Henry Ossian Flipper
March 21, 1856 – April 26, 1940
Notable: Soldier & Engineer
Henry Ossian Flipper was born a slave in Thomasville, Georgia, and was nine years old when the Civil War ended. After emancipation, he began his education by attending American Missionary Association schools. Shortly after its founding, he enrolled at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) where he became one of the school’s first students and studied for one year.
In 1873, Flipper petitioned Congressman Thomas Freeman for an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Freeman acknowledged the request after which they began a correspondence that led to Freeman granting Flipper the nomination. In the two decades after the Civil War, 22 Black men received nominations to West Point. Flipper was one of the nine who passed the entrance exam required to gain admission as a cadet.
When Flipper arrived at West Point on July 1, 1873, he was the fifth Black man to receive an appointment. The first had been granted to James Webster Smith three years earlier who was still in attendance along with a few other Black cadets. Smith was Flipper’s roommate for his first year until he received an academic dismissal for poor grades in physics. All of the other Black cadets in attendance eventually dropped out or were dismissed.
In addition to the academic program being very rigorous, the environment was also stressful. Freshman cadets referred to as “plebes” were hazed. But Black cadets were mistreated throughout their attendance in an attempt to bully them into quitting. White West Point cadets and professors were openly and passive-aggressively hostile towards the Black cadets. They had to endure harassment, racial slurs, and social isolation which included a practice referred to as “silencing” where Black cadets would only be spoken to when required by duty.
Henry Flipper persevered and upon graduation in 1877, he became the first Black graduate of West Point and the army’s first Black commissioned officer. His first assignment was as the second lieutenant in the 10th Cavalry, one of the two regiments that comprised the Buffalo Soldiers. Stationed in Oklahoma at Fort Sill, Flipper served as an officer but also spearheaded engineering projects which included roads and telegraph lines. He also planned and managed the construction of what came to be known as the “Flipper Ditch”, a system designed to drain standing water that was a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitos.
In 1880, Flipper was reassigned to Fort Davis as Acting Assistant Quartermaster and Acting Commissary of Subsistence in the regular army. A year later, a sizable amount of commissary funds under his control went missing (some sources state this was a setup by White officers). Fearing the repercussions, Flipper attempted to hide that the money was missing. This incident led to him being court-martialed on charges of embezzlement and “conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman”.
Flipper maintained his innocence and was found not guilty of the embezzlement charges. But he was found guilty of the unbecoming conduct charges as a result of giving false statements and knowingly signing inaccurate financial documents as well as writing a bad check. According to military rules, the standard punishment was automatic dismissal. Upon review, there were recommendations for a lighter sentence but he was ultimately dishonorably discharged following the sentence’s approval by President Chester Arthur. Thus after just four years of service and a great deal of sacrifice, Flipper’s military career came to an end.
After his dismissal, Flipper worked a variety of jobs primarily in the American Southwest, eventually establishing a civil engineering company in Arizona. He worked for the U.S. government as a document translator and also surveyed and mapped land claims. In the early 1900s, he spent a decade working in Mexico as a mining engineer until the Mexican Revolution began. Being both fluent in Spanish and having knowledge of Mexico, Flipper worked as a consultant on Mexican relations for a Senate committee. He continued to contribute his engineering knowledge to projects in Alaska and Venezuela.
Despite having an accomplished career after his discharge from the military, Flipper continued efforts to clear his name. Henry Flipper retired to Atlanta, Georgia, and died nine years later on May 3, 1940, from a heart attack. After Flipper’s death, his family continued the fight to clear his name and appealed to have his dishonorable discharge reversed. The first success came in 1976 when his discharge was changed to honorable. The second was in 1999 when Henry O. Flipper was fully pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
- Boone, Sheila. 2017. “Marker Monday: The First Black Graduate of West Point.” Georgia Historical Society. June 5, 2017. https://georgiahistory.com/marker-monday-the-first-black-graduate-of-west-point/.
- “The First African American Graduate of West Point (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed October 30, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-first-african-american-graduate-of-west-point.htm.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2021. “First African American Graduate of West Point.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. June 14, 2021. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-african-american-graduate-of-west-point.
- Shellum, Brian G. 2006. “The ‘Silencing’ of Early Black Cadets at West Point.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. 2006. https://www.proquest.com/openview/7c48c3007025c0862e2e871eb9e510fa/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=26506.
- Stilwell, Blake. 2020. “This Former Slave Became the First African-American West Point Grad.” We Are The Mighty. April 29, 2020. https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-history/first-black-cadet-west-point/.
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