- Year Published: 1878
- Language: English
- Country of Origin: United States of America
- Source: Flipper, H. O. (1878). The Colored Cadet at West Point. New York, NY: Homer Lee & Co.
- Flesch–Kincaid Level: 10.1
- Word Count: 14,856
Flipper, H. (1878). Chapter 10: Treatment. The Colored Cadet at West Point (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved May 24, 2015, from
Flipper, Henry O.. "Chapter 10: Treatment." The Colored Cadet at West Point. Lit2Go Edition. 1878. Web. <>. May 24, 2015.
Henry O. Flipper, "Chapter 10: Treatment," The Colored Cadet at West Point, Lit2Go Edition, (1878), accessed May 24, 2015,.
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 "d—d 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 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, 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.
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 fulfilment 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 practised similar manoeuvres 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 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 marvellous 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 criticising 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 criticise. 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."
"You 'pile in' then, and I'll wake you in time," was his reply.
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."
"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."
"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."
"Because he's on guard to-day." What an excellent reason! "Because he's on guard to-day," 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 on "Incidents, Humor," etc.
The only case of downright malice that has come to my knowledge—and I'm sure the only one that ever occurred—is the following:
It is a custom, as old as the institution I dare say, for cadets of the first and second classes to march in the front rank, while all others take their places in the rear rank, with the exception that third-classmen may be in the front rank whenever it is necessary for the proper formation of the company to put them there. The need of such a custom is apparent. Fourth-classmen, or plebes not accustomed to marching and keeping dressed, are therefore unfit to be put in the front rank. Third- classmen have to give way to the upper classmen on account of their superior rank, and are able to march in the front rank only when put there or allowed to remain there by the file-closers. When I was a plebe, and also during my third-class year, I marched habitually in the rear rank, as stated with reason elsewhere. But when I became a second-classman, and had by class rank a right to the front rank, I took my place there.
Just about this time I distinctly heard the cadet captain of my company say to the first sergeant, or rather ask him why he did not put me in the rear rank. The first sergeant replied curtly, "Because he's a second-classman now, and I have no right to do it." This settled the question for the time, indeed for quite a while, till the incident above referred to occurred.
At a formation of the company for retreat parade in the early spring of '76, it was necessary to transfer some one from the front to the rear rank. Now instead of transferring a third- classman, the sergeant on the left of the company ordered me, a second classman, into the rear rank. I readily obeyed, because I felt sure I'd be put back after the company was formed and inspected, as had been done by him several times before. But this was not done. I turned to the sergeant and reminded him that he had not put me-back where I belonged. He at once did so without apparent hesitation or unwillingness. He, however, reported me for speaking to him about the discharge of his duties. For this offence, I submitted the following explanation:
Offense: Speaking to sergeant about formation of company at parade.
Explanation: I would respectfully state that the above report is a mistake. I said nothing whatever about the formation of the company. I was put in the rear rank, and, contrary to custom, left there. As soon as the command " In place, rest," was given, I turned to the nearest sergeant and said, "Mr.—, can I take my place in the front rank?" He leaned to the front and looked along the line. I then said, "There are men in the front rank who are junior to me." I added, a moment after, "There is one just up there," motioning with my head the direction meant. He made the change.
This explanation was sent by the commandant to the reporting sergeant. He indorsed it in about the following words:
Respectfully returned with the following statement: It was necessary in forming the company to put Cadet Flipper in the rear rank, and as I saw no third- classman in the front rank, I left him there as stated. I reported him because I did not think he had any right to speak to me about the discharge of my duty.
A polite question a reflection on the manner of discharging one's duty! A queer construction indeed! Observe, he says, he saw no third-classman in the front rank. It was his duty to be sure about it, and if there was one there to transfer him to the rear, and myself to the front rank. In not doing so he neglected his duty and imposed upon me and the dignity of my class. I was therefore entirely justified in calling his attention to his neglect.
This is a little thing, but it should be borne in mind that it is nevertheless of the greatest importance. We know what effect comity or international politeness has on the relations or intercourse between nations. The most trifling acts, such as congratulations on a birth or marriage in the reigning family, are wonderfully efficacious in keeping up that feeling of amity which is so necessary to peace and continued friendship between states. To disregard these little things is considered unfriendly, and may be the cause of serious consequences.
There is a like necessity, I think, in our own case. Any affront to me which is also an affront to my class and its dignity deserves punishment or satisfaction. To demand it, then, gives my class a better opinion of me, and serves to keep that opinion in as good condition as possible.
I knew well that there were men in the corps who would readily seize any possible opportunity to report me, and I feared at the time that I might be reported for speaking to the sergeant. I was especially careful to guard against anger or roughness in my speech, and to put my demand in the politest form possible. The offence was removed. I received no demerits, and the sergeant had the pleasure or displeasure of grieving at the failure of his report.
I am sorry to know that I have been charged, by some not so well acquainted with West Point and life there as they should be to criticise, with manifesting a lack of dignity in that I allowed myself to be insulted, imposed upon, and otherwise ill-treated. There appears to them too great a difference between the treatment of former colored cadets and that of myself, and the only way they are pleased to account for this difference is to say that my good treatment was due to want of "spunk," and even to fear, as some have said. It evidently never occurred to them that my own conduct determined more than all things else the kind of treatment I would receive.
Every one not stubbornly prejudiced against West Point, and therefore not disposed to censure or criticise every thing said or done there, knows how false the charge is. And those who make it scarcely deserve my notice. I would say to them, however, that true dignity, selon nous, consists in being above the rabble and their insults, and particularly in remaining there. To stoop to retaliation is not compatible with true dignity, nor is vindictiveness manly. Again, the experiment suggested by my accusers has been abundantly tried, and proved a most ridiculous failure, while my own led to a glorious success.
I do not mean to boast or do any thing of the kind, but I would suggest to all future colored cadets to base their conduct on the aristonmetpon, the golden mean. It is by far the safer, and surely the most Christian course.
Before closing this I would add with just pride that I have ever been treated by all other persons connected with the Academy not officially, as becomes one gentleman to treat another. I refer to servants, soldiers, other enlisted men, and employ´s. They have done for me whatever I wished, whenever I wished, and as I wished, and always kindly and willingly. They have even done things for me to the exclusion of others. This is important when it is remembered that the employ´s, with one exception, are white.
"'Cadet Smith has arrived in Columbia. He did not "pass."' —Phoenix
"'Alexander Bouchet, a young man of color, graduates from Yale College, holding the fifth place in the largest class graduated from that ancient institution.' —Exchange.
"These simple announcements from different papers tersely sum up the distinction between the military and civil education of this country. One is exclusive, snobbish, and narrow, the other is liberal and democratic.
"No one who has watched the course of Cadet Smith and the undemocratic, selfish, and snobbish treatment he has experienced from the martinets of West Point, men educated at the expense of the government, supported by negro taxes, as well as white, who attempt to dictate who shall receive the benefits of an education in our national charity schools—no one who has read of his court-martialings, the degradations and the petty insults inflicted upon him can help feeling that he returns home to-day, in spite of the Phoenix's sneers, a young hero who has 'passed' in grit, pluck, perseverance, and all the better qualities which go to make up true manhood, and only has been 'found' because rebel sympathizers at West Point, the fledglings of caste, and the Secretary of War, do not intend to allow, if they can prevent it, a negro to graduate at West Point or Annapolis, if he is known to be a negro.
"Any one conversant with educational matters who has examined the examinations for entrance, or the curriculum of the naval and military academies, will not for a moment believe that their requirements, not as high as those demanded for an ordinary New England high school, and by no means equal in thoroughness, quantity, or quality to that demanded for entrance at Yale, Amherst, Dartmouth, or Brown, are too high or abstruse to be compassed by negroes, some of whom have successfully stood all these, and are now pursuing their studies in the best institutions of the North.
"No fair-minded man believes that Smith, Napier and Williams, Conyers and McClellan, have had impartial treatment. The government itself has been remiss in not throwing about them the protection of its authority. Had these colored boys been students at St. Cyr, in Paris, or Woolwich, in England, under despotic France and aristocratic England, they would have been treated with that courtesy and justice of which the average white American has no idea. The South once ruled West Point, much to its detriment in loyalty, however much, by reason of sending boys more than prepared. It dominated in scholarship. It seeks to recover the lost ground, and rightly fears to meet on terms of equality in the camp the sons of fathers to whom it refused quarter in the war and butchered in cold blood at Fort Pillow. 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 hot-beds of disloyalty and snobbery, then 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 these young men should redouble the efforts of others of their class to carry 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 and caste in his soul. Smith, after four years of torture, comes home, is driven home, because, forsooth, he might attend the ball next year! He is hounded out of the Academy because he would have to be assigned to a white regiment! There are some negroes who feel that their rights in the land of their birth are superior to the prejudices of the enemies of the Union, and who dare to speak and write in behalf of these rights, as their fathers dared to fight for them a very few years ago.
"Bouchet, under civil rule, enters Yale College the best prepared student of one hundred and thirty freshmen, and all through his course is treated like a gentleman, both by the faculty and the students, men who know what justice means, and have some adequate idea of the true theory of education and gentlemanly conduct. Two freed boys, from North Carolina and South Carolina, slaves during the war, prepare at the best Northern academics, and enter, without remonstrance, Amherst and Dartmouth. What divinity, then, hedges West Point and Annapolis? What but the old rebel spirit, which seeks again to control them for use in future rebellions as it did in the past. The war developed some unwelcome truths with regard to this snobbish and disloyal spirit of our national institutions, and the exploits of some volunteer officers showed that all manhood, bravery, skill, and energy were not contained in West Point or Annapolis, or, if there, did not pertain solely to the petty cliques that aim to give tone to those academies. It is not for any officer, the creature of the government —it is not for any student, the willing ward of that government—to say who shall enter the national schools and be the recipients of my bounty. It is the duty of every member of Congress to see that the government sanctions no such spirit; and it becomes every loyal citizen who wishes to avoid the mistakes of the former war to see to it that no class be excluded, and that every boy, once admitted, shall have the strictest justice dealt out to him, a thing which, thus far, has not been done in the case of the colored cadets.
"The true remedy lies in the feelings and sympathies of the officers of these academies, in the ability and fair investigations of the board of examiners; not from such gentlemen as at present seem to rule these institutions.
This article was taken from some South Carolina paper during the summer of '74. Its tone is in accordance with the multitude of articles upon the same subject which occurred about the same time, and, like them all, or most of them, is rather farfetched. It is too broad. Its denunciations cover too much ground. They verge upon untruth.
As to Conyers and McClellan at the Naval Academy I know nothing. Of Napier I know nothing. Of Smith I prefer to say nothing. Of Williams I do express the belief that his treatment was impartial and just. He was regularly and rightly found deficient and duly dismissed. The article seems to imply that he should not have been "found" and dismissed simply because he was a negro. A very shallow reason indeed, and one "no fair-minded man" will for an instant entertain.
Of four years' life at the Academy, I spent the first with Smith, rooming with him. During the first half year Williams was also in the corps with us. The two following years I was alone. The next and last year of my course I spent with Whittaker, of South Carolina. I have thus had an opportunity to become acquainted with Smith's conduct and that of the cadets toward him. Smith had trouble under my own eyes on more than one occasion, and Whittaker* has already received blows in the face, but I have not had so much as an angry word to utter. There is a reason for all this, and had "Niger Nigrorum" been better acquainted with it he had never made the blunder he has.
*Johnson Chestnut Whittaker, of Camden, South Carolina, appointed to fill vacancy created by Smith's dismissal, after several white candidates so appointed had failed, entered the Academy in September, 1876. Shortly after entering he was struck in the face by a young man from Alabama for sneering at him, as he said, while passing by him. Whittaker immediately reported the affair to the cadet officer of the day, by whose efforts this belligerent Alabama gentleman was brought before a court- martial, tried, found guilty, and suspended for something over six months, thus being compelled to join the next class that entered the Academy.
I cannot venture more on the treatment of colored cadets generally without disregarding the fact that this is purely a narrative of my own treatment and life at West Point. To go further into that subject would involve much difference of opinion, hard feelings in certain quarters, and would cause a painful and needless controversy.