Henry Ossian Flipper: Remembering the First Black Officer of the US Army

While many contributors have been honored in our series of short biographies of outstanding African American individuals, countless others are still left. Today, however, we intend to talk about a soldier who grew to become the first Black ranked officer in the United States Army.

HENRY OSSIAN FLIPPER (1856-1940)

Henry Flipper was born a slave in Thomasville, Georgia, in the spring of 1856. He found freedom after the Emancipation and joined the American Army by becoming the first Black cadet at West Point.
He published autobiography in 1878 and titled it The Colored Cadet at West Point. He was dismissed and court marshaled after rumors of misconduct. However, his status was posthumously declared a good conduct discharge after it was found that the investigation of his so-called misconduct had been discriminatory and unduly severe.
The President of the time, Bill Clinton, signed the Lieutenant’s pardon in February 1999.

EARLY YEARS & YOUTH

Flipper had four younger brothers and his father was a skilled laborer, shoemaking and carriagetrimming while they were enslaved on the property of a rich Ephraim Ponder.
The family was freed after the Emancipation and Flipper was finally able to attend school. He went on to studying in Atlanta University. As a freshman there, he overheard a conversation and learned that West Point would soon have a vacancy for a student as a cadet graduates the following year.
This was when Flipper decided to pursue a career in the United States Army.

MILITARY CAREER & AFTER

Flipper made up his mind and contacted Representative James C. Freeman with his desire to be appointed the new cadet at West Point. Representative Freeman corresponded with Flipper over the next few months, explaining to him the difficult standards he would have to go through before he is admitted to West Point.
Flipper was a determined man. He requested that the Representative support him as a nominee to the Academy. After a series of examinations, included a physical evaluation by three professionals of Representative Freeman’s choosing, Flipper was declared fit for service and was appointed to study in West Point Academy.
In 1877, after graduation, Flipper was appointed to the 10th Cavalry Regiment as a Second Lieutenant, thus becoming the first Black commander of a body of American Army soldiers.
The 10th Cavalry was posted on Fort Sill in the Indian Territory and Flipper began to supervise construction of bridges and roads. He learned to be a cavalry officer under the kind guidance of Captain Nick Nolan, who defended Flipper in the presence of many White officers.
When Captain Nolan was made commander of Fort Elliott and kept Flipper close because he trusted him. However, during the following months, a smear campaign started against Flipper who had become friends with Captain Nolan’s sister-in-law.
Another incident of fund discrepancy during his commission in Fort Davis was used with these allegations to dismiss and court marshal Flipper.
In his later years, Flipper continued to work as a Civil Engineer and then advisor to Senator Fall. He continued to work until his retirement in 1931 and passed away in 1940.

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