Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum

Book Review

Henry Ossian Flipper: West Point’s First Black Graduate
by Jane Eppinga

Henry O. Flipper was born on March 21, 1856 in Thomasville, GA. Henry’s mother, Isabella Buckhalter, was the property of Rev. Reuben Luckey, a Methodist minister who served as president of the board of education & principal of the Fletcher Institute. His father, Festus Flipper was born in New Guinea Station, a small town between Washington DC & Richmond, VA. Festus was the property of James Ponder until he was sold at auction in 1855 for $1,180 to Ponder’s nephew, Ephraim Ponder. Ephraim was a prominent financier in Georgia. Three years after Flipper was born, the family moved to Atlanta where slaves were allowed to practice trades & hire out their time as they wished. The slave owner collected a percentage of their profits. Ephraim’s wife, Ellen, allowed the children of slaves to be educated. One of her slave mechanics, John Quarles, became Henry Flipper’s first teacher.

In 1864, Festus was told that he & his family were free. He rented a small house on the edge of town near Savannah where they watched infantry, cavalry, artillery, & supply trains pass by. In the spring of 1865, the family boarded a train to Atlanta but the city was in the midst of a war zone. Although most of Atlanta was destroyed, life for the Flipper family improved. Isabella cooked for the Union officers while Festus repaired boots in his shoe shop. The Flippers were the only family with a supply of flour; Isabella’s fame as a cook spread throughout the area. Their home was the first restaurant in Atlanta after the war.

Once settled in Atlanta, the Flippers’ concerns turned to education for their children. Isabella could read & write but Festus was illiterate. For a short while, a widow of a Confederate officer was hired to tutor their children. Ex-slaves taught classes in old churches & missionaries joined as teachers.

Henry Flipper was one of 32 students promoted into the Atlanta Normal School. Then, he went to Atlanta University for one year where he received his appointment to West Point. He ignored warnings not to break the color barrier; he packed his belongings & set off on his journey to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Henry O. Flipper became the fifth of 27 blacks to be nominated for appointment to the Academy between 1870-1887. He had no problem with the academic rigor; he could handle fractions, proportions, & decimals, explain the rules of grammar, & demonstrate knowledge of U. S. & world geography. Described by himself as a mulatto with light copper color skin, he stood six feet, one inch tall & weighed 170 pounds. He passed the rigid physical examination & did not use alcohol or tobacco.

Throughout the four years at the Academy, the cadets participated in a classical curriculum of French, Spanish, geology, chemistry, engineering, philosophy, & law while stressing military drill & tactics. In addition, strict rules governed how a cadet’s personal effects were to be arranged. Three times on the first day, Flipper arranged his belongings as required but the cadet corporal tore up his bed & threw his belongings on the floor. Most of the time the students ignored him & he collected many demerits for minor infractions of rules. Once, he was required to walk three tours of extra guard duty on three consecutive Saturdays & was confined to his quarters for a week. Nevertheless, Flipper made the List of Cadets Distinguished for Correct Deportment in January 1874. His reward was $25 & an afternoon off.

His roommate, James Webster Smith (another black cadet), provided some comfort & counsel; but, he completed only three years of academic work when he received a court martial conviction for assaulting another cadet. Flipper had few conversations with the cadets. His social existence was lonely; he wrote in his memoirs that he did not speak to a female from October 1875 - May 1876.

Henry O. Flipper graduated from West Point on June 14, 1877. When he stepped forward to receive his diploma, the audience - including his classmates - gave him a round of applause. Nevertheless, he would face prejudice when he entered the frontier army. Flipper was furloughed until the military decided what to do with its first black officer. On January 2, 1878, he received his commission as second lieutenant & was assigned to the 10th Cavalry at Ft. Concho, TX. A few days later, he was reassigned to Ft. Sill, Indian Territory. Flipper’s captain, Nicholas Nolan from Ireland, married Annie Dwyer. Nolan & Annie along with her sister, Mollie, lived at Ft. Sill & insisted that Flipper board with them. They became friends & often went horseback riding together on Sundays. Resentment of Flipper festered, not only because of his attention to Mollie but because of his acceptance into the officers’ social circles.

On missions to various forts & at social events, he was frequently mistreated or accused of misbehavior. Flipper always remained a gentleman. He was assigned to participate in court martial trials & knew the proper procedures for criminal acts; at one point he served as judge advocate for a case involving lesser crimes.

At Ft. Davis in 1880, he was assigned as quartermaster & was responsible for military property, wagons, animals, rations, & the hiring of civilians. He received no special training for this position that required detailed paperwork. One day, he received a letter stating that he was short four army wagons so he fixed up four old wagons. Then, a civilian guide requested a horse & saddle; procedures for the paperwork were drawn up but it looked like theft had occurred. Questions were raised but Flipper remained clear of any charges. Around this time, Captain Nolan was promoted & his new officer, Lieutenant Nordstrom, seemed antagonistic. Nordstrom took Mollie on buggy rides which prohibited Flipper’s Sunday outings with her.

Flipper’s more serious difficulties arose over the handling of commissary funds. Officers were allowed credit & generally paid by check while enlisted men paid in cash. In theory, there never should have been any outstanding debts, but in practice, it was quite different. Flipper insisted that when he was relieved from duty, he had no secure place to keep the commissary funds; the colonel told him to keep the money in his quarters. This continued for five months. As a second lieutenant, Flipper earned about $150 each month yet he ran up grocery bills for more than $200 some months. Reports showed various financial transactions at a San Antonio bank. Another West Point lieutenant, Edmunds, went to Flipper’s quarters & found checks, Mexican & American currency, & silver on his desk. Flipper turned the money over to Edmunds. Later, they searched his quarters & again found evidence of sloppy bookkeeping & considerable money scattered in different places in his desk. They also found a woman’s clothes mixed in his trunk. Flipper was searched & a few more checks were found. A white noncommissioned was assigned to guard him. Later, he was detained in the guardhouse which was uncommon punishment for officers.

Flipper learned that he was to be court martialed. The first charge was for embezzlement of $3,791.77. The second charge accused him of conduct unbecoming an officer. It specified that he had lied & that some of the weekly commissary statements were false. He had trouble getting an attorney since he was nearly penniless after repaying the outstanding debt in the embezzlement case.

On September 17, 1881 his court martial trail began at Ft. Davis. In the spring of 1882, Flipper learned that he was not guilty on the first charge of embezzlement but guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer. The verdict carried the sentence “to be dismissed from the service” with no recommendation for clemency. He spent the last six months of his arrest at Ft. Quitman under the command of Lt. Nordstrom. (Nordstrom had married Mollie some time earlier.) On June 30, 1882, Henry O. Flipper was free to leave the post.

Flipper went to El Paso where he found a large community of blacks - some were former Buffalo Soldiers. He wrote newspaper articles for the El Paso Times & was the city editor for the Ft. Worth Gazette. In 1883, he was hired as an engineer for a Chicago-based firm. His engineering ability & fluency in Spanish became famous throughout the southwest & Mexico. In 1886, he was commissioned by Mexico’s Banco Minero which was conducting surveys for the Mexican government; his abilities & talents came to the attention of the people in Nogales, AZ. They hired him to prepare their land grant case for the Court of Private Land Claims. This work led to his appointment as Special Agent for the Department of Justice. In 1901, Flipper was appointed resident engineer at the Balvanera Mining Company in Mexico & was later named Secretary of the Treasury. Between 1910- 1930, he was involved in Mexican-American politics. In 1921, he was appointed as the assistant to the Secretary of the Interior where he translated Spanish & French documents.

  On May 3, 1940, Henry O. Flipper, at the age of 84, was found dead in his bedroom of a heart attack. He died “unwept, unsung, & unhonored.”

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