Friday, July 3, 2009

James Webster Smith and Henry O. Flipper

In 1870, James Webster Smith became the first African-American admitted to the United States Military Academy. Ironically, the academy's first African American cadet came from South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union and the state with the highest percentage of slaves before the Civil War.

Smith was spared the hazing that was so common among his classmates. He was, rather, completely ostracized by the Corps and, after being turned back (forced to repeat a year) once for academic deficiencies, was dismissed for academic failure after four years at West Point. Smith had broken a critical barrier, however, and in 1873, a Georgian by the name of Henry O. Flipper would benefit.

Flipper was no more popular than Smith, but, in the words of a classmate, “never pushed” the bounds of social equality and so was more easily tolerated. Flipper survived his years at the academy by being as determined as his classmates were prejudiced. In 1877 he became the academy’s first African-American graduate, ranking 50th in a class of 76.

Henry O. Flipper

Henry O. Flipper
Cadet Smith. James Webster Smith's cadetship was marred by discrimination from his very first day at West Point, When Smith presented his appointment papers to the commandant, he was waved away and several white cadets threatened to resign.

During his four years at West Point he was the center of oontroversy, being tried by court-martial on two occasions, Smith was a pioneer in a hostile environment and suffered dearly as a result.

Cadet O;Flipper, on the other hand, was of a more accommodating nature. Flipper, whose interest in West Point extended back several years before his admission, was aware of' Smith's difficulties through newspaper articles of the day. He went to West Point expecting to be mistreated.

He was mentally prepared for the worst, and when the worst did not occur, felt relieved. He took particular care not to repeat conduct which had caused Smith trouble. The greater majority of this avoided conduct dealt with social equality. Flipper was ostracized socially and, in contrast to Smith, did not complain

For this, he was spared the brutality that Smith had suffered. In modern terminology, Cadet Flipper may have been called an Uncle Tom. Yet, if he had not acquiecsed, he probably would have been forced out as was Smith.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a very good account of a piece of history that would otherwise have gone unrecounted. For a similar account of the first Black cadets at the U S Coast Guard Academy, see www.cgachasehall.blogspot.com
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