Resume – Henry Flipper

July 1, 1876! Only one year more; and yet how wearily the days come and go! How anxiously we watch them, how eagerly we count them, as they glimmer in the distance, and forget them as they fade! What joyous anticipation, what confident expectation, what hope animates each soul, each heart, each being of us! What encouragement to study this longing, this impatience gives us, as if it hastened the coming finale! And who felt it more than I? Who could feel it more than I? To me it was to be not only an end of study, of discipline, of obedience to the regulations of the Academy, but even an end to isolation, to tacit persecution, to melancholy, to suspense. It was to be the grand realization of my hopes, the utter, the inevitable defeat of the minions of pride, prejudice, caste. Nor would such consummation of hopes affect me only, or those around me. Nay, even I was but the point of “primitive disturbance,” whence emanates as if from a focus, from a new origin, prayer, friendly and inimical, to be focused again into realization on one side and discomfiture on the other. My friends, my enemies, centre their hopes on me. I treat them, one with earnest endeavor for realization, the other with supremest indifference. They are deviated with varying anxiety on either side, and hence my joy, my gratitude, when I find, July 1, 1876, that I am a first-classman.

A first-classman! The beginning of realization, for had I not distanced all the colored cadets before me? Indeed I had, and that with the greater prospect of ultimate success gave me double cause for rejoicing.

A first-classman! “There s something prophetic in it,” for behold

“The country begins to be agitated by the approaching graduation of young Flipper, the colored West Point cadet from Atlanta. If he succeeds in getting into the aristocratic circles of the official army there will be a commotion for a certainty. Flipper is destined to be famous.”

Such was the nature of the many editorials which appeared about this time, summer of 76. The circumstance was unusual, unexpected, for it had been predicted that only slaughter awaited me at that very stage, because Smith had failed just there, just where I had not.

“Henry Flipper, of Atlanta, enjoys the distinction of being the only Negro cadet that the government is cramming with food and knowledge at West Point. He stands forty-sixth in the third class, which includes eighty-five cadets. A correspondent of the New York Times says that, while all concede Flipper s progress, yet it is not believed that he will be allowed to graduate. No Negro has passed out of the institution a graduate, and it is believed that Flipper will be eventually slaughtered in one way or another. The rule among the regulars is: No darkeys need apply.”

Or this:

“Smith’s dismissal leaves Henry Flipper the sole cadet of color at West Point. Flipper s pathway will not be strewn with roses, and we shall be surprised if the Radicals do not compel him, within a year, to seek refuge from a sea of troubles in his father s quiet shoe shop on Decatur Street.”

Isn’t it strange how some people strive to drag everything into politics! A political reason is assigned to every thing, and “every thing is politics.”

The many editors who have written on the subject of the colored cadets have, with few exceptions, followed the more prejudiced and narrow minded critics who have attributed every thing, ill treatment, etc., to a natural aversion for the Negro, and to political reasons. They seem to think it impossible for one to discharge a duty or to act with justice in any thing where a Negro is concerned. Now this is unchristian as well as hasty and undeserved. As I have said elsewhere in my narrative, aside from the authorities being de facto “officers and gentlemen,” and therefore morally bound to discharge faithfully every duty, they are under too great a responsibility to permit them to act as some have asserted for them, to compel me “to seek refuge from a sea of troubles,” or to cause me to “be eventually slaughtered in one way or another.” Who judges thus is not disposed to judge fairly, but rather as suits some pet idea of his own, to keep up prejudice and all its curses.

It would be more Christian, and therefore more just, I apprehend, to consider both sides of the question, the authorities and those under them. Other and better reasons would be found for some things which have occurred, and reasons which would not be based on falsehood, and which would not tend to perpetuate the conflict of right and prejudice. My own success will prove, I hope, not only that I had sufficient ability to graduate which by the way none have questioned but also that the authorities were not as some have depicted them. This latter proof is important, first, because it will remove that fear which has deterred many from seeking, and even from accepting appointments when offered, to which determent my isolation is largely due; and second, because it will add another to the already long list of evidences of the integrity of our national army.

To return to the last quotation. Immediately after the dismissal of Smith, indeed upon the very day of that event, it was rumored that I intended to resign. I learned of the rumor from various sources, only one of which I need mention.

I was on guard that day, and while off duty an officer high in rank came to me and invited me to visit him at his quarters next day. I did so, of course. His first words, after greeting, etc., were to question the truth of the rumor, and before hearing my reply, to beg me to relinquish any such intention. He was kind enough to give me much excellent advice, which I have followed most religiously. He assured me that prejudice, if it did exist among my instructors, would not prevent them from treating me justly and impartially. I am proud to testify now to the truth of his assurance. He further assured me that the officers of the Academy and of the army, and especially the older ones, desired to have me graduate, and that they would do all within the legitimate exercise of their authority to promote that end. This assurance has been made me by officers of nearly every grade in the army, from the general down, and has ever been carried out by them whenever a fit occasion presented itself.

Surely this is not discouraging. Surely, too, it is not causing me “to seek refuge from a sea of troubles.” We need only go back to the article quoted from the Era, and given in Chapter III., to find an explanation for this conduct.

“We know that any young man, whether he be poor or black, or both, may enter any first-class college in America and find warm sympathetic friends, both among students and faculty, if he but prove himself to be possessed of some good qualities.”

This is the keynote to the whole thing. One must not expect to do as one pleases, whether that be right or wrong, or right according to some fanatical theory, and notwithstanding to be dealt with in a manner warranted only by the strictest notion of right. We must force others to treat us as we wish, by giving them such an example of meekness and of good conduct as will at least shame them into a like treatment of us. This is the safer and surer method of revenge.

“Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.”

To proceed: I am undoubtedly a first-classman. None other has enjoyed that eminence. There are many honors and responsibilities incident to that position or rank. First-classmen have authority at times over their fellow cadets. How will it be when I come to have that authority? Will that same coldness and distance be manifested as hitherto? These are important questions. I shall be brought necessarily into closer relations with the cadets than before. How will they accept such relationship? The greatest proof of their personal convictions will be manifested in their conduct here. If they evade my authority, or are stubborn or disobedient, then are their convictions unfriendly indeed. But if kind, generous, willing to assist, to advise, to obey, to respect myself as well as my office, then are they, as I ever believed them to be, gentlemen in all that recognizes no prejudice, no caste, nothing inconsistent with manhood.

There are certain privileges accorded to first-classmen which the other classes do not enjoy. The privates of the first class do duty as officers of the guard, as company officers at company and battalion drills, at light battery drills, and at other drills and ceremonies. In all these cases they have command of other cadets. These cadets are subject to their orders and are liable to be reported indeed such is required for disobedience, stubbornness, or for any thing prejudicial to good order and good discipline.

In this fact is a reason the only one, I think, which will in any manner account for the unpardonable reserve of many of the cadets. To be subject to me, to my orders, was to them an unbearable torture. As they looked forward to the time when I should exercise command over them, they could not help feeling the mortification which would be upon them.

I must modify my statement. They may be prejudiced, and yet gentlemen, and if gentlemen they will not evade authority even though vested in me.

We go into camp at West Point on the 17th of June, 76 for ten days. During all that time I enjoy all the privileges of first-classmen. Nothing is done to make it unpleasant or in any way to discourage or dishearten me. We go to Philadelphia. We visit the Centennial, and there not only is the same kindness shown me, but I find a number of cadets accost me whenever we meet, on the avenues and streets, on the grounds and in the city. They ask questions, converse, answer questions. This occurred several times at the Southern Restaurant, as well as elsewhere. After the parade on the 4th of July, every kindness was shown me. Those cadets near me bought lemons, lemonade, etc, and shared with me, and when, on another occasion, I was the purchaser, they freely partook of my “good cheer.” What conclusion shall I draw from this? That they are unfriendly or prejudiced? I fain would drop my pen and burn my manuscript if for even an instant I thought it possible. And yet how shall I explain away this bit of braggadocio in the words italicized in this article from the Philadelphia Times?

“The Color Line. One of the first-classmen is Mr. Flipper, of Georgia, a young colored man. We don’t have any thing to do with him off duty, said one of the cadets yesterday. We don t even speak to him. Of course we have to eat with him, and drill with him, and go on guard with him, but that ends it. Outside of duty, we don t know him. Is he intelligent? Yes; he stands high in his class, and I see no reason to doubt that he will graduate next June. He has the Negro features strongly developed, but in color he is rather light. ”

Easily enough, I think. In the first place the statement is too broad, if made by a cadet, which I very much doubt. There are some of that “we” who do know me outside of duty. And if a cadet made the statement he must have been a plebe, one unacquainted with my status in the corps, or one who, strenuously avoiding me himself, supposed all others likewise did so. The cadet was not a first-classman. There is a want of information in his last answer which could not have been shown by a first-classman.

Again, he says we “go on guard with him.” Now that is untrue, as I understand it. The word “with” would imply that we were on guard in the same capacity, viz., as privates. But first-classmen do no guard duty in that capacity, and hence not being himself a first-classman he could not have been on guard “with” me. If he had said “under him,” his statement would have been nearer the truth.

After a stay of ten days in Philadelphia, we return to West Point, and still the same respect is shown me. There is but little more of open recognition, if any, than before, and yet that I am respected is shown in many ways. See, for example, the latter part of chapter on “Treatment.”

Again, during my first year I many times overheard myself spoken of as “the nigger,” “the moke,” or “the thing.” Now openly, and when my presence was not known, I always hear myself mentioned as Mr. Flipper. There are a few who use both forms of address as best suits their convenience or inclination at the time. But why is it? Why not “nigger,” “moke,” or “thing” as formerly? Is there, can there be any other reason than that they respect me more now than then? I am most unwilling to believe there could be.

We begin our regular routine of duties, etc. We have practical military engineering, ordnance, artillery, practical astronomy in field and permanent observatories, telegraphy, and guard. We are detailed for these duties. Not the least distinction is made. Not the slightest partiality is shown. Always the same regard for my feelings, the same respect for me! See the case of gabion in the chapter on “Treatment.”

At length, in my proper order, I am detailed for officer of the guard. True, the cadets expressed some wonderment, but why? Simply, and reasonably enough too, because I was the first person of color that had ever commanded a guard at the Military Academy of the United States. It is but a natural curiosity. And how am I treated? Is my authority recognized? Indeed it is. My sergeant not only volunteered to make out the guard report for me, but also offered any assistance I might want, aside from the discharge of his own duty as sergeant of the guard. Again, a number of plebes were confined in the guard tents for grossness and carelessness. I took their names, the times of their imprisonment, and obtained permission to release them. I was thanked for my trouble. Again, a cadet s father wishes to see him. He is in arrest. I get permission for him to visit his father at the guard tents. I go to his tent and tell him, and start back to my post of duty. He calls me back and thanks me. Must I call that natural aversion for the Negro, or even prejudice? Perhaps it is, but I cannot so comprehend it. It may have that construction, but as long as the other is possible it is generous to accept it. And again, I am ordered to report a cadet. I do it. I am stigmatized, of course, by some of the low ones (see that case under “Treatment”); but my conduct, both in obeying the order and subsequently, is approved by the better portion of the corps. The commandant said to me: “Your duty was a plain one, and you discharged it properly. You were entirely right in reporting Mr. .” What is the conduct of this cadet himself afterwards? If different at all from what it was before, it is, in my presence at least, more cordial, more friendly, more kind. Still there is no ill treatment, assuming of course that my own conduct is proper, and not obtrusive or overbearing. And so in a multitude of ways this fact is proved. I have noticed many things, little things perhaps they were, but still proofs, in the conduct of all the cadets which remove all doubt from my mind. And yet with all my observation and careful study of those around me, I have many times been unable to decide what was the feeling of the cadets toward me. Some have been one thing everywhere and at all times, not unkind or ungenerous, nor even unwilling to hear me and be with me, or near me, or on duty with me, or alone with me. Some again, while not avoiding me in the presence of others have nevertheless manifested their uneasy dislike of my proximity. When alone with me they are kind, and all I could wish them to be. Others have not only strenuously avoided me when with their companions, but have even at times shown a low disposition, a desire to wound my feelings or to chill me with their coldness. But alone, behold they know how to mimic gentlemen. The kind of treatment which I was to receive, and have received at the hands of the cadets, has been a matter of little moment to me. True, it has at times been galling, but its severest effects have been but temporary and have caused me no considerable trouble or inconvenience. I have rigidly overlooked it all.

The officers, on the contrary, as officers and gentlemen, have in a manner been bound to accord me precisely the Same privileges and advantages, etc., which they granted the other cadets, and they have ever done so.

I must confess my expectations in this last have been most positively unfulfilled, and I am glad of it. The various reports, rumors, and gossips have thus been proved not only false but malicious, and that proof is of considerable consequence. That they have not been unkind and disposed to ill treat me may be readily inferred from the number of demerits I have received, and the nature of the offences for which those demerits were given. They have never taken it upon themselves to watch me and report me for trifling offences with a view of giving me a bad record in conduct, and thereby securing my dismissal, for one hundred demerits in six months means dismissal. They have ever acted impartially, and, ignoring my color, have accorded me all immunities and privileges enjoyed by other cadets, whether they were allowed by regulations or were mere acts of personal favor. Of the majority of the cadets I can speak likewise, for they too have power to spy out and report.

As to treatment in the section room, where there were many opportunities to do me injustice by giving me low marks for all recitations, good or bad, for instance, they have scrupulously maintained their honor, and have treated me there with exact justice and impartiality. This is not a matter of opinion. I can give direct and positive proof of its truthfulness. In the chapter on “Studies,” in the record of marks that proof can be found, my marks per recitation, and the average are good. By rank in section is meant the order of my mark that is, whether best, next, the next, or lowest. Are these marks not good? In law, for example, once I received the eighth out of nine marks, then the fifth, the first, second, third, first, first, and so on. Surely there was nothing in them to show I was marked low either purposely or otherwise.

My marks in the section for each week, month, and the number of men in each section, afford the means of comparison between the other members of the section and myself. And my marks are not only evidence of the possession on my part of some “good faculties,” but also of the honor of my instructors and fellow members of section.

What manner of treatment the cadets chose to manifest toward me was then of course of no account. But what is of importance, and great importance too, is how they will treat me in the army, when we have all assumed the responsibilities of manhood, coupled with those of a public servant, an army officer. Of course the question cannot now be answered. I feel nevertheless assured that the older officers at least will not stoop to prejudice or caste, but will accord me proper treatment and respect. Men of responsibility are concerned, and it is not presumable that they will disregard the requirements of their professions so far as to ill treat even myself. There is none of the recklessness of the student in their actions, and they cannot but recognize me as having a just claim upon their good will and honor.

The year wears away the last year it is too and I find myself near graduation, with every prospect of success. And from the beginning to the close my life has been one not of trouble, persecution, or punishment, but one of isolation only. True, to an unaccustomed nature such a life must have had many anxieties and trials and displeasures, and, although it was so with me, I have nothing more than that of which to complain. And if such a life has had its unpleasant features, it has also had its pleasant ones, of which not the least, I think, was the constantly growing prospect of ultimate triumph. Again, those who have watched my course and have seen in its success the falsity of certain reports, can not have been otherwise than overjoyed at it, at the, though tardy, vindication of truth. I refer especially to certain erroneous ideas which are or were extant concerning the treatment of colored cadets, in which it is claimed that color decides their fate. (See chapter on “Treatment.”)

I hope my success has proved that not color of face, but color of character alone can decide such a question. It is character and nothing else that will merit a harsh treatment from gentlemen, and of course it must be a bad character. If a man is a man, un homme comme il faut, he need fear no ill treatment from others of like caliber. Gentlemen avoid persons not gentlemen. Resentment is not a characteristic of gentlemen. A gentlemanly nature must shrink from it. There may be in it a certain amount of what is vulgarly termed pluck, and perhaps courage. But what of that? Everybody more or less admires pluck. Everybody worships courage, if it be of a high order, but who allows that pluck or even courage is an excuse for passion or its consequences? The whites may admire pluck in the Negro, as in other races, but they will never admit unwarrantable obtrusiveness, or rudeness, or grossness, or any other ungentlemanly trait, and no more in the Negro than in others. This is quite just. A Negro would not allow it even in another.

I did not intend to discuss social equality here, but as it is not entirely foreign to my subject I may be pardoned a word or so upon it.

Social equality, as I comprehend it, must be the natural, and perhaps gradual, outgrowth of a similarity of instincts and qualities in those between whom it exists. That is to say, there can be no social equality between persons who have nothing in common. A civilized being would not accept a savage as his equal, his socius , his friend. It would be repugnant to nature. A savage is a man, the image of his Maker as much so as any being. He has all the same rights of equality which any other has, but they are political rights only. He who buried his one talent to preserve it was not deemed worthy to associate with him who increased his five to ten. So also in our particular case. There are different orders or classes of men in every civilized community. The classes are politically equal, equal in that they are free men and citizens and have all the rights belonging to such station. Among the several classes there can be no social equality, for they have nothing socially in common, although the members of each class in itself may have.

Now in these recent years there has been a great clamor for rights. The clamor has reached West Point, and, if no bad results have come from it materially, West Point has nevertheless received a bad reputation, and I think an undeserved one, as respects her treatment of colored cadets.

A right must depend on the capacity and end or aim of the man. This capacity and end may, and ought to be, moral, and not political only. Equal capacities and a like end must give equal rights, and unequal capacities and unlike ends unequal rights, morally, of course, for the political end of all men is the same. And therefore, since a proper society is a moral institution where a certain uniformity of views, aims, purposes, properties, etc., is the object, there must be also a uniformity or equality of rights, for otherwise there would be no society, no social equality.

This, I apprehend, is precisely the state of affairs in our own country. Among those who, claiming social equality, claim it as a right, there exists the greatest possible diversity of creeds, instincts, and of moral and mental conditions, in which they are widely different from those with whom they claim this equality. They can therefore have no rights socially in common; or, in other words, the social equality they claim is not a right, and ought not to and cannot exist under present circumstances, and any law that overreaches the moral reason to the contrary must be admitted as unjust if not impolitic.



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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