Henry O. Flipper is now a celebrated icon at West Point as the first African American graduate of West Point. But the roller-coaster life he lived was far from glamorous- it was fraught with challenges, pride, racism, success, discrimination, scandal and achievement. In hindsight, he was an heroic leader who broke down racial barriers and faced a lifetime of over-coming challenges. Yet he died having been found guilty of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." Although he fought for over half a century to clear his name while he was alive, he was unsuccessful in doing so. However, ever resilient, even in death he overcame adversity- over a century after being found guilty of this charge, he was posthumously pardoned by President Clinton in 1999 and is now a heroic icon of West Point history.
Born as a slave in Georgia March 21, 1826, he was schooled in another slave's home until he started attending a missionary school at age eight. After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 slaves in the north were freed but in the South Henry O. Flipper remained a slave until 1865. In 1869 he was one of the first to attend the newly founded Atlanta University. On July 1, 1873 he entered the US Military Academy at West Point as the fourth black cadet to enter the academy. The first three would not graduate and the challenges he faced as the sole black cadet would be daunting. He faced incredible prejudice in an Academy still divided between north and south working towards reconciliation and working to integrate blacks into society where they still did not have full privileges of an American citizen. Despite a very challenging environment, he graduated 50th in his class of 76 cadets in 1877 and was commissioned as an officer in the US Army as the only black officer. He fulfilled his personal dream when he was assigned as a Second Lieutenant in Troop A of 10th Cavalry assigned to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma leading black soldiers in one of two Cavalry Regiments called "Buffalo Soldiers" In 1879 he was in temporary command of Troop G as acting commander. While at Ft. Sill he was responsible for designing and building a ditch to resolve a drainage problem to resolve some stagnant water that was causing a malaria outbreak. The engineering project was so successful that the ditch he designed and built bore his name and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977 as "Flipper's Ditch".
In May 1880 his unit was assigned to Fort Concho, Texas in pursuit of the Apache Chief Victorio. In the spring of 1881 Lieutenant Flipper was acting as quartermaster when an event occurred that would change his life. The details of the events still remain unclear even years later. Money was missing from commissary funds. Lieutenant Flipper discovered the loss and was personally investigating the reasons for the loss. His new commander had created a challenging and racially charged command climate and Lieutenant Flipper was the only black officer in the Army at the time. While investigating the whereabouts of the funds, Lieutenant Flipper lied to his commander in the process in an effort to buy more time to discover the reason for the loss or the whereabouts of the funds. He was court martialed for embezzlement and "conduct unbecoming of an officer" for lying to his commander. The embezzlement charge was dropped for a lack of evidence and he was discharged from the Army for having lied to his commander and "conduct unbecoming of an officer". He was the first officer in the history of the army to be charged with conduct unbecoming.
He spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name although all of his efforts were unsuccessful. He owned his own company for a short time, worked as a translator for the Senate, and worked for the Justice Department as a special assistant. He died at age 84 in 1940 never knowing that his name would be cleared. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s his records would be reviewed and the Army would officially review his case in 1976. The review determined that although Lieutenant. Flipper had lied that the dismissal was too severe and he was given an Honorable Discharge effective June 30, 1882. President Clinton pardoned Lieutenant Flipper in 1999, and restored the name of Henry O. Flipper to the honorable status well earned by an American hero who blazed a trail in history, helping to end discrimination and reduce racism after the American Civil War.
It is impossible to imagine the struggles, racism and discrimination that Henry O Flipper overcame to graduate from West Point in 1877. West Point and the Army was far ahead of society in integrating African Americans but it was still a very discriminatory and racially charged environment. He is an American hero who helped break down racial barriers.
Every year on the date of his birth, March 21st, all cadets celebrate "Henry O. Flipper Day". His bust is displayed in the Jefferson Library at West Point in the Haig Room, deservedly beside other iconic statues and busts of West Point legends: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley, Pershing, Patton, and Schwarzkopf.©
Copyright Daniel E. Rice 2011