeks, so that I could not get out to see my brother and sister after that, except when I was at drill, and then I could not speak to them. I tried to get permission to see them in the Visitors Tent the day before they left the Point on their return home, but my permit was not granted, and they left without having the privilege of saying Good by.

“I must say a word in reference to the commandant s method of making investigations. After sending for Cadet Corporal Tyler and other white cadets, and hearing their side of the story in reference to the tent wall and the disrespectful reply, he sent for me to hear what I had to say, and after I had given my version of the affair, he told me that I must surely be mistaken, as my statement did not coincide with those of the other cadets, who were unanimous in saying that I used not only disrespectful, but also profane language while addressing the cadet corporal. I told him that new Cadet Napier and my brother were both there and heard the conversation, and they would substantiate my statement if allowed to testify. He said he was convinced that I was in the wrong, and he did not send for either of them. What sort of justice is that which can be meted out to one without allowing him to defend himself, and even denying him the privilege of calling his evidence? What a model Chief Justice the Commandant of Cadets would make, since he can decide upon the merits of the case as soon as he has heard one side. Surely he has missed his calling by entering the army, or else the American people cannot appreciate true ability, for that officer and gentleman ought now to be wearing the judicial robe so lately laid down by the lamented Chase.

“In reply to my complaint about the actions of the soldier in ordering my friends away from the visitors seats, he said that the soldier had misunderstood his orders, as the superintendent had told him to keep the colored servants on the Point from coming in front of the battalion at parade, and that it was not meant to apply to my friends, who could come there whenever they wished.

“It seems, though, very strange to me that the soldier could misunderstand his orders, when he saw me sitting there in company with them, for it is one of the regulations of the Academy which forbids any cadet to associate with a servant, and if I had been seen doing such a thing I would have been court-martialled for conduct unbecoming a cadet and a gentleman.”

“The cadets were, of course, very much rejoiced at my being in arrest, and after my sentence had been published at parade, they had quite a jubilee over it, and boasted of the skill and tact which Cadet Tyler had shown in putting the nigger out of the temptation of taking those black wenches to the hops. They thought, no doubt, that their getting me into trouble frightened me out of any thoughts I might have had of attending the hops; but if I had any idea of going to the hops, I should have been only more determined to go, and should have done so as soon as my term of confinement was ended. I have never thought of going to the hops, for it would be very little pleasure to go by myself, and I should most assuredly not have asked a lady to subject herself to the insults consequent upon going there. Besides, as I said before, I did not go to West Point for the purpose of advocating social equality, for there are many cadets in the corps with whom I think it no honor for any one to associate, although they are among the high toned aristocrats, and will, no doubt, soon be numbered among the officers and gentlemen of the United States Army.

“Yours respectfully,
“J. W. Smith, “Late Cadet U.S.M.A.”


Reply To The “Washington Chronicle.”

“Columbia, S.C., August 25, 1874.
To the Editor of the New National Era:

“Sir: The following article appeared in the Washington Chronicle of the 14th inst., and as I feel somewhat interested in the statements therein contained, I desire to say a few words in reference to them. The article referred to reads as follows:

” The recent attack of the colored, ex Cadet Smith upon the Board of Visitors at West Point has attracted the attention of the officers of the War Department. They say that the Secretary of War was extremely liberal in his interpretation of the regulations on behalf of Cadet Smith, and that he did for him what had never been done for a white boy in like circumstances. The officers also say that Smith was manifestly incompetent, that he had a fair examination, and that the Congressional Board of Visitors unanimously testified to his incompetency.

“Now, sir, I am at a loss to know what are the recent attacks of the colored ex Cadet Smith upon the Board of Visitors, for I am not aware that I have said any thing, either directly or indirectly, concerning the Board of Visitors. My remarks thus far have been confined to the Academic Board and Secretary of War.

“As the members of the Board of Visitors were simply spectators, and as they were not present when I was examined, I had no reason to make any attack upon them, and, therefore, as I said before, confined my remarks (or attacks, if that word is more acceptable to the Chronicle) to those who acted so unjustly toward me.

“As to the extreme liberality of the Secretary of War, in his interpretation of the regulations on behalf of Cadet Smith, and that he did for him what he had never done for a white boy in like circumstances, I hardly know what to say; for such absurd cant seems intended to excite the laughter of all who know the circumstances of the case. What devoted servants those officers of the War Department must be, that they can see in their chief so much liberality!

“But in what respect was the Secretary of War so liberal in his interpretation of the regulations?

“Was it in dismissing me, and turning back to a lower class two white cadets who had been unable to complete successfully the first year of the course with everything in their favor, while I had completed three years of the same course in spite of all the opposition which the whole corps of cadets, backed by the powers that be, could throw in my way? Or was it his decision that I can give Mr. Smith a re-examination, but I won t? The Chronicle is perfectly correct in saying that he did for him what had never been done for a white boy in like circumstances, for, in the first place, I don t think there ever was a white boy in like circumstances, certainly not while I was at the Academy, and if there ever were a white boy so placed, we are pretty safe in concluding, from the general treatment of white boys, that the secretary was not so frank in his remarks nor so decided in his action.

” I want another cadet to represent your district at West Point, and I have already sent to Mr. Elliott to appoint one, means something more than fair dealing (or, as the Chronicle would imply, partiality) toward the colored cadet. It means that the gentleman was pleasing himself in the choice of a cadet from the Third Congressional District of South Carolina, and that he did not recognize the rights of the people of that district to choose for themselves. You are out of the service and will stay out, for the Academic Board will not recommend you to come back under any circumstances, shows that it is the Academic Board That must choose our representative, and not we ourselves, and that our wishes are only secondary in comparison with those of the service and the Academic Board. We are no longer free citizens of a sovereign State, and of the United States, with the right to choose for ourselves those who shall represent us; but we must be subordinate to the Secretary of War and the Academic Board, and must make our wishes subservient to those of the above named powers, and unless we do that we are pronounced to be naturally bad as remarked the Adjutant of the Academy, Captain R. H. Hall, to a Sun reporter and must have done for us what had never been done for a white boy in like circumstances. Now, sir, let us see what has been done for a white boy in like circumstances. In July, 1870, the President was in Hartford, Ct., and in a conversation with my friend the Hon. David Clark, in reference to my treatment at West Point, he said: Don t take him away now; the battle might just as well be fought now as at any other time, and gave him to understand that he would see me protected in my rights; while his son Fred, who was then a cadet, said to the same gentleman, and in the presence of his father, that the time had not come to send colored boys to West Point. Mr. Clark said if the time had come for them to be in the United States Senate, it had surely come for them to be at West Point, and that he would do all in his power to have me protected. Fred Grant then said: Well, no d d nigger will ever graduate from West Point. This same young gentleman, with other members of his class, entered the rooms of three cadets, members of the fourth class, on the night of January 3, 1871, took those cadets out, and drove them away from the Point, with nothing on but the light summer suits that they wore when they reported there the previous summer. Here was a most outrageous example of Lynch law, disgraceful alike to the first class, who were the executors of it, the corps of cadets, who were the abettors of it, and the authorities of the Academy, who were afraid to punish the perpetrators because the President s son was implicated, or, at least, one of the prime movers of the affair. Congress took the matter in hand, and instructed the Secretary of War to dismiss all the members of the class who were implicated, but the latter gentleman was extremely liberal in his interpretation of the regulations, and declined to be influenced by the action of Congress, and let the matter drop.

“Again, when a Court of Inquiry, appointed by Congress to investigate complaints that I had made of my treatment, reported in favor of a trial by court martial of General Gillmore s son, General Dyer s son, the nephew of the Secretary of War, and some other lesser lights of America s aristocracy, the secretary decided that a reprimand was sufficient for the offence; yet he did for me what had never been done for a white boy in like circumstances. Now, sir, by consulting my Register of the Academy, issued in 1871, I find that three cadets of the fourth class were declared deficient in mathematics Reid, Boyle, and Walker and that the first named was turned back to join the next class, while the other two were dismissed. Now Reid is the Secretary s nephew, so that is the reason for his doing for him what had never been done for a white boy in like circumstances.

“Mr. Editor, I have no objection whatever to any favoritism that may be shown any member of the Royal. Family, so long as it does not infringe upon any right of my race or myself; but when any paper tries to show that I have received such impartial treatment at the hands of the powers that be, and even go so far, in their zealous endeavors to shield any one from charges founded upon facts, as to try to make it appear that I was a favorite, a pet lamb, or any other kind of a pet, at West Point, I think it my duty to point out any errors that may accidentally (?) creep into such statements.

” The officers also say that Smith was manifestly incompetent, that he had a fair examination, etc. What officers said that? Those of the War Department, whose attention was attracted by the recent attacks on the Board of Visitors, or those who decided the case at West Point? In either case, it is not surprising that they should say so, for one party might feel jealous because the Secretary of War was extremely liberal in his interpretation of the regulations on behalf of Cadet Smith, and that he did for him what had never been done for a white boy in like circumstances, while the other party might have been actuated by the desire to prove that no colored boy can ever graduate at West Point, or, as the young gentleman previously referred to said, No d d nigger shall ever graduate at West Point. As for the unanimous testimony of the Board of Visitors, I can only say that I know not on what ground such testimony is based, for, as I said before, the members of that board were not in the library when I was examined in philosophy; but perhaps, this is only one of the they says of the officers. There are some things in this case which are not so manifest as my alleged incompetency, and I would like to bring them to the attention of the Chronicle, and of any others who may feel interested in the matter. There has always been a system of re-examinations at the Military Academy for the purpose of giving a second chance to those cadets who failed at the regular examination. This year the re-examinations were abolished; but for what reason? It is true that I had never been re-examined, but does it not appear that the officers had concluded that Smith was manifestly incompetent, and that this means was taken to deprive me of the benefit of a re-examination when they decided that I was deficient? Or was it done so that the officers might have grounds for saying that he did for him what had never been done for a white boy in like circumstances? Again, the examinations used to be public; but this year two sentinels were posted at the door of the library, where the examinations were held, and when a visitor came he sent in his card by one of the sentinels, while the other remained at the door, and was admitted or not at the discretion of the superintendent. It is said that this precaution was taken because the visitors disturbed the members of the Academic Board by walking across the floor. Very good excuse, for the floor was covered with a very thick carpet. We must surely give the Academic Board credit for so much good judgment and foresight, for it would have been a very sad affair, indeed, for those gentlemen to have been made so nervous (especially the Professor of Philosophy) as to be unable to see how manifestly incompetent Cadet Smith was, and it would have deprived the Secretary of War of the blissful consciousness that he did for him what had never been done for a white boy in like circumstances, besides losing the privilege of handing down to future generations the record of his extreme liberality in his interpretation of the regulations on behalf of Cadet Smith.

“Oh, that this mighty deed might be inscribed on a lasting leather medal and adorn the walls of the War Department, that it might act as an incentive to some future occupant of that lofty station! I advise the use of leather, because if we used any metal it might convey to our minds the idea of a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

“Respectfully yours,
“J. W. Smith, “Late Cadet U.S.M.A.”




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. 20 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/military/to-the-editor-of-the-new-national-era-henry-flipper.htm - Last updated on Mar 7th, 2013


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