From the American Revolution to the Spanish-American War

Why was Second Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper important?

In 1877 Henry Ossian Flipper (1856–1940) became the first black to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. (Another student, James W. Smith, was the first black to enter the academy in 1870.) A native of Georgia and a student at Atlanta University at the time of his appointment, Flipper graduated fiftieth out of a class of seventy-six after suffering four years of exclusion and ostracism by white cadets. He joined the 10th Calvary in 1878, one of the all-black cavalry regiments making up what became known as the “buffalo soldiers.” He served in Oklahoma and Texas. The only black officer in the U.S. Army, Flipper was cleared of an embezzlement charge in 1882, but was convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and dishonorably discharged. He remained in the West and, for the next fifty years, engaged in engineering, mining, and survey work. He also lived in Atlanta for a number of years with his equally renowned brother, Josephus Flipper, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1976 the U.S. Army exonerated Flipper posthumously and granted him a retroactive discharge. On May 3, 1977—the centennial of his graduation—a bust by black sculptor Helene Hemmans was unveiled in Flipper’s honor at West Point. Buried at first in a family plot in Atlanta, his remains were moved to his hometown, Thomasville, where he was reburied with full military honors. His Colored Cadet at West Point (1878) gives a penetrating insight into his early life. In 1999, 117 years after his wrongful discharge, President Bill Clinton granted him a posthumous pardon at a ceremony held in the White House.


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