Henry Ossian Flipper

Sep 4th, 2011 | By | Category: Military & Exploration, Science & Invention
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Henry Ossian Flipper1856-1940  Henry Ossian Flipper was the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After an unwarranted dishonorable discharge from the Army, he enjoyed a long, distinguished career as a mining engineer, legal authority, and author.

Breaking Ground at West Point

Flipper was born in Thomasville, Georgia, on March 21, 1856. The child of two slaves, Festus and Isabelle (or Issabella) Flipper, he, too, was a slave until the Emancipation Proclamation declared him free in 1863. His father subsequently became a successful shoemaker in Thomasville. There were five Flipper children, all boys. His brother Joseph became a church leader and college president, Carl became a college professor, Emory became a physician, and Festus, Jr., took over the shoe business and served as a prominent civic leader.

Flipper learned to read with the help of a fellow former slave. Along with many other Blacks in his position, he attended American Missionary Association schools, doing well throughout his student career and gaining admission to Atlanta University. But Flipper had bigger plans: with the help of U.S. Representative James C. Freeman, he obtained a prestigious appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and in 1873, became only the third black cadet to enter its rigorous program of Army officer training. Holding up under constant pressure and prejudice, and ostracized by most of his fellow cadets, he graduated in 1877, the first African American to do so. An inveterate author throughout his life, he told the story of his four years at West Point in The Colored Cadet at West Point, published the year after his graduation.

At West Point, the Army had no choice but to integrate Flipper into its officers-in-training program, but when the time came to give him his commission, it reverted to its segregationist past and assigned him to the 10th Cavalry, a regiment of the black enlisted men commonly known as the Buffalo Soldiers. As part of this unit, Flipper was sent to a series of Army posts in Texas and Oklahoma. At West Point, Flipper had studied civil engineering, so for the most part, he found himself overseeing road construction, draining swamps, and stringing telegraph lines. But Flipper also served in battle. In 1880, he received a commendation for distinguished performance during a harsh campaign to defeat a rebellious band of Apaches.

From “Dishonor” to Distinction

Flipper’s next assignment, in 1881, would be his last. Posted to Fort Davis, Texas, he was named quartermaster, or manager, of the commissary. The enlisted men at Fort Davis were all African American, but until the arrival of Flipper, all the officers were white. Not surprisingly, several of these officers took an active dislike to Flipper, and less than a year after his arrival, accused him of embezzling a large sum of money from the commissary. In a court martial, Flipper defended himself vigorously and won acquittal, but the tribunal found him guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” and ordered his dishonorable discharge from the Army.

Flipper was incensed, and never ceased trying to clear his name. Neither, however, did he let the injustice of his discharge prevent him from moving on with his life. Resilient, confident, and ambitious, Flipper decided to remain in the southwest and use the skills and knowledge he had gained at West Point and in the Army to forge a career as a civil engineer. Over the next five decades, he would find great success in this enterprise and others.

Flipper’s first positions after discharge from the Army were as cartographer for a Mexican bank and as a mining engineer. Demonstrating his acute, far-ranging mind, by 1892, he had become fluent in Spanish and an expert on southwest land issues. This put him in a position to publish (under another man’s name) a book on the unique laws governing property in Mexico and the southwest, a work that for many years would be recognized as the standard reference on the subject. He also gained appointment as a Department of Justice special agent in land disputes.

In 1901, Flipper moved across the border to Mexico to work for American mining interests. There, he made the acquaintance of Albert B. Fall, a wealthy and powerful landowner from southern New Mexico. Their relationship would turn out to be both a curse and a blessing for Flipper. When New Mexico attained statehood in 1912, Fall was elected one of its first two senators, and Flipper began moving in very powerful circles. When President Harding appointed Fall Secretary of the Interior, Flipper was given the job of overseeing development of the railway system in Alaska. But Flipper’s association with Fall became a liability in 1923 when Fall was named the central figure in the historic Teapot Dome oil scandal. Flipper opted to leave the United States for a time, and he moved to Venezuela to resume work as a mining engineer. There, never at rest, he wrote a book on Venezuelan property law.

At age 74, Flipper moved back to the United States in 1931 to live with his brother Joseph in Atlanta. During the last years of his life, he continued petitioning the Army to remove the dishonorable discharge from his record, but he was rebuffed each time. He died in 1940, but on the basis of historical research performed by his niece, the Army finally issued Flipper an honorable discharge and reburied his remains with full military honors in 1976. President Bill Clinton granted him a posthumous pardon in 1999, and a bust of him now stands at West Point. But Flipper would probably have found his greatest satisfaction when a book he wrote in 1916 was finally published in 1963. It was the story of his life, The Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper.


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