Friday, February 16, 2018

Ossian Flipper - First Black West Point Graduate

February is Black History Month and I wanted to honor Black American soldiers and the story of Lt Flipper came to mind. Henry Ossian Flipper, born in March of 1856, was a former slave who became 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 and being assigned as the first nonwhite officer to lead buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. By all accounts Lt Flipper was an outstanding officer who led troops in the Apache campaign against Victorio.

In 1881, while assigned to Fort Davis in West Texas as the post quartermaster and commissary officer, Lieutenant Flipper's commanding officer, Colonel William Rufus Shafter - who was well known to hate the idea of Black Army Officers, accused Flipper of "embezzling funds and of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." As a result of these charges, he was court-martialed. He was acquitted of the embezzlement charge but was found guilty, by general court martial, of conduct unbecoming an officer. On June 30, 1882, he was drummed out of the Army.

After his dismissal from the Army, Flipper worked as a civil engineer in El Paso. In 1898, he volunteered to serve in the Spanish–American War, but requests to restore his commission were ignored by Congress. He spent time in Mexico, then returned to the United States where he served as an adviser to Senator Albert Fall, from New Mexico, on Mexican politics. When Senator Fall became Secretary of the Interior in 1921, he brought Flipper with him to Washington, D.C., to serve as his assistant.

Later, Flipper went to work in Venezuela as an engineer in the petroleum industry. He retired in 1931 and moved to Atlanta where he died in 1940. Flipper was also an author, writing about scientific topics, the history of the Southwest, and his own experiences. His most prolific piece was likely "The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878)" where he detailed his experiences at West Point.

In 1976 Flipper's descendants and supporters applied to the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records receiving a finding that his conviction and punishment were "unduly harsh and unjust" and eventually a good conduct discharge was ordered corrected in Flipper's records. In 1997, a private law firm filed an application of pardon with the Secretary of the Army on Lieutenant Flipper's behalf and after making it's rounds through the Army bureaucracy, then President William Clinton officially pardoned Lieutenant Flipper on February 19, 1999. A bust of Flipper resides at West Point where there is also an annual Henry O. Flipper Award that is granted to graduating cadets who exhibit "leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties". A fitting tribute for Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper.

There is a one act, one man play by El Pasoan Robert "Bob" Snead available on Amazon that is truly an amazing thing to watch. However, it is only available on VHS tape. The below You Tube video produced by West Point on Lt Flipper is the next best presentation on Henry Ossian Flipper.

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