The First African American to Graduate from
the United States Military Academy at West Point
1. On June 14, 1877, Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African American to graduate from United States Military Academy at West Point. This was despite the fact that he was the fifth African American appointed to the academy. Henry Flipper was able to persevere despite the strenuous, stressful and hostile environment. After graduation, Flipper became a Second Lieutenant in the US Army and was appointed to the 10th Calvary. There he became the first African American to command soldiers in the United States Army. Prior to him, most African American regiments were led by Caucasian commanders.
2. Henry Ossian Flipper was born in Thomasville, GA on March 21, 1856 as the eldest of five sons to Isabella and Festus Flipper. He was educated at Atlanta University (Clark Atlanta) and by the American Missionary Association prior to his appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. His brothers were Bishop Joseph S. Flipper – nationally known leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and past President of Morris Brown College, Carl Flipper – former professor at Savannah State College, Festus Flipper, Jr. – successful businessman and civic leader of Thomasville and Dr. Emory Flipper – one of the early black physicians in South Georgia.
3. Lieutenant Henry Flipper was dismissed from the United States Army on June 30, 1882. This was after being found innocent of the embezzlement charges he was on trial for yet guilty of the additional charge “of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman”. Many believe that these charges were levied on him by Colonel William Rufus Shafter due to his dislike for officers of African descent in the military and that Col. Shafter may have even set Lt. Flipper up. Flipper adamantly denied these charges even after being dismissed and appealed the decision nine times without success. In 1976, 36 years after his death, the Department of the Army finally converted his dismissal record to a honorable discharge. Then in 1999, 59 years after his death, he was fully pardoned by President Bill Clinton after further lobbying was made on his behalf.
4. Currently on the campus of West Point there resides a bust of Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper which was unveiled in 1976. Also an annual award is given in his honor which is entiled the Henry Ossian Flipper Memorial Award. The award was established by the Association of Graduates in 1981. It is given to the cadet that shows self-discipline, leadership, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties while attending West Point.
5. What came to be known as Flipper’s Ditch was one of Henry’s many engineering achievements and is now a part of Fort Sill’s Historic Landmark and National Register Historic District. It was created after many troops and even Flipper himself found themselves plagued by Malaria because of pools of stagnant water on the Fort. An engineering officer trained at Heidlberg University in Germany had failed to devise a system that would remedy this problem. However Lt. Henry Flipper, once assigned the project, created a system that allowed for proper drainage and eliminated Malaria at Fort Sill. This system became known as Flipper’s Ditch and is still in place today. It helps to control floods and erosion in the area.
6. During his lifetime Lt. Flipper had several books published including The Colored Cadet at West Point, Black Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, first Black Graduate of West Point, his translation of Mexican Land Laws: New Spain and Mexico and his transalation of Venezuela’s Law on Hydrocarbons and other Combustible Minerals. He also edited the Nogales Sunday Herald and published in the New Mexico Historical Review or what was know at that time as the Old Santa Fe.
7. Despite having his military career taken from him, Lt. Flipper still managed to have a distinguished career. He is widely consierd the first African American civil and mining engineer. Lt. Flipper served in Washington, D.C. as consultant to the Senate committee on Mexican relations and as an assistant to Secretary of the Interior Albert W. Fall. Furthermore, he was a member of the Association of Arizona Civil Engineers, the National Geographic Society, and the Southwest Society of the Archaeological Institute of America.
8. Henry Ossian Flipper made his transition on May 3, 1940 after suffering from a heart attack. He was originally interred at Southview Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. However, he was reinterred in 1978 at Old Magnolia Cemetery in Thomasville, GA beside his mother and father. His grave site can be easily spotted because of the grey marker and brick wall that are beside it.