I recently wrote about the controversy swirling around black female cadets graduating from West Point, in Much ado about raised fists. While researching their story, I grew interested in the history of the first black graduate from West Point, Henry Ossian Flipper.
Henry Ossian Flipper (March 21, 1856 – May 3, 1940) was an American soldier, former slave, and the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877, earning a commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the US Army.
Following Flipper’s commission, he was transferred to one of the all-black regiments serving in the US Army which were historically led by white officers. Assigned to A Troop under the command of Captain Nicholas M. Nolan, he became the first nonwhite officer to lead buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. Flipper served with competency and distinction during the Apache Wars and the Victorio Campaign, but was haunted by rumors alleging improprieties. At one point, he was court martialed and dismissed from the US Army. After losing his commission in the Army, Flipper worked throughout Mexico and Latin America and as an assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. He retired to Atlanta in 1931 and died of natural causes in 1940.
In 1994, his descendants applied to the US military for a review of Flipper’s court martial and dismissal. A review found the conviction and punishment were “unduly harsh and unjust” and recommended Flipper’s dismissal to be changed to a good conduct discharge. Shortly afterwards, an application for pardon was filed with the Secretary of the Army, which was forwarded to the Department of Justice. President Bill Clinton pardoned Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper on February 19, 1999.
That Flipper made it to West Point at all is an amazing story, and if not for the brief Reconstruction period when blacks gained some political power, and were able to attend college it probably would not have happened.
Flipper was born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia, the eldest of five brothers. His mother, Isabelle Flipper, and his father, Festus Flipper, a shoemaker and carriage-trimmer, were owned by Ephraim G. Ponder, a wealthy slave dealer.
Flipper attended Atlanta University during Reconstruction. There, as a freshman, Representative James C. Freeman appointed him to attend West Point, where four other black cadets were already attending. The small group had a difficult time at the academy, where they were rejected by white students. Nevertheless, Flipper persevered, and in 1877, became the first of the group to graduate, earning a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army cavalry. He was assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, one of the four all-black “buffalo soldier” regiments in the Army, and became the first black officer to command regular troops in the U.S. Army. (Previously, all-black regiments had been commanded by white officers.)
Lest you think shunning at West Point only happened in the days of Flipper’s arrival, decades later General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. told about his experience at the Point.
West Point graduated its first black cadet at the tail-end of Reconstruction in 1877, though no black cadet had graduated in the 20th century when Davis arrived at the academy along the Hudson River.
Some cadets clearly wanted to keep it that way.
Davis was “silenced,” a coordinated shunning usually reserved for cadets who violated the honor code. He roomed by himself, and fellow cadets spoke to him only as needed. Mess hall tables with empty places would be too full for him to sit at. “I was to be silenced solely because the cadets did not want blacks at West Point. Their only purpose was to freeze me out,” Davis wrote in his 1991 autobiography. “What they did not realize was that I was stubborn enough to put up with their treatment to reach the goal I had come to obtain.”
Davis wrote that while West Point administrators could maintain the silencing was not official, “they knew precisely how I was being treated.” Davis refused to buckle. He took long, solo runs through the surrounding hills, listened to his radio and wrote cheerful letters home. He graduated 35th in a class of 276. In the end, his steely tenacity won respect from the very cadets who made his four years so difficult. His yearbook entry notes that he earned “the sincere admiration of his classmates.”
The shunning of Flipper did not prevent his graduation, and he was sent to several western postings in the next few years.
In 1877 Flipper was assigned to Fort Sill and then to Fort Concho where he served under Captain Nicholas M. Nolan. Nolan got into trouble for allowing Flipper to eat in his tent while Nolan’s white daughter was present. The next year Captain Nolan, a widower, remarried and his wife’s sister, Mollie Dwyer became friends with Flipper. They often went riding together, and exchanged letters. This set off a wave of hatred against Flipper. His last post was at Fort Davis where he became the post quartermaster.
Colonel William Rufus Shafter assumed command at Fort Davis in March 1881. He had been the commander of the First Infantry Regiment at Fort Davis. Shafter had a reputation as harassing officers he disliked. While he tolerated black Buffalo Soldiers, he hated seeing a black officer. Flipper was dismissed without cause as quartermaster within days. Then Shafter “asked” Flipper to keep the quartermaster’s safe in his quarters. Being “asked” by a superior officer was a de facto order and Flipper complied. In July 1881, Flipper found a shortage of over $2,000.00. Realizing this could be used against him by officers intent on forcing him out of the army, he attempted to hide the discrepancy, which was later discovered, then he lied about it when confronted. In August, he was arrested by Shafter for embezzling government funds. Word quickly spread about the missing money. Many felt it was a setup and soldiers and the community came up with the money to replace what was missing within four days. Shafter accepted the money, then convened a court martial on September 17, 1881.
In December 1881, the court martial found Flipper innocent of the main charge, but another charge was added during the trial, and he was found guilty “of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman”, and sentenced to be “dismissed from the service of the United States”. It was more than a harsh sentence. In two prior situations involving white officers who were found guilty of embezzlement, neither officer was dismissed nor dishonored. The letters exchanged between Mollie Dwyer (Nolan’s sister-in-law) and Flipper were used against Flipper. Relationships between whites and blacks were strictly forbidden in the viewpoint of the white officers on the board. Despite appeals, and denial of a lighter sentence from President Chester A. Arthur, Flipper was drummed out of the army with a dismissal, the officer equivalent of a dishonorable discharge, on June 30, 1882. For the rest of his life, Flipper contested the charges and fought to regain his commission.
Though his life after the military was full of achievement, he died unvindicated.
The law firm of Arnold & Porter played a key role in obtaining a pardon for Flipper
A group of West Point graduates seeking to clear Lt. Flipper’s name sought out fellow West Point graduate Jeffrey Smith here at Arnold & Porter. Smith enlisted my assistance, which I was happy to provide, having first learned about Lt. Flipper and his ordeal when I was a youngster. Joining the team were Edward Sisson and Helene Krasnoff, as well as summer associates J. Benjamin King, Christine Koh and David Fine, among others.
Believing Dr. Martin Luther King’s admonition in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” we set out to right a past wrong. To accomplish that task, we ultimately submitted two documents to the U.S. Department of Justice and the President: a pardon petition and a legal brief in support thereof. Both documents were exhaustively researched and each had a supporting set of exhibits that included historical materials. The total volume of materials we submitted to the government exceeded 600 pages.
In seeking a posthumous pardon for Lt. Flipper, we faced considerable barriers. It had long been the policy of the Pardon Attorney of the U.S. Department of Justice not to accept or process posthumous pardon applications. Cases decided during the early days of our country dictate that posthumous pardons cannot and should not be granted by the President, according to the Pardon Attorney.
The pardon petition and legal brief we submitted to the President attacked those legal and policy barriers, and also set forth the factual and legal case for the pardon. In conducting our research, we examined evidence that is over 100 years old, including Lt. Flipper’s court-martial, and other records. Our research took us to England; we also examined U.S. constitutional authorities, and conducted research in various States.
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release February 19, 1999
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AT CEREMONY IN HONOR OF LT. HENRY O. FLIPPER
The Roosevelt Room
6:33 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I’d like to welcome this distinguished assemblage here — Dr. King and the members of the Flipper family, and your friends; Secretary West, Congressman Clyburn, General Powell, Deputy Secretary Hamry, Under Secretary de Leon, General Ross and General Reimer, Secretary Caldera. I understand we’re joined by Clarence Davenport, the 6th African American graduate of West Point; other distinguished West Point graduates who are here. Welcome to all of you. There’s one person who could not be here today — Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, I’m glad to see you — the one person who could not be here today I want to acknowledge, and that is Senator Max Cleland from Georgia, who has done a lot to make this day possible. We thank him in his absence.
I welcome you all to an event that is 117 years overdue. Here in America’s House of liberty, we celebrate ideas like freedom, equality, our indivisibility as one people. Great leaders lived here — people like Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Lincoln, the Roosevelts, after whom this room is named. All of them deepened the meaning of those words while they lived here. But we must be candid and say that the special quality of American freedom is not always extended to all Americans. A word like “freedom,” to be more than a slogan, requires us to acknowledge that our “more perfect union” was created by imperfect human beings, people who did not always define freedom in the ways that we would, and in ways that they knew they should. For this word to live for ourselves and our children, we must recognize it represents a difficult goal that must be struggled with every day in order to be realized.
Today’s ceremony is about a moment in 1882, when our government did not do all it could do to protect an individual American’s freedom. It is about a moment in 1999 when we correct the error and resolve to do even better in the future. The man we honor today was an extraordinary American. Henry Flipper did all his country asked him to do. Though born a slave in Georgia, he was proud to serve America: the first African American graduate of West Point; the first African American commissioned officer in the regular United States Army. He showed brilliant promise and joined the 10th Cavalry. While stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he perfected a drainage system that eliminated the stagnant water, and malaria, plaguing the fort. Still known as “Flipper’s Ditch,” it became a national landmark in 1977. He distinguished himself in combat on the frontier, and then was transferred to run a commissary at Fort Davis in Texas. In 1881, Lt. Flipper was accused by his commanding officer of improperly accounting for the funds entrusted to him. A later Army review suggested he had been singled out for his race, but at the time there wasn’t much justice available for a young African American soldier. In December, a court-martial acquitted him of embezzlement, but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer. President Chester A. Arthur declined to overturn the sentence, and in June of 1882, Lt. Flipper was dishonorably discharged. His life continued. He became a civil and mining engineer out West. He worked in many capacities for the government, as special agent for the Department of Justice; as an expert on Mexico for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. He died in 1940, at the age of 84. But even after his death, this stain of dishonor remained. One hundred and seventeen years have now elapsed since his discharge. That’s a long time, even more than the span of his long life. More than half the history of the White House, indeed, of the United States itself. And too long to let an injustice lie uncorrected.
The army exonerated him in 1976, changed his discharge to honorable and reburied him with full honors. But one thing remained to be done, and now it will be. With great pleasure and humility, I now offer a full pardon to Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper of the United States Army. This good man now has completely recovered his good name. It has been a trying thing for the family to fight this long battle, to confront delays and bureaucratic indifference, but this is a day of affirmation. It teaches us that, although the wheels of justice turn slowly at times, still they turn. It teaches that time can heal old wounds and redemption comes to those who persist in a righteous cause. Most of all, it teaches us — Lt. Flipper’s family teaches us — that we must never give up the fight to make our country live up to its highest ideals. Outside of this room Henry Flipper is not known to most Americans. All the more reason to remember him today. His remarkable life story is important to us, terribly important, as we continue to work — on the edge of a new century and a new millennium — on deepening the meaning of freedom at home, and working to expand democracy and freedom around the world, to give new life to the great experiment begun in 1776. This is work Henry Flipper would have been proud of. Each of you who worked so hard for this day is a living chapter in the story of Lt. Flipper. I thank you for your devotion, your courage, your persistence, your unshakable commitment. I thank you for believing, and proving, that challenges never disappear, but in the long run, freedom comes to those who persevere.
Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)
You can read more about Flipper through his own words.
The Colored Cadet at West Point: Autobiography of Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper, U. S. A., First Graduate of Color from the U. S. Military Academy
Flipper’s record of accomplishment was significant for any individual in any time, and for a nineteenth-century black American it was phenomenal. As historian Quintard Taylor points out, in his post-Army career Flipper was a surveyor, cartographer, civil and mining engineer, interpreter, translator, historian, inventor, newspaper editor, special agent for the Justice Department, deputy U.S. mineral surveyor, aide to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and consultant to the secretary of the interior. His work carried him to Mexico, Venezuela, and Spain, and he left a record of achievement that demonstrates his enormous talent and unrelenting effort.
The Colored Cadet at West Point contains Taylor’s biographical essay, Flipper’s account of his career at West Point, and a new index prepared for this volume.
Flipper’s autobiography is available free online.
I hope, as elderly as they would have been, some of Lt. Flipper’s family who actually knew him were alive and at that ceremony.
Yes – some of his relatives were there Jan.
Fascinating story, Dee. Thank you for sharing it,
Thank you for this very fine essay, Dee. What a fascinating account, and what an unusual young man—and older man—he was! Imagine having the strength of character to overcome four years of shunning by the white racist cadets at West Point.
I’m sorry that racism got him and forced him out of the army. Really, there are times when I despair of this country.
And hurray for Arnold & Porter, right here in Washington, DC! I’m glad the team worked to uncover the evidence and push for the vindication.
May Henry Ossian Flipper rest in peace.