Treatment – Henry Flipper

A brave and honorable and courteous man Will not insult me; and none other can.” Cowper.

“How do they treat you?” “How do you get along?” and multitudes of analogous questions have been asked me over and over again. Many have asked them for mere curiosity s sake, and to all such my answers have been as short and abrupt as was consistent with common politeness. I have observed that it is this class of people who start rumors, sometimes harmless, but more often the cause of needless trouble and ill feeling. I have considered such a class dangerous, and have therefore avoided them as much as it was possible. I will mention a single instance where such danger has been made manifest.

A Democratic newspaper, published I know not where, in summing up the faults of the Republican party, took occasion to advert to West Point. It asserted in bold characters that I had stolen a number of articles from two cadets, had by them been detected in the very act, had been seen by several other cadets who had been summoned for the purpose that they might testify against me, had been reported to the proper authorities, the affair had been thoroughly investigated by them, my guilt established beyond the possibility of doubt, and yet my accusers had actually been dismissed while I was retained.* This is cited as an example of Republican rule; and the writer had the effrontery to ask, “How long shall such things be?” I did not reply to it then, nor do I intend to do so now. Such assertions from such sources need no replies. I merely mention the incident to show how wholly given to party prejudices some men can be. They seem to have no thought of right and justice, but favor whatever promotes the aims and interests of their own party, a party not Democratic but hellish. How different is the following article from the Philadelphia North American, of July 7th, 1876:

*This article was cut from a newspaper, and, together with the name of the paper, was posted in a conspicuous place, where other cadets, as well as myself, saw and read it.

“It is very little to the credit of the West Point cadets, a body of young men in whose superior discipline and thoroughly excellent deportment we feel in common with nearly all others a gratified pride, that they should be so ungenerous and unjust as they confess themselves to be in their treatment of the colored boy, who, like themselves, has been made a ward of the nation. We know nothing of this young man s personal character or habits, but we have seen no unkind criticism of them. For that reason we condemn as beneath contempt the spirit which drives him to an isolation, in bearing which the black shows himself the superior of the white. We do not ask nor do we care to encourage any thing more than decent courtesy. But the young gentlemen who boast of holding only official intercourse with their comrade should remember that no one of them stands before the country in any different light from him. West Point is an academy for the training of young men, presumably representative of the people, for a career sufficiently honorable to gratify any ambition. The cadets come from all parts of the country, from all ranks of the social scale. Amalgamated by the uniform course of studies and the similarity of discipline, the separating fragments at the end of the student life carry similar qualities into the life before them, and step with almost remarkable social equality into the world where they must find their level. It would be expecting too much to hope that the companionship which surmounts or breaks down all the barriers of caste, should tread with equal heel the prejudices of color. But it would be more manly in these boys, if they would remember how easy ordinary courtesy would be to them, how much it would lighten the life of a young man whose rights are equal to their own. It is useless to ignore the inevitable. This colored boy has his place; he should have fair, encouragement to hold it. Heaping neglect upon him does not overcome the principle involved in his appointment, and while we by no means approve of such appointments we do believe in common justice.”

On the other hand, many have desired this information for a practical use, and that, too, whether they were prejudiced or not. That is, if friends, they were anxious to know how I fared, whether or not I was to be a success, and if a success to use that fact in the interest of the people; and if enemies, they wanted naturally to know the same things in order to use the knowledge to the injury of the people if I proved a failure.

I have not always been able to distinguish one class from the other, and have therefore been quite reticent about my life and treatment at West Point. I have, too, avoided the newspapers as much as possible. I succeeded in this so well that it was scarcely known that I was at the Academy. Much surprise was manifested when I appeared in Philadelphia at the Centennial. One gentleman said to me in the Government building: “You are quite an exhibition yourself. No one was expecting to see a colored cadet.”

But I wander from my theme. It is a remarkable fact that the new cadets, in only a very few instances, show any unwillingness to speak or fraternize. It is not till they come in contact with the rougher elements of the corps that they manifest any disposition to avoid one. It was so in my own class, and has been so in all succeeding classes.

When I was a plebe those of us who lived on the same floor of barracks visited each other, borrowed books, heard each other recite when preparing for examination, and were really on most intimate terms. But alas! in less than a month they learned to call me “nigger,” and ceased altogether to visit me. We did the Point together, shared with each other whatever we purchased at the sulter s, and knew not what prejudice was. Alas! we were soon to be informed! In camp, brought into close contact with the old cadets, these once friends discovered that they were prejudiced, and learned to abhor even the presence or sight of a “nigger.”

Just two years after my entrance into the Academy, I met in New York a young man who was a plebe at the time I was, and who then associated with me. He recognized me, hurried to me from across the street, shook my hand heartily, and expressed great delight at seeing me. He showed me the photograph of a classmate, told me where I could find him, evidently ignorant of my ostracism, and, wishing me all sorts of success, took his leave. After he left me I involuntarily asked myself, “Would it have been thus if he had not been found on his prelim? ” Possibly not, but it is very, very doubtful.

There are some, indeed the majority of the corps are such, who treat me on all occasions with proper politeness. They are gentlemen themselves, and treat others as it becomes gentlemen to do. They do not associate, nor do they speak other than officially, except in a few cases. They are perhaps as much prejudiced as the others, but prejudice does not prevent all from being gentlemen. On the other hand, there are some from the very lowest classes of our population. They are uncouth and rough in appearance, have only a rudimentary education, have little or no idea of courtesy, use the very worst language, and in most cases are much inferior to the average Negro. What can be expected of such people? They are low, and their conduct must be in keeping with their breeding. I am not at all surprised to find it so. Indeed, in ordinary civil life I should consider such people beneath me in the social scale, should even reckon some of them as roughs, and consequently give them a wide berth.

What surprises me most is the control this class seems to have over the other. It is in this class I have observed most prejudice, and from it, or rather by it, the other becomes tainted. It seems to rule the corps by fear. Indeed, I know there are many who would associate, who would treat me as a brother cadet, were they not held in constant dread of this class. The bullies, the fighting men of the corps are in it. It rules by fear, and whoever disobeys its beck is “cut.” The rest of the corps follows like so many menials subject to command. In short, there is a fearful lack of backbone. There is, it seems at first sight, more prejudice at West Point than elsewhere. It is not really so I think.

The officers of the institution have never, so far as I can say, shown any prejudice at all. They have treated me with uniform courtesy and impartiality. The cadets, at least some of them, away from West Point, have also treated me with such gentlemanly propriety. The want of backbone predominates to such an alarming extent at West Point they are afraid to do so there. I will mention a few cases under this subject of treatment.

During my first-class camp I was rather surprised on one occasion to have a plebe we had been to the Centennial Exhibition and returned, and of course my status must have been known to him come to my tent to borrow ink of me. I readily complied with his request, feeling proud of what I thought was the beginning of a new era in my cadet life. I felt he would surely prove himself manly enough, after thus recognizing me, to keep it up, and thus bring others under his influence to the same cause. And I was still further assured in this when I observed he made his visits frequent and open. At length, sure of my willingness to oblige him, he came to me, and, after expressing a desire to “bone up” a part of the fourth-class course, and the need he felt for such “boning,” begged me to lend him my algebra. I of course readily consented, gave him my key, and sent him to my trunk in the trunk rooms to get it. He went. He got it, and returned the key. He went into ecstasies, and made no end of thanks to me for my kindness, etc. All this naturally confirmed my opinion and hope of better recognition ultimately. Indeed, I was glad of an opportunity to prove that I was not unkind or ungenerous. I supposed he would keep the book till about September, at which time he would get one of his own, as every cadet at that time was required to procure a full course of text books, these being necessary for reference, etc., in future life. And so he did. Some time after borrowing the book, he came to me and asked for India ink. I handed him a stick, or rather part of one, and received as usual his many thanks. Several days after this, and at night, during my absence I was, if I remember aright, at Fort Clinton making a series of observations with a zenith telescope in the observatory there he came to the rear of my tent, raised the wall near one corner, and placed the ink on the floor, just inside the wall, which he left down as he found it.

I found the ink there when I returned. I was utterly disgusted with the man. The low, unmanly way in which he acted was wholly without my approval. If he was disposed to be friendly, why be cowardly about it? If he must recognize me secretly, why, I would rather not have such recognition. Acting a lie to his fellow cadets by appearing to be inimical to me and my interests, while he pretended the reverse to me, proved him to have a baseness of character with which I didn t care to identify myself.

September came at last, and my algebra was returned. The book was the one I had used my first year at the Academy. I had preserved it, as I have all of my books, for future use and as a sort of souvenir of my cadet life. It was for that sole reason of great value to me. I enjoined upon him to take care of the book, and in nowise to injure it. My name was on the back, on the cover, and my initial, “F,” in two other places on the cover. When the book was returned he had cut the calfskin from the cover, so as to remove my name. The result was a horrible disfiguration of the book, and a serious impairment of its durability. The mere sight of the book angered me, and I found it difficult to retrain from manifesting as much. He undoubtedly did it to conceal the fact that the book was borrowed from me. Such unmanliness, such cowardice, such baseness even, was most disgusting; and I felt very much as if I would like to well, I don t know that I would. There was no reason at all for mutilating the book. If he was not man enough to use it with my name on it, why did he borrow it and agree not to injure it? On that sole condition I lent it. Why did he not borrow some one else s and return mine?

I have been asked, “What is the general feeling of the corps towards you? Is it a kindly one, or is it an unfriendly one. Do they purposely ill treat you or do they avoid you merely?” I have found it rather difficult to answer unqualifiedly such questions; and yet I believe, and have always believed, that the general feeling of the corps towards me was a kindly one. This has been manifested in multitudes of ways, on innumerably occasions, and under the most various circumstances. And while there are some who treat me at times in an unbecoming manner, the majority of the corps have ever treated me as I would desire to be treated. I mean, of course, by this assertion that they have treated me as I expected and really desired them to treat me, so long as they were prejudiced. They have held certain opinions more or less prejudicial to me and my interests, but so long as they have not exercised their theories to my displeasure or discomfort, or so long as they have “let me severely alone,” I had no just reason for complaint. Again, others, who have no theory of their own, and almost no manliness, have been accustomed “to pick quarrels,” or to endeavor to do so, to satisfy I don t know what; and while they have had no real opinions of their own, they have not respected those of others. Their feeling toward me has been any thing but one of justice, and yet at times even they have shown a remarkable tendency to recognize me as having certain rights entitled to their respect, if not their appreciation.

As I have been practically isolated from the cadets, I have had little or no intercourse with them. I have therefore had but little chance to know what was really the feeling of the corps as a unit toward myself. Judging, however, from such evidences as I have, I am forced to conclude that it is as given above, viz., a feeling of kindness, restrained kindness if you please.

Here are some of the evidences which have come under my notice.

I once heard a cadet make the following unchristian remark about myself when a classmate had been accidentally hurt at light battery drill: “I wish it had been the nigger, and it had killed him.” I couldn t help looking at him, and I did; but that, and nothing more. Some time after this, at cavalry drill, we were side by side, and I had a rather vicious horse, one in fact which I could not manage. He gave a sudden jump unexpectedly to me. I almost lost my seat in the saddle. This cadet seized me by the arm, and in a tone of voice that was evidently kind and generous, said to me, “For heaven s sake be careful. You ll be thrown and get hurt if you don t.” How different from that other wish given above!

Another evidence, and an important one, may be given in these words. It is customary for the senior, or, as we say, the first class, to choose, each member, a horse, and ride him exclusively during the term. The choice is usually made by lot, and each man chooses according to the number he draws. By remarkable good fortune I drew No. 1, and had therefore the first choice of all the horses in the stables.

As soon as the numbers drawn were published, several classmates hastened to me for the purpose of effecting an exchange of choice. It will at once be seen that any such change would in no manner benefit me, for if I lost the first choice I might also lose the chance of selecting a good horse. With the avowed intention of proving that I had at least a generous disposition, and also that I was not disposed to consider, in my reciprocal relations with the cadets, how I had been, and was even then treated by them, I consented to exchange my first choice for the fourteenth.

This agreement was made with the first that asked for an exchange. Several others came, and, when informed of the previous agreement, of course went their way. A day or two after this a number of cadets were discussing the choice of horses, etc., and reverted to the exchange which I had made. One of them suggested that if an exchange of a choice higher than fourteen were suggested to me, I might accept it.

What an idea, he must have had of my character to suppose me base enough to disregard an agreement I had already made!

However, all in the crowd were not as base as he was, and one of them was man enough to say:

“Oh no! that would be imposing upon Mr. Flipper s good nature.” He went on to show how ungentlemanly and unbecoming in a “cadet and gentleman” such an act would be. The idea was abandoned, or at least was never broached to me, and if it had been I would never have entertained it. Such an act on the part of the cadet could have arisen only from a high sense of manly honor or from a feeling of kindness.

There are multitudes of little acts of kindness similar to these, and even different ones. I need not indeed as I do not remember them all I cannot mention them all. They all show, however, that the cadets are not avowedly inclined to ill treat me, but rather to assist me to make my life under the circumstances as pleasant as can be. And there may be outside influences, such as relatives or friends, which bias their own better judgments and keep them from fully and openly recognizing me. For however hard either way may be, it is far easier to do as friends wish than as conscience may dictate, when conscience and friends differ. Under such conditions it would manifestly be unjust for me to expect recognition of them, even though they themselves were disposed to make it. I am sure this is at least a Christian view of the case, and with such view I have ever kept aloof from the cadets. I have not obtruded myself upon them, nor in any way attempted to force recognition from them. This has proved itself to be by far the better way, and I don t think it could well be otherwise.

The one principle which has controlled my conduct while a cadet, and which is apparent throughout my narrative, is briefly this: to find, if possible, for every insult or other offence a reason or motive which is consistent with the character of a gentleman. Whenever I have been insulted, or any thing has been done or said to me which might have that construction, I have endeavored to find some excuse, some reason for it, which was not founded on prejudice or on baseness of character or any other ungentlemanly attribute; or, in other words, I wanted to prove that it was not done because of my color. If I could find such a reason and I have found them I have been disposed not only to overlook the offence, but to forgive and forget it. Thus there are many cadets who would associate, etc., were they not restrained by the force of opinion of relatives and friends. This cringing dependence, this vassalage, this mesmerism we may call it, we all know exists. Why, many a cadet has openly confessed to me that he did not recognize us because he was afraid of being “cut.”

Again, I find some too high toned, too punctilious, to recognize me. I attribute this not to the loftiness of their highnesses nor to prejudice, but to the depth of their ignorance, and of course I forgive and forget. Others again are so “reckless,” so “don t care” disposed, that they treat me as fancy dictates, now friendly, now vacillating, and now inimical. With these I simply do as the Romans do. If they are friendly, so am I; if they scorn me, I do not obtrude myself upon them; if they are indifferent, I am indifferent too.

There is a rather remarkable case under this subject which has caused me no little surprise and disappointment. I refer to those cadets appointed by colored members of Congress.

It was quite natural to expect of them better treatment than of others, and yet if in any thing at all they differed from the former, they were the more reserved and discourteous. They most “severely let me alone.” They never associated, nor did they speak, except officially, and then they always spoke in a haughty and insolent manner that was to me most exasperating. And in one case in particular was this so. One of those so appointed was the son of the colored Congressman who sent him there, and from him at least good treatment was reasonably expected. There have been only two such appointments to my knowledge, and it is a singular fact that they were both overbearing, conceited, and by no means popular with their comrades. The status of one was but little better than my own, and only in that his comrades would speak and associate. He was not “cut,” but avoided as much as possible without making the offence too patent.

There was a cadet in the corps with myself who invariably dropped his head whenever our eyes met. His complexion was any thing but white, his features were rough and homely, and his person almost entirely without symmetry or beauty. From this singular circumstance and his physique, I draw the conclusion that he was more African than Anglo Saxon. Indeed, I once heard as much insinuated by a fellow cadet, to whom his reply was: “It s an honor to be black.”

Near the close of this chapter I have occason to speak of fear. There I mean by fear a sort of shrinking demeanor or disposition to accept insults and other petty persecutions as just dues, or to leave them unpunished from actual cowardice, to which fear some have been pleased to attribute my generally good treatment. This latter fact has been by many, to my personal knowledge, attributed to fear in another quarter, viz., in the cadets themselves. It has many times been said to me by persons at West Point and elsewhere: “I don t suppose many of those fellows would care to encounter you?”

This idea was doubtless founded upon my physical proportions I am six feet one and three-quarter inches high, and weigh one hundred and seventy-five pounds. In behalf of the corps of cadets I would disclaim any such notions of fear,

First. Because the conception of the idea is not logical. I was not the tallest, nor yet the largest man in the corps, nor even did I give any evidence of a disposition to fight or bully others.

Second. Because I did not come to West Point purposely to “go through on my muscle.” I am not a fighting character, as the cadets those who know me can well testify.

Third. Because it is ungenerous to attribute what can result from man s better nature only to such base causes as fear or cowardice. This seems to be about the only way in which many have endeavored to explain the difference between my life at West Point and that of other colored cadets. They seem to think that my physique inspired a sort of fear in the cadets, and forced them at least to let me alone, while the former ones, smaller in size, did therefore create no such fear until by persistent retaliation it was shown they were able to defend themselves.

Now this, I think, is the most shallow of all reasoning and entirely unworthy our further notice.

Fourth. I should be grieved to suppose any one feared me. It is not my desire to go through life feared by any one. I can derive no pleasure from any thing which is accorded me through motives of fear. The grant must be spontaneous and voluntary to give me the most pleasure. I want nothing, not even recognition, unless it be freely given, hence have I not forced myself upon my comrades.

“But the sensible Flipper accepted the situation, and proudly refused to intrude himself on the white boys.” Atlanta (Ga.) Herald.

Fifth. Because it is incompatible with the dignity of a “cadet and a gentleman” for one to fear another.

Sixth. Because it is positively absurd to suppose that one man of three hundred more or less would be feared by the rest individually and collectively, and no rational being would for an instant entertain any such idea. There is, however, a single case which may imply fear on the part of the cadet most concerned. A number of plebes, among them a colored one, were standing on the stoop of barracks. There were also several cadets standing in the doorway, and a sentinel was posted in the hall. This latter individual went up to one of the cadets and said to him, “Make that nigger out there get his hands around,” referring to this plebe mentioned above.

I happened to come down stairs just at that time, and as soon as he uttered those words he turned and saw me. He hung his head, and in a cowardly manner sneaked off, while the cadets in the door also dispersed with lowered heads. Was it fear? Verily I know not. Possibly it was shame.

Again I recall a rather peculiar circumstance which will perhaps sustain this notion of fear on the part of the cadets. I have on every occasion when I had command over my fellow cadets in any degree, noticed that they were generally more orderly and more obedient than when this authority was exercised by another.

Thus whenever I commanded the guard there were very few reports for offences committed by members of the guard. They have ever been obedient and military. In camp, when I was first in command of the guard, I had a most orderly guard and a very pleasant tour, and that too, observe, while some of the members of it were plebes and on for the first time. On all such occasions it is an immemorial custom for the yearlings to interfere with and haze the plebe sentinels. Not a sentinel was disturbed, not a thing went amiss, and why? Manifestly because it was thought and rightly too that I would not connive at such interference, and because they feared to attempt it lest they be watched and reported. Later, however, even this semblance of fear disappeared, and they acted under me precisely as they do under others, because they are convinced that I will not stoop to spy or retaliate.

“The boys were rather afraid that when he should come to hold the position as officer of the guard that he would swagger over them; but he showed good sense and taste, merely assuming the rank formally and leaving his junior to carry out the duty.” New York Herald.

And just here it is worthy of notice that the press, in commenting upon my chances of graduating, has never, so far as I know, entertained any doubts of my ability to do so. It has, on the contrary, expressed the belief that the probability of my graduating depended upon the officers of the Academy, and upon any others who, by influence or otherwise, were connected with the Academy. Some have even hinted at politics as a possible ground upon which they might drop me.

All such opinions have been created and nurtured by the hostile portion of the press, and, I regret to say, by that part also which ought to have been more friendly, if not more discreet. No branch of the government is freer from the influences and whims of politicians than the National Military Academy. Scarcely any paper has considered how the chances of any cadet depended upon himself alone. The authorities of the Academy are, or have been, officers of the army. They are, with one or two exceptions, graduates, and therefore, presumably, “officers and gentlemen.” To transform young men into a like ilk as themselves is their duty. The country intrusts them with this great responsibility. To prove faithless to such a charge would be to risk position, and even those dearer attributes of the soldier, honor and reputation. They would not dare ill treat a colored cadet or a white one. Of course the prejudice of race is not yet overcome entirely, and possibly they may be led into some indiscretion on account of it; but I do not think it would be different at any other college in the country. It is natural.

There are prejudices of caste as well as prejudices of race, and I am most unwilling to believe it possible that any officer would treat with injustice a colored cadet who in true gentlemanly qualities, intelligence, and assiduousness equals or excels certain white ones who are treated with perfect equanimity. With me it has not been so. I have been treated as I would wish to be in the majority of cases. There have been of course occasions where I ve fancied wrong had been done me. I expected to be ill treated. I went to West Point fully convinced that I d have “a rough time of it.” Who that has read the many newspaper versions of the treatment of colored cadets, and of Smith in particular would not have been so convinced? When, therefore, any affront or any thing seemingly of that nature was offered me, I have been disposed, naturally I think, to unduly magnify it, because I expected it. This was hasty and unjust, and so I admit, now that I am better informed. What was apparently done to incommode or discourage me has been shown to have been done either for my own benefit or for some other purpose, not to my harm. In every single instance I have, after knowing better the reason for such acts, felt obliged to acknowledge the injustice of my fears. At other times I have been agreeably surprised at the kindnesses shown me both by officers and cadets, and have found myself at great loss to reconcile them with acts I had already adjudged as malicious wrongs.

I have, too, been particularly careful not to fall into an error, which, I think, has been the cause of misfortune to at least one of the cadets of color. If a cadet affront another, if a white cadet insult a colored one for instance, the latter can complain to The proper authorities, and, if there be good reason for it, can always get proper redress. This undoubtedly gives the consolation of knowing that the offence will not be repeated, but beyond that I think it a great mistake to have so sought it. A person who constantly complains, even with some show of reason, loses more or less the respect of the authorities. And the offenders, while they refrain from open acts, do nevertheless conduct their petty persecutions in such a manner that one can shape no charge against them, and consequently finds himself helpless. One must endure these little tortures the sneer, the shrug of the shoulder, the epithet, the effort to avoid, to disdain, to ignore and thus suffer; for any of them are to me at least far more hard to bear than a blow. A blow I may resist or ignore. In either case I soon forget it. But a sneer, a shrug of the shoulder, mean more. Either is a blow at my sensitiveness, my inner feelings, and which through no ordinary effort of mind can be altogether forgotten. It is a sting that burns long and fiercely. How much better to have ignored the greater offences which could be reached, and to have thus avoided the lesser ones, which nothing can destroy! How much wiser to stand like a vast front of fortification, on some rocky moral height absolutely unassailable, passively resisting alike the attack by open assault and the surer one by regular approaches! The assault can be repulsed, but who can, who has ever successfully stopped the mines and the galleries through which an entrance is at length forced into the interior?

“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 hotbeds of disloyalty and snobbery, 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 the young men should redouble the efforts of others of their class to conquer 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 or caste in his soul.”

I shall consider this last clause at the end of this chapter, where I shall quote at length the article from which this passage is taken.

If I may be pardoned an opinion on this article, I do not think the true remedy lies with Congress at all. I do not question the right to demand of Congress any thing, but I do doubt the propriety or need of such a proceeding, of course, in the case under consideration. As to “that kind which sends poor white boys to Coventry,” because of their poverty, etc., I can say with absolute truthfulness it no longer exists. When it did exist the power to discontinue it did not lie with Congress. Congress has no control over personal whims or prejudices. But I make a slight mistake. There was a time when influence, wealth, or position was able to secure a cadetship. At that time poor boys very rarely succeeded in getting an appointment, and when they did they were most unmercifully “cut” by the snobs of aristocracy who were at the Academy. Then the remedy did lie with Congress. The appointments could have been so made as to exclude those snobs whose only recommendation was their position in society, and so also as to admit boys who were deserving, although they were perhaps poor. This remedy has been made, and all classes (white), whether poor or rich, influential or not, are on terms of absolute equality.

But for that other kind, “the one founded upon color,” Congress has no remedy, no more than for fanaticism or something of that kind.

This article also tells us that “the government has been remiss in not throwing around them the protection of its authority.” I disdainfully scout the idea of such protection. If my manhood cannot stand without a governmental prop, then let it fall. If I am to stand on any other ground than the one white cadets stand upon, then I don t want the cadetship. If I cannot endure prejudice and persecutions, even if they are offered, then I don t deserve the cadetship, and much less the commission of an army officer. But there is a remedy, a way to root out snobbery and prejudice which but needs adoption to have the desired effect. Of course its adoption by a single person, myself for instance, will not be sufficient to break away all the barriers which prejudice has brought into existence. I am quite confident, however, if adopted by all colored cadets, it will eventually work out the difficult though by no means insoluble problem, and give us further cause for joy and congratulations.

The remedy lies solely in our case with us. We can make our life at West Point what we will. We shall be treated by the cadets as we treat them. Of course some of the cadets are low they belong to the younger classes and good treatment cannot be expected of them at West Point nor away from there. The others, presumably gentlemen, will treat everybody else as becomes gentlemen, or at any rate as they themselves are treated. For, as Josh Billings quaintly tells us, “a gentleman kant hide hiz true karakter enny more than a loafer kan.”

Prejudice does not necessarily prevent a man s being courteous and gentlemanly in his relations with others. If, then, they be prejudiced and treat one with ordinary civility, or even if they let one “severely alone,” is there any harm done? Is such a course of conduct to be denounced? Religiously, yes; but in the manner of every day life and its conventionalities, I say not by any means. I have the right no one will deny it of choosing or rejecting as companions whomsoever I will. If my choice be based upon color, am I more wrong in adopting it than I should be in adopting any other reason? it may be an unchristian opinion or fancy that causes me to do it, but such opinion or fancy is my own, and I have a right to it. No one objects to prejudice as such, but to the treatment it is supposed to cause. If one is disposed to ill treat another, he ll do it, prejudiced or not prejudiced. Only low persons are so disposed, and happily so for West Point, and indeed for the whole country.

“The system of competitive examination for admission, so largely adopted within the past few years in many of our large cities, has resulted in recruiting the corps with lads of bright intellect and more than ordinary attainments, while the strict physical examination has rigorously excluded all but those of good form and perfect health. The competitive system has also given to the Academy students who want to learn, instead of lads who are content to scramble through the prescribed course as best they can, escaping being “found” (a cadet term equivalent to the old college word plucked ) by merely a hair s breadth.”

The old way of getting rid of the rough, uncouth characters was to “find” them. Few, very few of them, ever got into the army. Now they are excluded by the system of competitive examination even from entering the Military Academy, and if they should succeed in getting to West Point, they eventually fail, since men with no fixed purpose cannot graduate at West Point.

Now if the “colored cadets” be not of this class also, then their life at West Point will not be much harder than that of the others. The cadets may not associate, but what of that? Am I to blame a man who prefers not to associate with me? If that be the only charge against him, then my verdict is for acquittal. Though his conduct arises from, to us, false premises, it is to his sincere convictions right, and we would not in the slightest degree be justified in forcing him into our way of looking at it. In other words, the remedy does not lie with Congress.




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. 17 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/military/treatment-henry-flipper.htm - Last updated on Mar 7th, 2013


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