In 1877, just twelve years after the end of the Civil War and as Reconstruction came to a bitter close, Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper became the first black graduate of West Point. It was a victorious moment for early civil rights and American history. Flipper’s illustrious military career unfolded in the years that followed, bolstering the paths of other black officers. Though Flipper was by all traditional standards the perfect officer, the unprecedented color of his skin proved a condition other officers couldn’t accept, and his career was cut short, foiled by prejudice and injustice. A century later, this courageous soldier finally received his amends.
Henry Flipper was born a slave in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1856. Freedom came for Flipper, as for all slaves, in 1865, and he invested it in his education. He began his collegiate years at Atlanta University, but the ambitious student was discontent with his path. With plucky determination that would define his career(s), Flipper sent a letter to James Freeman, a newly elected congressman, asking for an appointment to attend West Point. Impressed by the youth’s determination, Freeman responded with word that if Flipper proved worthy, he would push for the appointment. In the series of letters that followed, Flipper exceeded his expectations.
Flipper joined four other black cadets at West Point. The group already faced singular challenges, most in the form of an unwelcoming community of white students. Our hero prevailed, and in 1877 became the first black graduate of West Point.
The soldier’s list of “firsts” was far from finished, and he soon became the first nonwhite officer to lead an army regiment. Flipper became the officer of one of four all-black Army regiments, called “buffalo soldiers,” as the head of the 10th Cavalry Regiment. Flipper was lucky enough (or, as it eventually turned out, unlucky enough), to have the kind figure of Captain Nicholas M. Nolan as his mentor.
Nolan’s unblinking trust of Flipper was considered a misstep by many of his fellow officers, but their judgment did not affect Nolan’s confidence in Flipper, and a friendship developed between the two. Nolan served as mentor to Flipper, but also as his personal friend and confidant, and Flipper was soon folded into Nolan’s family life. He attended dinners with Nolan’s daughter in attendance (an action for which Nolan was harshly censured by his colleagues), and after Nolan’s second marriage, his wife and her sister, Mollie Dwyer.
In addition to his various other accomplishments, Flipper was also an excellent rider, prompting Dwyer to choose him as her riding companion, a decision that proved disastrous for the young officer. Other soldiers and officers across the base took offense at Flipper’s friendship with Dwyer, with both jealousy and prejudice, and a smear campaign against him took shape.
Though many soldiers and even some officers found fault in Flipper based on race alone, others commended him as the ideal officer. He met challenges with grace and fortitude, excelled in new leadership positions, and earned respect from his associates. He proved more than capable in conflicts in the Apache Wars in 1879 and during the Victorio Campaign in 1880. With Nolan as a constant advocate and frequent companion, Flipper’s success continued.
Until the arrival of a new commander. Flipper was transferred to Fort Davis, Texas, in late 1880 and was followed there by Colonel William Rufus Shafter in early 1881. Shafter was known as a harsh and even vindictive commander, and he took an immediate disliking to the black officer. He stripped him of his duly earned quartermaster title almost immediately, but still asked (essentially, ordered) Flipper to keep the safe in his quarters.
When Flipper realized over $2,000 was missing from the safe, he panicked, and even lied when asked about the funds, terrified of the reaction the truth might elicit from his superior. Shafter’s response was mighty, and he arrested Shafter for embezzlement.
The community recognized foul play, insisted that Flipper had been hoodwinked, and raised the missing funds, with the intention of his release, in just four days. Shafter accepted the funds, but still held Flipper.
Flipper’s trial was again an unprecedented event in the history of the US military. Other white officers accused of embezzlement had been released without harsh punishments, but once again Flipper’s race played an integral role in his fate. Throughout the course of the trial, the evidence of Flipper’s embezzling funds proved too shaky for conviction, but another charge was brought against him: conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The evidence brought forth for this new charge was a series of letters written between Dwyer and Flipper. A relationship between a black man and a white woman, whether romantic or not, was perceived as unseemly, and Flipper was unjustly punished. He was dismissed from US service.
Flipper still found great success and renown in life as a surveyor, engineer, and interpreter in positions from Alaska to New York to Latin America. But despite his success in other arenas, Flipper always pined for his true career as a military officer. He strove to have his name cleared throughout his life, appealing to Congress to pass bills that would confirm his innocence. Unfortunately, it took over a century for his dream to come true. His descendants took up his torch, and finally, in 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper.