Henry Ossian Flipper, born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1856, became the first African American cadet to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, June 14, 1877.
The United States Military Academy – the first military school in America – was founded by Congress in 1802 for the purpose of educating and training young men in the theory and practice of military science. Based in West Point, New York, the United States Military Academy is often simply known as West Point.
In 1870, the first African American cadet, James Webster Smith, was admitted to West Point but never reached graduation ceremonies. It was not until 1877 that Henry Ossian Flipper became the first black cadet to graduate.
Flipper was born to parents enslaved but became an adult in Atlanta during the reconstruction. He studied at the schools of the American Missionary Association and at the University of Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta University). In 1873 he was appointed to West Point. As he later wrote in his 1878 autobiography, The Color Cadet at West Point, he was socially ostracized by white peers and teachers during his four years there.
After graduation, Flipper was appointed second lieutenant in the 10th 100% African American cavalry and stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The ninth and tenth cavalry were regiments of black enlisted men who became soldiers of Buffalo.
While at Fort Sill, Flipper negotiated with local Native American tribes and oversaw several engineering projects, including the construction of roads and telegraph lines. A drainage system he designed became known as “Flipper’s Ditch” and is listed as a national historic monument.
In 1881, he was charged with stealing more than $ 3,000 in commission funds and removed from office. Although a court martial found him not guilty of embezzlement, he was dishonored for “improper conduct” in 1882.
Flipper pursued a brilliant career as a civil engineer and surveyor, then served in Washington, D.C. as a consultant on relations with Mexico. Flipper has maintained his innocence throughout his last years and has struggled to erase his name. He died on May 3, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1976, the army raised his release to honorable. And in 1999, President Bill Clinton granted Flipper a posthumous pardon, saying, “Henry Flipper did everything his country asked him to do.”
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