Color determines how the Negro is treated – Henry Flipper

But it is color, they say, color only, which determines how the Negro must be treated. Color is his misfortune, and his treatment must be his misfortune also. Mistaken idea! and one of which we should speedily rid ourselves. It may be color in some cases, but in the great majority of instances it is mental and moral condition. Little or no education, little moral refinement, and all their repulsive consequences will never be accepted as equals of education, intellectual or moral. Color is absolutely nothing in the consideration of the question, unless we mean by it not color of skin, but color of character, and I fancy we can find considerable color there.

It has been said that my success at West Point would be a grand victory in the way of equal rights, meaning, I apprehend, social rights, social equality, inasmuch as all have, under existing laws, equal political rights. Doubtless there is much truth in the idea. If, however, we consider the two races generally, we shall see there is no such right, no such social right, for the very basis of such a right, viz., a similarity of tastes, instincts, and of mental and moral conditions, is wanting. The mental similarity especially is wanting, and as that shapes and refines the moral one, that too is wanting.

To illustrate by myself, without any pretensions to selfishness. I have this right to social equality, for I and those to whom I claim to be equal are similarly educated. We have much in common, and this fact alone creates my right to social and equal recognition.

“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. . . . 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.” Philadelphia North American, July 7th, 1876.

If we apply this to the people as a unit, the similarity no longer exists. The right, therefore, also ceases to exist.

The step claimed to have been made by my success is one due to education, and not to my position or education at West Point, rather than at some other place; so that it follows if there be education, if the mental and moral condition of the claimants to that right be a proper one, there will necessarily be social equality, and under other circumstances there can be no such equality.

“Remember, dear friend,” says a correspondent, “that you carry an unusual responsibility. The nation is interested in what you do. If you win your diploma, your enemies lose and your friends gain one very important point in the great argument for equal rights. When you shall have demonstrated that you have equal powers, then equal rights will come in due time. The work which you have chosen, and from which you cannot now flinch without dishonor, proves far more important than either you or me (Faculty at A. U.) at first conceived. Like all great things its achievement will involve much of trial and hardship.”

Alas! how true! What a trial it is to be socially ostracized, to live in the very midst of life and yet be lonely, to pass day after day without saying perhaps a single word other than those used in the section room during a recitation. How hard it is to live month after month without even speaking to woman, without feeling or knowing the refining influence of her presence! What a miserable existence!

Oh! tis hard, this lonely living, to be
In the midst of life so solitary,
To sit all the long, long day through and gaze
In the dimness of gloom, all but amazed
At the emptiness of life, and wonder
What keeps sorrow and death asunder.
Tis the forced seclusion most galls the mind,
And sours all other joy which it may find.
Tis the sneer, tho half hid, is bitter still,
And wakes dormant anger to passion s will.
But oh! tis harder yet to bear them all
Unangered and unheedful of the thrall,
To list the jeer, the snarl, and epithet
All too base for knaves, and e en still forget
Such words were spoken, too manly to let
Such baseness move a nobler intellect.
But not the words nor even the dreader disdain
Move me to anger or resenting pain.
Tis the thought, the thought most disturbs my mind,
That I’m ostracized for no fault of mine,
Tis that ever recurring thought awakes
Mine anger

Such a life was mine, not indeed for four years, but for the earlier part of my stay at the Academy.

But to return to our subject. There are two questions involved in my case. One of them is, Can a Negro graduate at West Point, or will one ever graduate there? And the second, If one never graduate there, will it be because of his color or prejudice?

My own success answers most conclusively the first question, and changes the nature of the other. Was it, then, color or actual deficiency that caused the dismissal of all former colored cadets? I shall not venture to reply more than to say my opinion is deducible from what I have said elsewhere in my narrative.

However, my correspondent agrees with me that color is of no consequence in considering the question of equality socially. My friends, he says, gain an important point in the argument for equal rights. It will be in this wise, viz., that want of education, want of the proof of equality of intellect, is the obstacle, and not color. And the only way to get this proof is to get education, and not by “war of races.” Equal rights must be a consequence of this proof, and not something existing before it. Equal rights will come in due time, civil rights bill, war of races, or any thing of that kind to the contrary not withstanding.

And moreover, I don t want equal rights, but identical rights. The whites and blacks may have equal rights, and yet be entirely independent, or estranged from each other. The two races cannot live in the same country, under the same laws as they now do, and yet be absolutely independent of each other. There must, there should, and there will be a mutual dependence, and any thing that tends to create independence, while it is thus so manifestly impossible, can engender strife alone between them. On the other hand, whatever brings them into closer relationship, whatever increases their knowledge and appreciation of fellowship and its positive importance, must necessarily tend to remove all prejudices, and all ill feelings, and bring the two races, and indeed the world, nearer that degree of perfection to which all things show us it is approaching. Therefore I want identical rights, for equal rights may not be sufficient.

“It is for you, Henry, more than any one I know of, to demonstrate to the world around us, in this part of it at least (the North), the equality of intellect in the races. You win by your uprightness and intelligence, and it cannot be otherwise than that you will gain respect and confidence.”

Thus a lady correspondent (Miss M. E. H., Durham Centre, Ct.) encourages, thus she keeps up the desire to graduate, to demonstrate to the world “the equality of intellect in the races,” that not color but the want of this proof in this semi barbarous people is the obstacle to their being recognized as social equals. A tremendous task! Not so much to prove such an equality for that had already been abundantly demonstrated but rather to show the absurdity and impracticability of prejudice on account of color; or, in other words, that there is no such prejudice. It is prejudice on account of non refinement and non education.

As to how far and how well I have discharged that duty, my readers, and all others who may be in any manner interested in me, must judge from my narrative and my career at West Point. Assuring all that my endeavor has been to act as most becomes a gentleman, and with Christian forbearance to disregard all unfriendliness or prejudice, I leave this subject, this general résumé of my treatment at the hands of the cadets, and my own conduct, with the desire that it be criticized impartially if deemed worthy of criticism at all.

“Reporter. Have you any more colored cadets?

“Captain H . Only one Henry O. Flipper, of Georgia. He is a well built lad, a mulatto, and is bright, intelligent, and studious.

“Reporter. Do the cadets dislike him as much as they did Smith?

“Captain H . No, sir; I am told that he is more popular. I have heard of no doubt but that he will get through all right.” New York Herald, July, 1874.



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.

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