Henry O. Flipper was the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. After his graduation and commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he was wrongfully court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. His good name and honor were posthumously restored in 1976.
Henry Ossian Flipper was born to enslaved parents, Isabella and Festus Flipper, on March 21, 1856, in Thomasville. After the Civil War (1861-65) he was educated by the American Missionary Association and attended Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) for one year. In 1873 he became the fifth African American to receive a West Point appointment, and he attended with a class of inhospitable white cadets. Unlike other African American cadets, however, Flipper managed to tolerate the hostile environment, and he graduated and received his commission in 1877. He described his experiences in his 1878 book, The Colored Cadet at West Point.
As an officer over Buffalo Soldiers (a nickname given to Black soldiers by Native Americans in the Southwest) in the Tenth Cavalry, Flipper served at Forts Elliott, Concho, Quitman, Sill, and Davis, and he fought twice at Eagle Springs, Texas, during the Victorio campaign against the Apache Indians in 1880. In 1881, while stationed at Fort Davis, Texas, he was framed by white officers and charged with embezzlement. At his court-martial he was found not guilty of embezzlement but guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” He was dishonorably discharged, and for the rest of his life he fought to restore his good name.
As a civilian Flipper distinguished himself in numerous fields. First working as an engineer, he also surveyed land and worked as a special agent for the U.S. government on southwestern land claims. Fluent in Spanish, he translated texts on Mexican tax, mining, and land laws. He worked in Mexico from 1901 to 1912 as a mining engineer.
After his return to El Paso, Texas, Flipper supplied information on internal Mexican affairs to the U.S. Senate during the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). In 1916 he wrote his memoirs, which were first published posthumously in 1963 under the title Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper. In 1923, after briefly serving as assistant secretary of the interior, he took an engineering position with a petroleum company in Venezuela, and he translated that country’s Law on Hydrocarbons and Other Combustible Minerals. He retired in 1931 and returned to Atlanta to live with his brother.
Flipper died following a heart attack on May 3, 1940. His descendants continued to press his dishonorable discharge case, however, and in 1976, with the recognition of his mistreatment, he was finally granted an honorable discharge by the Department of the Army. A bust of Flipper was unveiled at West Point in the same year. In 1978 his remains were returned to his native Thomasville, where the post office is named for him, and in 1999 U.S. president Bill Clinton granted him a full pardon. West Point now gives an award in his honor to the graduating senior who has displayed “the highest qualities of leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties while a cadet.”