Treatment Received – Henry Flipper

The kind of treatment we are to receive at the hands of others depends entirely upon ourselves. I think my life at West Point sufficiently proves the truth of this assertion. I entered the Academy at a time when, as one paper had it, West Point was a “hotbed of disloyalty and snobbery, a useless and expensive appendage.” I expected all sorts of ill treatment, and yet from the day I entered till the day I graduated I had not cause to utter so much as an angry word. I refused to obtrude myself upon the white cadets, and treated them all with uniform courtesy. I have been treated likewise. It simply depended on me what sort of treatment I should receive. I was careful to give no cause for bad treatment, and it was never put upon me. In making this assertion I purposely disregard the instances of malice, etc., mentioned elsewhere, for the reason that I do not believe they were due to any deep personal convictions of my inferiority or personal desire to impose upon me, but rather were due to the fear of being “cut” if they had acted otherwise.

Our relations have been such, as any one will readily observe, that even officially they would have been obliged to recognize me to a greater or less extent, or at the expense of their consciences ignore me. They have done both, as circumstances and not inclination have led them to do.

A rather unexpected incident occurred in the summer of 73, which will show perhaps how intense is that gravitating force if I may so term it which so completely changes the feelings of the plebes, and even cadets, who, when they reported, were not at all prejudiced on account of color.

It was rather late at night and extremely dark. I was on guard and on post at the time. Approaching the lower end of my post, No. 5, I heard my name called in a low tone by some one whom I did not recognize. I stopped and listened. The calling was repeated, and I drew near the place whence it came. It proved to be a cadet, a classmate of mine, and then a sentinel on the adjacent post, No. 4. We stood and talked quite awhile, as there was no danger either of being seen by other cadets an event which those who in any manner have recognized me have strenuously avoided or “hived standing on post.” It was too dark. He expressed great regret at my treatment, hoped it would be bettered, assured me that he would ever be a friend and treat me as a gentleman should.

Another classmate told me, at another time, in effect the same thing. I very naturally expected a fulfillment of these promises, but alas! for such hopes! They not only never fulfilled them, but treated me even as badly as all the others. One of them was assigned a seat next to me at table. He would eat scarcely anything, and when done with that he would draw his chair away and pretend to be imposed upon in the most degrading manner possible. The other practiced similar maneuvers whenever we fell in at any formation of company or section. They both called me “nigger,” or “d d nigger,” as suited their inclination. Yet this ought, I verily believe, to be attributed not to them, but to the circumstances that led them to adopt such a course.

On one occasion, however, one of them brought to my room the integration of some differential equation in mechanics which had been sent me by our instructor. He was very friendly then, apparently. He told me upon leaving, if I desired any further information to come to his “house,” and he would give it. I observed that he called me “Mr. Flipper.”

One winter s night, while on guard in barracks during supper, a cadet of the next class above my own stopped on my post and conversed with me as long as it was safe to do so. He expressed as all have who have spoken to me great regret that I should be so isolated, asked how I got along in my studies, and many other like questions. He spoke at great length of my general treatment. He assured me that he was wholly unprejudiced, and would ever be a friend. He even went far enough to say, to my great astonishment, that he cursed me and my race among the cadets to keep up appearances with them, and that I must think none the less well of him for so doing. It was a sort of necessity, he said, for he would not only be “cut,” but would be treated a great deal worse than I was if he should fraternize with me. Upon leaving me he said, “I’m d d sorry to see you come here to be treated so, but I am glad to see you stay.”

Unfortunately the gentleman failed at the examination, then not far distant, and of course did not have much opportunity to give proof of his friendship. And thus,

“The walk, the words, the gesture could supply, The habit mimic and the mien belie.”

When the plebes reported in 76, and were given seats in the chapel, three of them were placed in the pew with myself. We took seats in the following order, viz., first the commandant of the pew, a sergeant and a classmate of mine, then a third classman, myself, and the plebes. Now this arrangement was wholly unsatisfactory to the third-classman, who turned to the sergeant and asked of him to place a plebe between him and myself. The sergeant turned toward me, and with an angry gesture ordered me to “Get over there.” I refused, on the ground that the seat I occupied had been assigned me, and I therefore had no authority to change it. Near the end of the service the third-classman asked the sergeant to tell me to sit at the further end of the seat. He did so. I refused on the same ground as before. He replied, “Well, it don t make any difference. I ll see that your seat is changed.” I feared he would go to the cadet quartermaster, who had charge of the arrangement of seats, and have my seat changed without authority. I reported to the officer in charge of the new cadets, and explained the whole affair to him.

“You take the seat,” said he, “assigned you in the guard house” the plan of the church, with names written on the pews, was kept here, so that cadets could consult it and know where their seats were “and if anybody wants you to change it tell them I ordered you to keep it.”

The next Sabbath I took it. I was ordered to change it. I refused on the authority just given above. The sergeant then went to the commandant of cadets, who by some means got the impression that I desired to change my seat. He sent for me and emphatically ordered me to keep the seat which had by his order been assigned me. Thus the effort to change my seat, made by the third-classman through the sergeant, but claimed to have been made by me, failed. It was out of the question for it to be otherwise. If the sergeant had wanted the seat himself he would in all probability have got it, because he was my senior in class and lineal rank. But the third-classman was my junior in both, and therefore could not, by any military regulation, get possession of what I was entitled to by my superior rank. And the effort to do so must be regarded a marvelous display of stupidity, or a belief on the part of the cadet that I could be imposed upon with impunity, simply because I was alone and had shown no disposition to quarrel or demand either real or imaginary rights.

While in New York during my furlough summer of 75 I was introduced to one of her wealthy bankers. We conversed quite a while on various topics, and finally resumed the subject on which we began, viz., West Point. He named a cadet, whom I shall call for convenience John, and asked if I knew him. I replied in the affirmative. After asking various other questions of him, his welfare, etc., he volunteered the following bit of information:

“Oh! yes,” said he, “I’ve known John for several years. He used to peddle newspapers around the bank here. I was agreeably surprised when I heard he had been appointed to a cadetship at West Point. The boys who come in almost every morning with their papers told me John was to sell me no more papers. His mother has scrubbed out the office here, and cleaned up daily for a number of years. John s a good fellow though, and I m glad to know of his success.”

This information was to me most startling. There certainly was nothing dishonorable in that sort of labor nay, even there was much in it that deserved our highest praise. It was honest, humble work. But who would imagine from the pompous bearing assumed by the gentleman that he ever peddled newspapers, or that his mother earned her daily bread by scrubbing on her knees office floors? And how does this compare with the average Negro?

It is not to me very pleasant to thus have another s private history revealed, but when it is done I can t help feeling myself better in one sense at least than my self styled superiors. I certainly am not really one thing and apparently another. The distant haughtiness assumed by some of them, and the constant endeavor to avoid me, as if I were “a stick or a stone, the veriest poke of creation,” had no other effect than to make me feel as if I were really so, and to discourage and dishearten me. I hardly know how I endured it all so long. If I were asked to go over it all again, even with the experience I now have, I fear I should fail. I mean of course the strain on my mind and sensitiveness would be so great I d be unable to endure it.

There is that in every man, it has been said, either good or bad, which will manifest itself in his speech or acts. Keeping this in mind while I constantly study those around me, I find myself at times driven to most extraordinary conclusions. If some are as good as their speech, then, if I may be permitted to judge, they have most devoutly observed that blessed commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee,” in that they have profited by their teaching both mentally and morally.

On the other hand, we hear from many the very worst possible language. Some make pardonable errors, while others make blunders for which there can be no excuse save ignorance. Judging their character by their speech, what a sad condition must be theirs; and more, what a need for missionary work!

This state of affairs gives way in the second, and often in the first year, to instruction and discipline. West Point s greatest glory arises from her unparalleled success in polishing these rough specimens and sending them forth “officers and gentlemen.” No college in the country has such a “heterogeneous conglomeration” to quote Dr. Johnson of classes. The highest and lowest are represented. The glory of free America, her recognition of equality of all men, is not so apparent anywhere else as at West Point. And were prejudice entirely obliterated, then would America in truth be that Utopia of which so many have but dreamed. It is rapidly giving way to better reason, and the day is not far distant when West Point will stand forth as the proud exponent of absolute social equality. Prejudice weakens, and ere long will fail completely. The advent of general education sounds its death knell. And may the day be not afar off when America shall proclaim her emancipation from the basest of all servitudes, the subservience to prejudice!

After feeling reasonably sure of success, I have often thought that my good treatment was due in a measure to a sort of apprehension on the part of the cadets that, when I should come to exercise command over them, I would use my authority to retaliate for any ill treatment I had suffered. I have thought this the case with those especially who have been reared in the principles of prejudice, and often in none other, for “prejudices, it is well known, are the most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education. They grow there as firm as weeds among rocks.”

When the time did come, and I proved by purely gentlemanly conduct that it was no harder, no more dishonorable, to be under me than under others, this reserve vanished to a very great extent. I might mention instances in which this is evident.

At practical engineering, one day, three of us were making a gabion. One was putting in the watling, another keeping it firmly down, while I was preparing it. I had had some instruction on a previous day as to how it should be made, but the two others had not. When they had put in the watling to within the proper distance of the top they began trimming off the twigs and butt ends of the withes. I happened to turn toward the gabion and observed what they were doing. In a tone of voice, and with a familiarity that surprised my own self, I exclaimed, “Oh, don t do that. Don t you see if you cut those off before sewing, the whole thing will come to pieces? Secure the ends first and then cut off the twigs.”

They stopped working, listened attentively, and one of them replied, “Yes, that would be the most sensible way.” I proceeded to show them how to sew the watling and to secure the ends. They were classmates. They listened to my voluntary instruction and followed it without a thought of who gave it, or any feeling of prejudice.

At foot battery drill one day I was chief of piece. After a time the instructor rested the battery. The cannoneers at my piece, instead of going off and sitting down, gathered around me and asked questions about the nomenclature of the piece and its carriage. “What is this?” “What is it for?” and many others. They were third classmen. Certainly there was no prejudice in this. Certainly, too, it could only be due to good conduct on my part. And here is another.

Just after taps on the night of July 12th, 1876, while lying in my tent studying the stars, I happened to overhear a rather angry conversation concerning my unfortunate self.

It seems the cadet speaking had learned beforehand that he and myself would be on duty a few days hence, myself as senior and he as junior officer of the guard. His chums were teasing him on his misfortune of being under me as junior, which act caused him to enter into a violent panegyric upon me. He began by criticizing my military aptitude and the manner in which I was treated by the authorities, that is, by the cadet officers, as is apparent from what follows:

“That nigger,” said he, “don’t keep dressed. Sometimes he’s way head of the line. He swings his arms, and does other things not half as well as other devils, and yet he’s not skinned for it.”

What a severe comment upon the way in which the file closers discharge their duties! Severe, indeed, it would be were it true. It is hardly reasonable, I think, to suppose the file closers, in the face of prejudice and the probability of being “cut,” would permit me to do the things mentioned with impunity, while they reported even their own classmates for them.

And here again we see the fox and sour grapes. The gentleman who so honored me with his criticism was junior to me in every branch of study we had taken up to that time except in French. I was his senior in tactics by well, to give the number of files would be to specify him too closely and make my narrative too personal. Suffice it to say I ranked him, and I rather fancy, as I did not gain that position by favoritism, but by study and proficiency, he should not venture to criticize. But so it is all through life, at West Point as well as elsewhere. Malcontents are ever finding faults in others which they never think of discovering in themselves.

When the time came the detail was published at parade, and next day we duly marched on guard. When I appeared on the general parade in full dress, I noticed mischievous smiles on more than one face, for the majority of the corps had turned out to see me. I walked along, proudly unconscious of their presence.

Although I went through the ceremony of guard mounting without a single blunder, I was not at all at ease. I inspected the front rank, while my junior inspected the rear. I was sorely displeased to observe some of the cadets change color as they tossed up their pieces for my inspection, and that they watched me as I went through that operation. Some of them were from the South, and educated to consider themselves far superior to those of whom they once claimed the right of possession. I know it was to them most galling, and although I fully felt the responsibility and honor of commanding the guard, I frankly and candidly confess that I found no pleasure in their apparent humiliation.

I am as a matter of course opposed to prejudice, but I nevertheless hold that those who are not have just as much right to their opinions on the matter as they would have to any one of the various religious creeds. We in free America at least would not be justified in forcing them to renounce their views or beliefs on race and color any more than those on religion.

We can sometimes, by so living that those who differ from us in opinion respecting any thing can find no fault with us or our creed, influence them to a just consideration of our views, and perhaps persuade them unconsciously to adopt our way of thinking. And just so it is, I think, with prejudice. There is a certain dignity in enduring it which always evokes praise from those who indulge it, and also often discovers to them their error and its injustice.

Knowing that it would be unpleasant to my junior to have to ask my permission to do this or that, and not wishing to subject him to more mortification than was possible, I gave him all the latitude I could, telling him to use his own discretion, and that he need not ask my permission for any thing unless he chose.

This simple act, forgotten almost as soon as done, was in an exceedingly short time known to every cadet throughout the camp, and I had the indescribable pleasure, some days after, of knowing that by it I had been raised many degrees in the estimation of the corps. Nor did this knowledge remain in camp. It was spread all over the Point. The act was talked of and praised by the cadets wherever they went, and their conversations were repeated to me many times by different persons.

When on guard again I was the junior, and of course subject to the orders of the senior. He came to me voluntarily, and in almost my own words gave me exactly the same privileges I had given my junior, who was a chum of my present senior. In view of the ostracism and isolation to which I had been subjected, it was expected that I would be severe, and use my authority to retaliate. When, however, I did a more Christian act, did to others as I would have them do to me, and not as they had sometimes done, I gave cause for a similar act of good will, which was in a degree beyond all expectation accorded me.

Indeed, while we are all prone to err, we are also very apt to do to others as they really do to us. If they treat us well, we treat them well; if badly, we treat them so also. I believe such to be in accordance with our nature, and if we do not always do so our failure is due to some influence apart from our better reason, if we do not treat them well, or our first impulse if we do. If now, on the contrary, I had been severe and unnecessarily imperious because of my power, I should in all probability have been treated likewise, and would have fallen and not have risen in the estimation of the cadets.

It has often occurred to me that the terms “prejudice of race, of color,” etc., were misnomers, and for this reason. As soon as I show that I have some good qualities, do some act of kindness in spite of insult, my color is forgotten and I am well treated. Again, I have observed that colored men of character and intellectual ability have been treated as men should be by all, whether friends or enemies; that is to say, no prejudice of color or race has ever been manifested.

I have been so treated by men I knew to be to use a political term “vile democrats.” Unfortunately a bad temper, precipitation, stubbornness, and like qualities, all due to non-education, are too often attributes of colored men and women. These characteristics lower the race in the estimation of the whites, and produce, I think, what we call prejudice. In fact I believe prejudice is due solely to non-education and its effects in one or perhaps both races.

Prejudice of well, any word that will express these several characteristics would be better, as it would be nearer the truth.

There is, of course, a very large class of ignorant and partially cultured whites whose conceptions can find no other reason for prejudice than that of color. I doubt very much whether they are prejudiced on that account as it is. I rather think they are so because they know others are for some reason, and so cringing are they in their weakness that they follow like so many trained curs. This is the class we in the South are accustomed to call the “poor white trash,” and speaking of them generally I can neglect them in this discussion of my treatment, and without material error.

In camp at night the duties of the officers of the guard are discharged part of the night by the senior and the other part by the junior officer. As soon as it was night to revert to the subject of this article my junior came to me and asked how I wished to divide the night tour.

“Just suit yourself. If you have any reason for wanting a particular part of the night, I shall be pleased to have you take it.”

He chose the latter half of the night, and asked me to wake him at a specified time. After this he discovered a reason for taking the first half, and coming to me said:

“If it makes no difference to you I will take the first half of the night.”

“As you like,” was my reply.

“You pile in then, and I’ll wake you in time,” was his reply.

Observe the familiarity in this rejoinder.

The guard was turned out and inspected by the officer of the day at about 12.20 P.M. After the inspection I retired, and was awakened between 1 and 2 P.M. by my junior, who then retired for the night.

The officer in charge turned out and inspected the guard between 2 and 3 p.m.

Several of the cadets were reported to me by the corporals for violating regulations. The reports were duly recorded in the guard report for the day. I myself reported but one cadet, and his offence was “Absence from tattoo roll call of guard.”

These reports were put in under my signature, though not at all made by me, as also was another of a very grave nature.

It seems for I didn’t know the initial circumstances of the case that a citizen visiting at West Point asked a cadet if he could see a friend of his who was a member of the corps. The cadet at once sought out the corporal then on duty, and asked him to go to camp and turn out this friend. The corporal did not go. The cadet who requested him to do so reported the fact to the officer of the day. The latter came at once to me and directed me, as officer of the guard, to order him to go and turn out the cadet, and to see that he did it. I did as ordered. The corporal replied, “I have turned him out.” As the cadet did not make his appearance the officer of the day himself went into camp, brought him out to his citizen friend, and then ordered me in positive terms to report the corporal for gross disobedience of orders. I communicated to him the corporal s reply, and received a repetition of his order. I obeyed it, entering on my guard report the following: disobedience of orders, not turning out a cadet for citizen when ordered to do so by the officer of the guard.”

The commandant sent for me, and learned from me all the circumstances of the case as far as I knew them. He made similar requirements of the corporal himself.

Connected with this case is another, which, I think, should be recorded, to show how some have been disposed to act and think concerning myself. At the dinner table, and on the very day this affair above mentioned occurred, a cadet asked another if he had heard about , mentioning the name of the cadet corporal.

“No, I haven t,” he replied; “what s the matter with him?”

“Why, the officer of the day ordered him reported for disobedience of orders, and served him right too.”

“What was it? Whose orders did he disobey?”

“Some cit wanted to see a cadet and asked C if he could do so. C asked , who was then on duty, to go to camp and turn him out. He didn’t do it, but went off and began talking with some ladies. The officer of the day directed the senior officer of the guard to order him to go. He did order him to go and replied, “I have turned him out,” and didn’t go. The officer of the day then turned him out, and ordered him to be reported for disobedience of orders, and I say served him right.”

“I don t see it,” was the reply.

“Don t see it? Why s relief was on post, and it was his duty to attend to all such calls during his tour; and besides, I think ordinary politeness would have been sufficient to make him go.”

“Well, I can sympathize with him anyhow.”

“Sympathize with him! How so?”

“Because he s on guard today.” What an excellent reason! “Because he s on guard today,” or, in other words, because I was in command of the guard.

He then went on to speak of the injustice of the report, the malice and spirit of retaliation shown in giving it, and hoped that the report would not be the cause of any punishment. And all this because the report was under my signature.

When the corporal replied to me that he had turned out the cadet, I considered it a satisfactory answer, supposing the cadet s non-appearance was due to delay in arranging his toilet. I had no intention of reporting him, and did so only in obedience to positive orders. There surely was nothing malicious or retaliatory in that; and to condemn me for discharging the first of all military duties viz., obedience of orders is but to prove the narrowness of the intellect and the baseness of the character which are vaunted as so far superior to those of the “Negro cadet,” and which condemn him and his actions for no other reason than that they are his. How could it be otherwise than that he be isolated and persecuted when such minds are concerned?

In his written explanation to the commandant the corporal admitted the charge of disobedience of orders on his part, but excused himself by saying he had delegated another cadet to discharge the duty for him. This was contrary to regulations, and still further aggravated his offence.

For an incident connected with this tour of guard duty, see chapter on “Incidents, Humor,” etc.



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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