African-American military leader Henry Ossian Flipper was born into slavery on March 21, 1856, in Thomasville, Georgia. Flipper attended Atlanta University where he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Although he was not the first African-American to attend West Point, he became the first African-American to graduate in 1877. Despite being ostracized and enduring racist discrimination, he excelled as a cadet, particularly in engineering, law, French and Spanish. After he graduated, Flipper wrote Colored Cadet at West Point in 1878.
Career and Dishonorable Discharge
Following his graduation, Flipper received his commission as second lieutenant, and in 1878, he became the first African-American officer in the U.S. Army to command African-American troops when he received an appointment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. His assignment was to lead Troop A, 10th Calvary Regiment, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Until then, all African-American troops had been commanded by white officers.
During his time at Fort Sill, he was also able to utilize his engineering skills, and constructed roads and a system to help drain stagnant pools of water which was known to spread malaria. The project was a success and the site, known as “Flipper’s Ditch,” became an National Historic Landmark in 1977.
His military service came to a halt, however, when in November 1881 he was accused by his white commanding officer of embezzling $3,791.77 from commissary funds. Although a court martial acquitted him of the charges, he was dishonorably discharged in 1882.
Death, Honorable Discharge and Legacy
After his military discharge, Flipper worked as a civil engineer, and tried unsuccessfully to vindicate himself for many years. He died on May 3, 1940, in Atlanta, Georgia. His autobiography Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, which he wrote in 1916, was published posthumously in 1963.
Thirty-six years after his death, in 1976, it was confirmed that white officers had framed Flipper. President Bill Clinton posthumously granted Flipper an honorable discharge in 1999, a vindication of his military service and recognition of the racism he had endured. On the 100th anniversary of his graduation, West Point unveiled a bust of Flipper to honor him as a distinguished graduate.
March 21, 1856
May 3, 1940
- 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).
- In May 1880, Flipper and Nolan reunited during the Victorio Campaign. It was the last time the two met. Throughout this period, his military career was encumbered by racism in the military, though he did have the support of some officers, such as Nolan, and many of the white civilians he encountered who were impressed by his competency. In the later part of 1880, Flipper was transferred to Fort Davis in West Texas and assigned as the post quartermaster and commissary officer.
- Throughout his life, Flipper was a prolific author, writing about scientific topics, the history of the Southwest, and his own experiences. In The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878) he describes his experiences at the military academy. In the posthumous Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper (1963), he describes his life in Texas and Arizona after his discharge from the Army.