Henry Flipper

Henry Flipper

Henry Flipper, the son of slaves, was born in Thomasville, Georgia, on 21st March, 1856. He became the first African American to graduate from West Point. On 15th June, 1877, Flipper was commissioned as second lieutenant of the 10th Cavalry. Highly respected by the Native Americans these men were called Buffalo Soldiers because their short curly hair resembled that of the buffalo. His book, The Colored Cadet at West Point, appeared in 1878.

Flipper served under Captain Nicholas Nolan at Fort Still. He took part in the Indian Wars and fought against Victorio and the Apache in 1880. Colonel Benjamin Grierson wrote that "He came under my immediate command during the campaigns against Victorio's band of hostile Indians, and from personal observation, I can testify to his efficiency and gallantry in the field."

After being transferred to Fort Davis he became quartermaster. When Colonel William Rufus Shafter became commanding officer of Fort Davis in 1881, he immediately sacked Flipper as quartermaster. Flipper suspected what he later called a systematic plan of persecution, and is said to have been warned by civilians at the post of a plot by white officers to force him from the army. The following year, when he discovered post funds missing from his quarters, he attempted to conceal the loss until he could find or replace the money. When Shafter learned of the discrepancy, he immediately filed charges against him.

Flipper was accused of embezzling $3,791.77 from commissary funds. Flipper denied the charge and claimed that he had been framed by his fellow officers, who hated him because he was African American. A court-martial found him not guilty of embezzlement but on 30th June, 1882, convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer and ordered him dismissed from the Army.

In 1893 Flipper became a mining engineer for the Justice Department. He also worked as a consultant for the Sierra Mining Company (1908-1912) and as resident engineer for the William Greene Gold-Silver Company (1912-1922). Fluent in Spanish he was interpreter-translator for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations investigating Mexican Affairs (1922-23).

Flipper continued to prosper and was appointed assistant to the Secretary of the Interior (1923-1930) and held a senior position at the Pantepec Company in New York until he retired in 1931. His memoirs, Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry Ossian Flipper, was published after his death.

Henry Flipper died in Atlanta, Georgia, on 3rd May, 1940. His supporters continued to campaign to overturn the sentence of the court-martial that had taken place in 1882. This was finally achieved in December 1976 when he was granted a posthumous honorable discharge. On 11th February, 1978, he was given a full military funeral at Thomasville, Georgia.


The First African American Graduate of West Point

At age 21, Henry Flipper became the first African American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. His assignment in July 1877 to the 10th United States Cavalry, one of two African American cavalry regiments organized after the Civil War, was the realization of a personal dream.

Flipper's four years as a cadet were characterized by above average grades, earned in an environment of almost total social isolation from his classmates.

Henry Flipper as a cadet at the United States Military Academy

The future cavalry officer's military journey began with being born into slavery at Thomasville, Georgia on March 21, 1856. He later attended schools that were operated by the American Missionary Association, as well as being one of the first to attend Atlanta University when it was established in 1869.

In January of 1873 Flipper wrote to James Freeman, a newly-elected Congressman from Georgia, requesting an appointment to West Point. Freeman responded that he would recommend Flipper if he proved "worthy and qualified." A series of letters exchanged between the two ultimately resulted in Freeman nominating Flipper to the Academy. Flipper passed the required examinations and officially entered the U.S. Military Acadmey on July 1, 1873.

Flipper's four years as a cadet were characterized by above average grades, earned in an environment of almost total social isolation from his classmates. When he graduated in 1877, he ranked 50th in a class of 76. He was assigned, along with four other graduates, to the 10th U.S. Cavalry and soon found himself stationed on the frontier with Company A at Fort Sill, Indian Territory.

Military Career

2nd Lieutenant Flipper in full dress uniform of the United States Cavalry

National Archives and Records Administration

Over the course of the next four years the young lieutenant acted in a variety of different capacities, from briefly serving as commander of Company G, to pursuing the elusive Apache leader Victorio. Flipper was even detailed as Fort Sill's engineer and was ordered to survey and supervise the construction of a drainage system to eliminate a number of stagnant ponds blamed for causing malaria. His efforts were successful and in 1977, what became known as "Flipper's Ditch," was designated a Black Military Heritage Site.

On November 29, 1880 Flipper arrived at Fort Davis and soon was assigned the duties of Acting Assistant Quartermaster and Acting Commissary of Subsistence. He temporarily served as quartermaster until the regimental headquarters of the 1st U. S. Infantry, with its commander Colonel William R. Shafter, arrived in March 1881.

Court Martial

All seemed to be going well for the only African American officer in the United States Army, until some commissary funds he was responsible for turned up missing. Stalling for time and fearing Colonel Shafter, who had the reputation as a strict disciplinarian, Flipper tried to conceal the loss.

In the fall of 1881, Lieutenant Flipper was court-martialed under the 1806 Articles of War for embezzlement of commissary funds and for "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." Flipper pleaded not guilty to both charges. The trial was held in the post chapel at Fort Davis. Flipper was ably defended by Captain Merritt Barber, 16th U.S. Infantry, who volunteered to serve as counsel.

Although found not guilty of embezzlement, he was convicted of the second charge for making a false statement, for signing financial records he knew to be incorrect, and for writing a check on a nonexistent bank account. By regulations, this conviction carried an automatic sentence of dismissal from the army. In reviewing the trial, the Judge Advocate General, the army's chief legal officer, recommended a punishment other than dismissal. President Chester Arthur, however, approved the court's sentence and Flipper was dismissed from the United States Army.

Civilian Accomplishments

Following his dismissal from the army, Flipper attained recognition and respect in a multitude of different careers. In 1887 he established a civil engineering office in Nogales, Arizona, and from 1893 to 1901 he worked for the U. S. Department of Justice as a special agent for the Court of Private Land Claims. In addition to his primary job of translating Spanish documents, he also surveyed land grants and often appeared as a government witness in court cases.

Flipper was next employed as a resident engineer with a mining company in Mexico until the company ordered its employees out of the country following the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1912. He then moved to El Paso, where he served as the local representative of the Sierra Consolidated Mines Company. Due to his fluent Spanish, in 1919 Flipper became an interpreter and translator for a Senate subcommittee on foreign relations, and in 1921, was hired as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior working in the Alaskan Engineering Commission. In 1923, William F. Buckley hired Flipper as an engineer for his newly formed Pantepec Oil Company in Venezuela. He remained in that capacity until July 1930 when he sailed for New York.

However despite all of these achievements following his dismissal from the army, Flipper always maintained his innocence of the charges that destroyed his military career. He sought to clear his name through the only avenue open to him, the passage of a bill by Congress.

His first attempt to restore his former army rank and status occurred in 1898. His final effort resulted in legislation introduced into the Senate in 1924. None of the bills gained enough support or interest all died quietly in committees. Henry Flipper died in 1940 at the age of 84, not knowing that his rank would someday be restored.

The Court-Martial: Another Look

It was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, along with a concerted effort by historians to tell the story of all Americans, that brought attention to the circumstances surrounding Flipper's dismissal.

In late 1976, the case was reviewed by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. While acknowledging that Flipper had falsified reports and lied to his commanding officer, the board concluded that "the continuance of the stigma from a dismissal, which characterizes his entire service as dishonorable, is unduly harsh, and therefore unjust."

The board, therefore, recommended that all Flipper's army records "be corrected to show that he was separated from the Army of the United States on a Certificate of Honorable Discharge on 30 June 1882."

On February 19, 1999 President William J. Clinton posthumously granted "a full and unconditional pardon to Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper." The event came 59 years after his death and 117 years after the young lieutenant had been dismissed from the United States Army.


Henry Flipper - History

First black graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and an Indian Wars army officer, Henry Ossian Flipper, eldest son of Festus and Isabella Flipper, was born a slave on March 21, 1856, in Thomasville, Georgia. He was a mulatto and possessed some Cherokee ancestry. During Reconstruction Festus Flipper operated a business in Atlanta, Georgia. This enabled Henry to attend Atlanta University. In 1873 a white Republican congressman from Georgia appointed him to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.

The white cadets at the military academy socially ostracized Flipper. Nevertheless, he persevered and became the first black graduate in 1877. The Regular Army's first and only black commissioned officer, he was assigned to the Tenth Cavalry. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry were regiments of black enlisted men with white officers. They won renown during the Indian Wars as the "Buffalo Soldiers."

Flipper began his active duty on January 1, 1878, at Fort Sill, Indian Territory. At Fort Sill the intellectually precocious lieutenant wrote his 1878 autobiography, The Colored Cadet at West Point. It was one of the earliest authentic African American autobiographies and remains the most detailed published account of life at the academy during the 1870s. Appointed post signal officer, he drilled white as well as black troops in signaling techniques. When Troop G's commander left for detached duty, Flipper was entrusted to serve as acting troop captain for four months. He saw extensive field service scouting in hostile Indian country on the Llano Estacado.

While stationed at Fort Sill, Flipper proved adroit in dealing with reservation Indians. He was assigned ongoing responsibility for inspecting and receiving cattle for issue to them at the Wichita Indian Agency on the Washita River near Anadarko. He served in the military escort that removed Chief Quanah Parker and his band of Comanche and Kiowa from the Texas Panhandle to the reservation near Fort Sill during the winter of 1878–79.

Flipper's salient achievements in the Indian Territory were in engineering projects that proved beneficial to civilian society as well as the military. Malaria plagued the troops at the fort, and Flipper suffered a severe attack. A white engineering officer, trained at Germany's Heidlberg University, had tried but failed to devise a drainage system to eliminate pools of stagnant water. Lieutenant Flipper was assigned the project. He designed and constructed a system that permanently eliminated malaria at the fort. It still controls floods and erosion in the area. "Flipper's Ditch" won recognition as a part of the Fort Sill National Register Historic District in 1966 (NR 66000629) and Fort Sill National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Flipper succeeded in two other projects in which white officers had previously failed. He surveyed the route and supervised construction of a road from Fort Sill to Gainesville, Texas, that met standards for commercial civilian as well as military use. His third accomplishment was the innovative building of an intricate telegraph line from Fort Supply, Indian Territory, to Fort Elliott, Texas. Flipper grew so fond of Fort Sill that he wept upon departure for duty at Fort Elliott on February 28, 1879. In 1916 he wrote a memoir (published in 1997) that contains a unique portrayal of life at Fort Sill. It remains the only authenticated frontier memoir by an African American to be discovered thus far.

Subsequently stationed in Texas at Fort Elliott, Fort Concho, Fort Quitman, and Fort Davis from 1870 to 1881, Flipper distinguished himself in the 1880 campaign against Chief Victorio's Apaches. While he was stationed at Davis, he was assigned to quartermaster and commissary duties. After Flipper discovered and then concealed a shortage in his post commissary officer's fund, he was relieved of this duty by Col. William R. Shafter. Shafter charged him with embezzlement. A court-martial acquitted him of this charge but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Henry O. Flipper's military career ended with court-martial in 1881 and dismissal from the U.S. Army in 1882.

Flipper remained in the Southwest and northern Mexico as a civilian. From 1883 to 1919 he earned distinction as the nation's first African American civil and mining engineer. Between 1919 and 1921 he served in Washington, D.C., as consultant to the Senate committee on Mexican relations. From 1921 to 1923 he was assistant to Secretary of the Interior Albert W. Fall.

Flipper lived a solitary life. He had a brief, common-law relationship with a Mexican woman in Arizona in 1891, but they had no children. He died on May 3, 1940, in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1976 advocates persuaded the army to convert Flipper's dismissal record to an honorable discharge. Further lobbying won a posthumous pardon from Pres. William J. Clinton in 1999.

Bibliography

Jane Eppinga, Henry Ossian Flipper: West Point's First Black Graduate (Plano, Tex.: Republic of Texas Press, 1996).

Henry Ossian Flipper, The Colored Cadet at West Point: Autobiography of Lieut. Henry Ossian Flipper, U.S.A., First Graduate of Color From the U.S. Military Academy (Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1991).

Theodore D. Harris, ed. and comp., Black Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, First Black Graduate of West Point (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1997).

Wilbur S. Nye, Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).

Charles M. Robinson, III, The Court-Martial of Lieutenant Henry Flipper (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1994).

No part of this site may be construed as in the public domain.

Copyright to all articles and other content in the online and print versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History is held by the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS). This includes individual articles (copyright to OHS by author assignment) and corporately (as a complete body of work), including web design, graphics, searching functions, and listing/browsing methods. Copyright to all of these materials is protected under United States and International law.

Users agree not to download, copy, modify, sell, lease, rent, reprint, or otherwise distribute these materials, or to link to these materials on another web site, without authorization of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Individual users must determine if their use of the Materials falls under United States copyright law's "Fair Use" guidelines and does not infringe on the proprietary rights of the Oklahoma Historical Society as the legal copyright holder of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and part or in whole.

Photo credits: All photographs presented in the published and online versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture are the property of the Oklahoma Historical Society (unless otherwise stated).

Citation

The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Theodore D. Harris, &ldquoFlipper, Henry Ossian,&rdquo The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=FL002.

© Oklahoma Historical Society.


A man born a slave in Georgia was the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Henry Ossian Flipper was born in Thomasville in 1856. After the Civil War, Henry graduated from West Point in 1877 and joined the famed Buffalo Soldiers, the 10th Cavalry Regiment. At Fort Davis in Texas, Flipper’s commanding officer accused him of embezzlement he was acquitted at his court martial but convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and dismissed from the Army.

Flipper worked all of his life to clear his name, insisting he was court-martialed because of racism. After his death in 1940, his family continued the fight. In 1976, the Army overturned his court martial and granted him an honorable discharge. President Bill Clinton granted Flipper a full pardon in 1999.

West Point now presents an award in his honor to the graduate who succeeded in the face of great difficulties. The first black West Point graduate was born enslaved in Georgia on March 21, 1856, Today in Georgia History.


Henry Flipper - History

In 1877, Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point. Being the first meant putting up with a lot of unfairness -- he was lonelier than most cadets, although he did receive a standing ovation from his classmates at graduation.

He accomplished much in his first few years in the Army, which at first assigned him to the 10th Cavalry regiment in Oklahoma, an all-black unit known as the "Buffalo Soldiers." He solved a malaria problem by designing a ditch to drain ponds near Fort Sill. Later at Fort Concho, he helped connect West Texas military forts by wire.

Harassment and persecution

In 1880 Flipper was sent to Fort Davis, Texas, as the post quartermaster. He ran into problems with another lieutenant &ndash who was jealous over Flipper's friendship with a woman &ndash as well as with the commanding officer, who had a reputation for harassing his subordinates.

The commanding officer asked Flipper to keep $3,000 in his quarters for safekeeping. Some of the money was later found missing, and Flipper was accused of embezzlement and conduct unbecoming an officer. In December 1881, a military court acquitted him of the first charge but found him guilty of the other, and gave him a dishonorable discharge. Historians agree the Army's case had little merit.

Dignity despite public disgrace

Flipper went on to have a successful career as a surveyor and engineer. He served as a translator in Mexico and also worked as a newspaper editor. He died in 1940. In 1976, the Army officially vindicated him and gave him an honorable discharge. A bronze bust of Flipper now is on display at West Point.

Henry Flipper&rsquos life is an example to Christian believers of what the Apostle Paul meant when he taught, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (I Peter 2:12 NIV).

It&rsquos hard to be the pioneer

Whether it was Henry Flipper at West Point, Jackie Robinson on the baseball field, James Meredith at the University of Mississippi &mdash the first people who broke through a racial barrier have faced insults, isolation and accusations. It's not fair, but because they put up with persecution, they paved the way for others.

Today's prayer

Dear God, thank you for people who bravely tore down the walls of racial segregation. What they did was right. We're sorry they suffered for doing so, but we're glad they opened the way for so many who followed. Amen.


Henry Flipper - History

In 1877, Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point. Being the first meant putting up with a lot of unfairness -- he was lonelier than most cadets, although he did receive a standing ovation from his classmates at graduation.

He accomplished much in his first few years in the Army, which at first assigned him to the 10th Cavalry regiment in Oklahoma, an all-black unit known as the "Buffalo Soldiers." He solved a malaria problem by designing a ditch to drain ponds near Fort Sill. Later at Fort Concho, he helped connect West Texas military forts by wire.

Harassment and persecution

In 1880 Flipper was sent to Fort Davis, Texas, as the post quartermaster. He ran into problems with another lieutenant &ndash who was jealous over Flipper's friendship with a woman &ndash as well as with the commanding officer, who had a reputation for harassing his subordinates.

The commanding officer asked Flipper to keep $3,000 in his quarters for safekeeping. Some of the money was later found missing, and Flipper was accused of embezzlement and conduct unbecoming an officer. In December 1881, a military court acquitted him of the first charge but found him guilty of the other, and gave him a dishonorable discharge. Historians agree the Army's case had little merit.

Dignity despite public disgrace

Flipper went on to have a successful career as a surveyor and engineer. He served as a translator in Mexico and also worked as a newspaper editor. He died in 1940. In 1976, the Army officially vindicated him and gave him an honorable discharge. A bronze bust of Flipper now is on display at West Point.

Henry Flipper&rsquos life is an example to Christian believers of what the Apostle Paul meant when he taught, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (I Peter 2:12 NIV).

It&rsquos hard to be the pioneer

Whether it was Henry Flipper at West Point, Jackie Robinson on the baseball field, James Meredith at the University of Mississippi &mdash the first people who broke through a racial barrier have faced insults, isolation and accusations. It's not fair, but because they put up with persecution, they paved the way for others.

Today's prayer

Dear God, thank you for people who bravely tore down the walls of racial segregation. What they did was right. We're sorry they suffered for doing so, but we're glad they opened the way for so many who followed. Amen.


This African American 'Old Grad' Delivered a History of Race at West Point

"There are plenty of Black folks who can sit in at counters," Col. Jim Fowler, the fifth African American graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, told Cadet Joe Anderson Jr. "Your job is to get through West Point."

There were only 11 Black cadets at West Point when Anderson began his plebe year in 1961. It was the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and he was struggling with not being out marching in the streets.

Anderson did graduate from West Point in 1965. Today, he is CEO and Chairman of TAG Holdings, and he was the guest speaker at the academy's 2021 Henry O. Flipper Award presentation. There, he relayed his memories of serving in a racially charged world.

"The more we know about our history, the more likely we are to learn from past mistakes and benefit from lessons learned," Anderson told the gathered crowd.

Next, came Anderson's own story. He grew up in a racially segregated world. The future Army officer and CEO was in grade school in Topeka, Kansas, when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, which struck down segregation in schools.

When Anderson entered the academy, there were no African Americans on the staff or faculty. Though he said the school was not yet ready for a Black firstie in a position of leadership, there were no racial incidents between himself and his classmates.

After graduation, Anderson was sent to Vietnam to lead members of the 1st Cavalry Division. He did two tours in Vietnam while there, his unit was the subject of the Emmy- and Oscar-winning 1967 French documentary film, "The Anderson Platoon." After just two months in Vietnam, he found himself leading men in heavy fighting he was awarded the Silver Star.

Today's U.S. military, Anderson said, looks nothing like the military of 1965, when he graduated as an infantry officer.

"My whole life has been on the cycle of race in America," he said. "When I graduated in 1965, there were no black generals in the Army, and only six colonels. Now we've had a number of generals in the Army and Air Force, and admirals in the Navy."

The French filmmakers who first visited "The Anderson Platoon" would later catch up to the unit, to see what their lives were like 20 years later. They would meet at West Point yet again. That year, the commandant at the academy was Brig. Gen. Fred Gordon, the first African American to hold the position and the only African American graduate of the class of 1962.

During his speech, Anderson shared stories of his service in Vietnam and being filmed for two documentaries. He also gave a brief history of trailblazing -- but often lonely -- African American graduates of the academy who would rise to have great careers.

"What I wanted to do is to convey to those cadets who will graduate in 2021, 150 years after Flipper graduated, the kinds of things that were going on before them and bridges that were crossed," Anderson told Military.com. "Race is real, as is the reality of living in America. But from what Flipper went through in 1877, what Fowler experienced in 1941, we now have the gentleman who's over all of the military: African American, West Point graduate class of 1975."

He was referring to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired Army four-star general.

Anderson, with a long career as a leader in corporate boardrooms, says the same is true of the corporate world.

"When I went into corporate America in 1977, there were not a lot of African Americans in leadership positions of Fortune 500 companies or directors on the New York Stock Exchange," he said. "Everything is evolving. So we've seen things change and change again over the years."

While serving as a White House Fellow in the Carter administration, Anderson was able to meet Henry Ford II, chairman of the Ford Motor Company. He was soon offered a position at Ford, but took an offer from General Motors instead. After 13 years, Anderson left the Army for a new career.

"The automobile industry concluded they could hire leaders of character from the military and teach them to be leaders in the automobile industry," he said. "I had no training in how to make fenders, hoods or bumpers for Pontiac cars, but I did know how to lead people."

Flipper was born a Georgia slave but became the first African American West Point graduate in 1877. He did it in the face of overwhelming odds and the systemic, open racism that was endemic in America at the time.

Every year since 1977, West Point recognizes a cadet who has put honor, discipline and service to their country above all things, even in the face of adversity, presenting them with the Henry O. Flipper Award. Flipper's story is where Anderson's telling of the black experience at the academy begins.

As a second lieutenant, Flipper became the first non-White officer to command the all-Black Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. 10th Cavalry. He served with the U.S. Army Cavalry during the Apache Wars of the late 1870s and was eventually transferred to Fort Davis in western Texas to serve as the post quartermaster. Other officers conspired to accuse him of embezzlement, and he was eventually forced out of the Army.

Flipper spent the rest of his life maintaining his innocence, but was never allowed in uniform again. Still he persevered, first as a brilliant engineer in the West, an author and later as a government adviser. He died in 1940, but President Bill Clinton pardoned him in 1999.

"When you see the issues that upset individuals in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, you see some things have not changed and we still have work to do on race in America," Anderson said.

Still, he said he believes the military is a place that will always offer the chance for anyone to develop the skills to move about the world and do a job with a combination of execution, excellence and character.

"As I came along in Vietnam, it was a breakthrough scenario for African Americans," Anderson said. "Way back when in World War I, World War II, Korea, it was not so good, but it was at least a place to develop skills, an understanding of who you are, and make a difference. The military was a place that we could go and have a life and a career."


Henry Flipper - History

First black graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and an Indian Wars army officer, Henry Ossian Flipper, eldest son of Festus and Isabella Flipper, was born a slave on March 21, 1856, in Thomasville, Georgia. He was a mulatto and possessed some Cherokee ancestry. During Reconstruction Festus Flipper operated a business in Atlanta, Georgia. This enabled Henry to attend Atlanta University. In 1873 a white Republican congressman from Georgia appointed him to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.

The white cadets at the military academy socially ostracized Flipper. Nevertheless, he persevered and became the first black graduate in 1877. The Regular Army's first and only black commissioned officer, he was assigned to the Tenth Cavalry. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry were regiments of black enlisted men with white officers. They won renown during the Indian Wars as the "Buffalo Soldiers."

Flipper began his active duty on January 1, 1878, at Fort Sill, Indian Territory. At Fort Sill the intellectually precocious lieutenant wrote his 1878 autobiography, The Colored Cadet at West Point. It was one of the earliest authentic African American autobiographies and remains the most detailed published account of life at the academy during the 1870s. Appointed post signal officer, he drilled white as well as black troops in signaling techniques. When Troop G's commander left for detached duty, Flipper was entrusted to serve as acting troop captain for four months. He saw extensive field service scouting in hostile Indian country on the Llano Estacado.

While stationed at Fort Sill, Flipper proved adroit in dealing with reservation Indians. He was assigned ongoing responsibility for inspecting and receiving cattle for issue to them at the Wichita Indian Agency on the Washita River near Anadarko. He served in the military escort that removed Chief Quanah Parker and his band of Comanche and Kiowa from the Texas Panhandle to the reservation near Fort Sill during the winter of 1878–79.

Flipper's salient achievements in the Indian Territory were in engineering projects that proved beneficial to civilian society as well as the military. Malaria plagued the troops at the fort, and Flipper suffered a severe attack. A white engineering officer, trained at Germany's Heidlberg University, had tried but failed to devise a drainage system to eliminate pools of stagnant water. Lieutenant Flipper was assigned the project. He designed and constructed a system that permanently eliminated malaria at the fort. It still controls floods and erosion in the area. "Flipper's Ditch" won recognition as a part of the Fort Sill National Register Historic District in 1966 (NR 66000629) and Fort Sill National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Flipper succeeded in two other projects in which white officers had previously failed. He surveyed the route and supervised construction of a road from Fort Sill to Gainesville, Texas, that met standards for commercial civilian as well as military use. His third accomplishment was the innovative building of an intricate telegraph line from Fort Supply, Indian Territory, to Fort Elliott, Texas. Flipper grew so fond of Fort Sill that he wept upon departure for duty at Fort Elliott on February 28, 1879. In 1916 he wrote a memoir (published in 1997) that contains a unique portrayal of life at Fort Sill. It remains the only authenticated frontier memoir by an African American to be discovered thus far.

Subsequently stationed in Texas at Fort Elliott, Fort Concho, Fort Quitman, and Fort Davis from 1870 to 1881, Flipper distinguished himself in the 1880 campaign against Chief Victorio's Apaches. While he was stationed at Davis, he was assigned to quartermaster and commissary duties. After Flipper discovered and then concealed a shortage in his post commissary officer's fund, he was relieved of this duty by Col. William R. Shafter. Shafter charged him with embezzlement. A court-martial acquitted him of this charge but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Henry O. Flipper's military career ended with court-martial in 1881 and dismissal from the U.S. Army in 1882.

Flipper remained in the Southwest and northern Mexico as a civilian. From 1883 to 1919 he earned distinction as the nation's first African American civil and mining engineer. Between 1919 and 1921 he served in Washington, D.C., as consultant to the Senate committee on Mexican relations. From 1921 to 1923 he was assistant to Secretary of the Interior Albert W. Fall.

Flipper lived a solitary life. He had a brief, common-law relationship with a Mexican woman in Arizona in 1891, but they had no children. He died on May 3, 1940, in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1976 advocates persuaded the army to convert Flipper's dismissal record to an honorable discharge. Further lobbying won a posthumous pardon from Pres. William J. Clinton in 1999.

Bibliography

Jane Eppinga, Henry Ossian Flipper: West Point's First Black Graduate (Plano, Tex.: Republic of Texas Press, 1996).

Henry Ossian Flipper, The Colored Cadet at West Point: Autobiography of Lieut. Henry Ossian Flipper, U.S.A., First Graduate of Color From the U.S. Military Academy (Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1991).

Theodore D. Harris, ed. and comp., Black Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, First Black Graduate of West Point (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1997).

Wilbur S. Nye, Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).

Charles M. Robinson, III, The Court-Martial of Lieutenant Henry Flipper (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1994).

No part of this site may be construed as in the public domain.

Copyright to all articles and other content in the online and print versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History is held by the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS). This includes individual articles (copyright to OHS by author assignment) and corporately (as a complete body of work), including web design, graphics, searching functions, and listing/browsing methods. Copyright to all of these materials is protected under United States and International law.

Users agree not to download, copy, modify, sell, lease, rent, reprint, or otherwise distribute these materials, or to link to these materials on another web site, without authorization of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Individual users must determine if their use of the Materials falls under United States copyright law's "Fair Use" guidelines and does not infringe on the proprietary rights of the Oklahoma Historical Society as the legal copyright holder of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and part or in whole.

Photo credits: All photographs presented in the published and online versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture are the property of the Oklahoma Historical Society (unless otherwise stated).

Citation

The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Theodore D. Harris, &ldquoFlipper, Henry Ossian,&rdquo The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=FL002.

© Oklahoma Historical Society.


A Different Kind of Trial

The hazing rituals and other traditions of West Point were challenging enough for even the most socially connected white cadets. Henry Flipper had to endure four years of almost total social isolation and verbal insults, but he stayed the course and graduated with his class in 1877. As the first and only black regular army officer, he was posted to the Tenth Cavalry, a cavalry unit, all of whose personnel except officers were blacks (known by the Indians as "Buffalo Soldiers"). While fighting the Apaches, Flipper and his unit were assigned to Fort Davis, a frontier post in west Texas. Throughout this time, all his superiors and fellow officers were white, and most of them made no secret of their dislike for having a black officer among them.

In December 1880, Flipper was put in charge of the commissary, responsible for buying and selling food for the fort's personnel and their families. responsi-In 1881, Flipper's sloppy bookkeeping, careless security, and a naive willingness to extend credit to various soldiers and civilians led to the discovery that he was short some $2,400 in funds. Although friends made up the shortfall, it was too late, and on August 12, 1881, Flipper was arrested.


Henry Flipper - History

This Day In History: June 15, 1877

Henry Ossian Flipper was born on March 21, 1856 and, grew up as a slave in Thomasville, Georgia. He was a very intelligent youngster. Another slave secretly taught him to read, putting them both at great peril. After the Civil War ended, he attended schools run by the American Missionary Association and began studying at Atlanta University in 1869.

Flipper had always felt drawn to the military. He wrote to Georgia congressman James Freeman in January 1873 requesting admission to West Point. Freeman replied that he would recommend him only if Flipper proved “worthy and qualified.” He did, and Henry was allowed to take the entrance exam. He passed. Flipper entered West Point on July 1, 1873.

Unsurprisingly for the era, at the Academy, Henry had to endure incredible racism. He was also well aware that the six black men that attended West Point before him did not make it to graduation. Further, his black classmate Johnson Whittaker was severely beaten and ultimately expelled for “falsely” accusing the other cadets of attacking him.

Despite the extreme adversity, Henry Flipper managed to make it through, and became the first black man commissioned from West Point on June 15, 1877. He was sent west with the 10th Cavalry, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

While in Texas, he was promoted to Lieutenant and became a Quartermaster. It was also in Texas where he was court-martialed for “embezzlement” and “conduct unbecoming an officer.” You see, Flipper had been asked by his commanding officer to keep the quartermaster’s safe in his quarters. Shortly thereafter, $3,791.77 (about $74K today) was found missing from the safe by Flipper. Knowing that if this was discovered, it would likely be used as an excuse to get him kicked him out of the military, he tried to hide the discrepancy, but ultimately it was discovered.

Flipper hadn’t gotten to this point without earning the respect of some of his peers, however, and it was generally thought by many that he hadn’t taken the money and that it was a setup. As such, several other soldiers and community members raised the missing funds on his behalf to cover the shortage. It didn’t matter though.

While he was ultimately found innocent of embezzlement, he was also found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer. Despite the fact that two previous actual instances of white officers embezzling government funds and found guilty had not resulted in either of them being dismissed from the military, and Flipper hadn’t been found to have done anything wrong other than attempt to hide the discrepancy, he was dismissed from the Army on June 30, 1882.

Henry went on to have a very successful career (or several) as a civilian. He worked for numerous private companies and the federal government as a surveyor, engineer (civil and military), translator, author, and expert on Mexican land laws. He wrote several books, his first being his autobiography The Colored Cadet at West Point.

Throughout the years, Flipper always maintained, as he put it in a letter to U.S. Representative John Hull in 1898, “…the crime of being a Negro was, in my case, far more heinous than deceiving the commanding officer.” He made numerous attempts to have the conviction reversed to no avail, ultimately dying in 1940 without getting his wish.

In 1976, Flipper’s descendents and the supporters of his cause once again appealed to the United States Army on his behalf. They reviewed his case once again, only this time they found that the sentence against Flipper had been “unduly harsh and unjust.” Lieutenant Henry Flipper was issued an Honorable Discharge dated June 30, 1882.

On February 19, 1999, Lieutenant Flipper was also granted a full pardon by President Bill Clinton.

Today, West Point honors his memory with a memorial bust of its first African American graduate. The Academy also presents an award in his name to a recipient who demonstrates “the highest qualities of leadership, self-discipline and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties during his four years at the academy.”

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Bruce J. Dinges, &ldquoFlipper, Henry Ossian,&rdquo Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/flipper-henry-ossian.

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