Henry Ossian Flipper
The first colored graduate of West Point, Henry Ossian Flipper served his country in the Cavalry and civilian life alike.
Henry Ossian Flipper was one of five sons born to Festus and Isabella Flipper, slaves in
Thomasville, Georgia. All of them grew up to achieve great things in their fields, but Henry's
military vocation was especially difficult for a black man. The education the boys received
was unusual for their time and social status and prepared them all well.
At great risk to all concerned, another slave taught Henry to read
in 1864. Immediately after the Civil War he attended schools set up by the American Missionary
Association. In 1873 he was a freshman at Atlanta University before Representative James C. Freeman
on Georgia appointed him to West Point.
At West Point he encountered severe racism. It was bad enough that the 6 black cadets admitted
before Flipper arrived were unable to finish. During his time there another cadet, Johnson Whittaker,
was brutally injured and expelled for "falsely" accusing his fellow-cadets of attacking him.
But Henry Flipper persevered and became the first black man commissioned from West Point.
He went west with the 10th Cavalry, a part of the famed "Buffalo soldiers." It was there that his
prowess in another field became evident. Near Fort Sill, Oklahoma (then Indian Territory)
Flipper laid out the drainage ditch that
still bears his name, Flipper's Ditch. This and several other forays into civil engineering while
serving with the Cavalry prepared him for his later civilian work.
He earned the rank of Lieutenant while in Texas and became a quartermaster. It was then that
he encountered the racism that was to end his military career. The rumored plot at Fort Davis to force him
from the Army because of his color materialized when he discovered funds missing. A court martial
found him innocent of embezzlement of the money but guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer.
On June 30, 1882 he was discharged.
The next year found him working as a surveyor based in El Paso. Over the next decades he worked
for several companies and the Federal government, sometimes as an engineer and other times translating
and writing. He wrote several volumes on various aspects of law, as well as his own memoirs.
Until his death in 1940, he maintained that he was innocent of the charges that forced him
from the Army and tried several times to be reinstated. In 1976, the Army reviewed his case and
granted him an honorable discharge, and in 1999 President Clinton pardoned him.
Today West Point honors its first African American graduate with a bust and presents an award
in his honor. The annual recipient is honored for demonstrating "the highest qualities of
leadership, self-discipline and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties during his
four years at the academy."
Any lesser award would not be worthy of Lieutenant Flipper's name.
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