First black graduate of West Point and Indian Wars army officer, Henry Ossian Flipper, eldest son of Festus and Isabella Flipper, was born a slave on March 21, 1856, in Thomasville, Georgia. He was a mulatto and possessed some Cherokee ancestry. During Reconstruction Festus Flipper operated a business in Atlanta, Georgia. This enabled Henry to attend Atlanta University. In 1873 a white Republican congressman from Georgia appointed him to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
The white cadets at the military academy socially ostracized Flipper, but he persevered and became the first black graduate in 1877, and the Regular Army's first and only black commissioned officer. He was assigned to the Tenth Cavalry. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry were regiments of black enlisted men with white officers. They won renown during the Indian Wars as the "Buffalo Soldiers."
Flipper began his active duty on January 1, 1878, at Fort Sill, Indian Territory. At Fort Sill the intellectually precocious lieutenant wrote his 1878 autobiography, The Colored Cadet at West Point. It was one of the earliest authentic African American autobiographies and remains the most detailed published account of life at West Point during the 1870s. Appointed post signal officer, he drilled white as well as black troops in signaling techniques. When Troop G's commander left for detached duty, Flipper was entrusted to serve as acting troop captain for four months. He saw extensive field service scouting in hostile Indian country on the Llano Estacado.
While stationed at Fort Sill, Flipper proved adroit in dealing with reservation Indians. He was assigned ongoing responsibility for inspecting and receiving cattle for issue to Indians at the Wichita Indian Agency on the Washita River near Anadarko. He served in the military escort that removed Chief Quanah Parker and his band of Comanches and Kiowas from the Texas Panhandle to the reservation near Fort Sill during the winter of 1878-79.
Flipper's salient achievements in the Indian Territory were in engineering projects that proved beneficial to civilian society as well as the military. Malaria plagued the troops at the fort , and Flipper suffered a severe attack. A white engineering officer, trained at Germany's Heidlberg University, had tried but failed to devise a drainage system to eliminate pools of stagnant water. Lieutenant Flipper was assigned the project. He designed and constructed a system that permanently eliminated malaria at the fort. It still controls floods and erosion in the area. "Flipper's Ditch" won recognition as a part of the Fort Sill National Register Historic District in 1966 (NR 66000629) and Fort Sill National Historic Landmark in 1977.
On two other projects Flipper succeeded where white officers had previously failed. He surveyed the route and supervised construction of a road from Fort Sill to Gainesville, Texas, that met standards for commercial civilian as well as military use. His third accomplishment was the innovative building of an intricate telegraph line from Fort Supply, Indian Territory, to Fort Elliott, Texas. Flipper grew so fond of Fort Sill that he wept upon departure for duty at Fort Elliott on February 28, 1879. In 1916 he wrote a memoir (published in 1997) that contains a unique portrayal of life at Fort Sill. It remains the only authenticated frontier memoir by an African American to be discovered thus far.
Subsequently stationed in Texas at Fort Elliott, Fort Concho, Fort Quitman, and Fort Davis from 1870 to 1881, Flipper distinguished himself in the 1880 campaign against Chief Victorio's Apaches. While stationed at Davis, he was assigned quartermaster and commissary duties. After Flipper discovered and then concealed a shortage in his post commissary officer's fund, he was relieved of this duty by Col. William R. Shafter. Shafter charged him with embezzlement, and a court-martial acquitted him of this charge but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Henry O. Flipper's military career ended with court-martial in 1881 and dismissal from the U.S. Army in 1882.
Flipper remained in the Southwest and northern Mexico as a civilian. From 1883 to 1919 he earned distinction as the nation's first African American civil and mining engineer. Between 1919 and 1921 he served in Washington, D.C., as consultant to the Senate committee on Mexican relations. From 1921 to 1923 he was assistant to Secretary of the Interior Albert W. Fall.
Flipper lived a solitary life. He had a brief, common-law relationship with a Mexican woman in Arizona in 1891, but they had no children. He died on May 3, 1940, in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1976 advocates persuaded the army to convert Flipper's dismissal record to an honorable discharge. Further lobbying won a posthumous pardon from Pres. William J. Clinton in 1999.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Jane Eppinga, Henry Ossian Flipper: West Point's First Black Graduate (Plano, Tex.: Republic of Texas Press, 1996). Henry Ossian Flipper, The Colored Cadet at West Point: Autobiography of Lieut. Henry Ossian Flipper, U.S.A., First Graduate of Color From the U.S. Military Academy (Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1991). Theodore D. Harris, ed. and comp., Black Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, First Black Graduate of West Point (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1997). Wilbur S. Nye, Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983). Charles M. Robinson, III, The Court-Martial of Lieutenant Henry Flipper (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1994).
Theodore D. Harris
© Oklahoma Historical Society