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Flipper, Henry Ossian (1856-1940)

Image Ownership: Public Domain
Henry O. Flipper rose to prominence as the first African American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877. Born into slavery to Festus and Isabella Flipper in Thomasville, Georgia, Henry was reared in a family that emphasized excellence, and he and his brothers all became respected members of their communities as a military officer, AME bishop (Joseph), physician (E.H.), college professor (Carl), and farmer (Festus, Jr.). Commissioned a lieutenant in the l0th U.S. Cavalry regiment, Henry Flipper became the highest ranking and most famous of the Buffalo Soldiers (African Americans in all-black units so dubbed by Indians) stationed at Western military installations, Fort Sill, Fort Elliott, Fort Concho, Fort Davis, and Fort Quitman.

Trained as an engineer, Lt. Flipper is known for his design of a drainage system (popularly known as Flipper's Ditch and now a national monument) which minimized malaria by removing standing water. Flipper worked as a civil mining engineer, surveyor, translator, newspaper editor, historian, and folklorist. He authored two autobiographies: The Colored Cadet at West Point in 1878 and Negro-Frontiersman, The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper (completed in 1916), which scholar Theodore D. Harris edited and published in 1963. He was appointed assistant to Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall during the presidential administration of Warren G. Harding.

Despite his many accomplishments, Lt. Flipper is most remembered in history as a casualty of racism in the military for his court-martial trial primarily on the charge of embezzlement at Fort Davis in 1882. He was acquitted of all charges related to this incident, except conduct unbecoming an officer, and dishonorably discharged from the army. Flipper lived primarily in El Paso from 1882 to 1919, though he resided in Arizona and Mexico during this period, working alternatively as editor and engineer and drawing significantly on his fluency in Spanish to make important contributions in both positions. He tried in vain to clear his name during that period and the remaining portion of his life. Flipper was granted an honorable discharge posthumously in 1976, and received a full presidential pardon in 1999.

Charles M. Robinson, III, The Court Martial of Lieutenant Henry Flipper (Texas Western Press: El Paso, Texas, 1994); The Online Handbook of Texas.


University of Texas, El Paso

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