Henry Ossian Flipper Biography

Military Leader(1856–1940)
Henry Ossian Flipper was the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. As second lieutenant with the 10th Cavalry, he was framed for embezzlement.

Synopsis

Henry Ossian Flipper was born on March 21, 1856, in Thomasville, Georgia. In 1877, Flipper became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. From 1878 to 1880, he served as a second lieutenant with the 10th Cavalry. In 1881, Flipper's commanding officer accused him of embezzlement. He was acquitted, but was dishonorably discharged in 1882. Flipper died on May 3, 1940, in Atlanta, Georgia. Decades later, in 1976, it was revealed that officers had framed him. President Bill Clinton granted him a posthumous honorable discharge in 1999. 

Early Life

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.

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