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Henry Ossian Flipper Summary

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Henry Ossian Flipper, 1856-1940
The Colored Cadet at West Point. Autobiography of Lieut. Henry Ossian Flipper, U. S. A., First Graduate of Color from the U. S. Military Academy
New York: H. Lee & co., 1878.

Henry Ossian Flipper was the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). Born March 21, 1856, in Thomasville, Georgia, Flipper was the son of Festus Flipper and his wife Isabelle, both of whom were enslaved. Flipper's parents' master took the family to Atlanta where, after Emancipation, Henry Flipper was educated. In 1873, following his studies at American Missionary Association schools and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), Flipper obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. While African American cadets had been admitted to West Point previously, Flipper was the first to graduate from the Academy, receiving his degree on June 14, 1877. Finishing fiftieth out of a class of sixty-four, Flipper was given the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and assigned to the all-African American Tenth Cavalry. While serving in Texas and what is now Oklahoma, Flipper was involved in engineering and mining projects, including draining swamps, building wagon roads and installing telegraph lines. In 1880, he fought against the Apache chief Victorio and earned a commendation. In November 1881, he was posted to Fort Davis, Texas, where a superior officer accused him of embezzling $3,791.77 in missing commissary funds, as well as of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Flipper maintained his innocence in this matter for the rest of his life. A court martial cleared Flipper of the embezzlement charge but found him guilty of unbecoming conduct and dismissed him from the Army on June 30, 1882.
As a civilian, Flipper remained in the West for much of his life and continued to work on engineering and surveying projects. He became fluent in Spanish and familiar with Spanish and Mexican land law, and published a number of books on legal subjects. In 1930 he returned to Atlanta, where he remained until his death on May 3, 1940. In December 1976 the Department of the Army stopped short of overturning Flipper's court martial but did grant him a posthumous honorable discharge and a military retirement. On May 3, 1977, a bust of Flipper was unveiled at West Point, and on February 19, 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Flipper of any wrongdoing. Much of what Flipper wrote after his dismissal from the Army has been collected in the anthology Black Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, First Black Graduate of West Point (1997).
Flipper's autobiography, The Colored Cadet at West Point, was published in 1878, four years before the series of events that led to his dismissal from the Army took place. It is a chronological description of Flipper's family history, his birth and education, and the years he spent at West Point. Flipper painstakingly describes the course requirements, rules and regulations for each year of his West Point career. The text is therefore a useful read for anyone interested in military training and West Point history. Throughout the course of the text, Flipper also reprints contemporary newspaper and magazine articles written about his presence and performance at West Point, often commenting on their truth or falsity.
Flipper's discussion of his life before West Point is brief, but he does describe how, early in his life, each of his parents was owned by a separate master. Thus, when his father's master announces that he is moving, along with his slaves, to Atlanta, the Flipper family faces "every probability of a separation" (p. 8). However, Flipper's father prevents the family from being separated by giving his master money that he earned by working part-time as "a shoemaker and carriage-trimmer" (p. 7). Flipper's father's master uses this money to buy Flipper and his mother, and the family is able to remain together. After fleeing Atlanta briefly to avoid General William T. Sherman's March to the Sea, the Flipper family settles there in the spring of 1865. In 1873, Flipper obtains a commission to West Point.
Once at West Point, Flipper often focuses on how white professors and cadets treat him, both academically and socially. Flipper describes seeing West Point for the first time on May 20, 1873: "With my mind full of the horrors of the treatment of all former cadets of color, and the dread of inevitable ostracism, I approached tremblingly yet confidently" (p. 29). Flipper says that he and James Webster Smith, the first African American cadet at West Point, hoped "'To be let alone'" socially (p. 47). "We cared not for social recognition," he writes. "We did not expect it, nor were we disappointed in not getting it. We would not seek it. We would not obtrude ourselves upon" white students (pp. 47-48).
Flipper gives differing accounts of exactly how much social ostracism he endures at West Point. On the one hand, he admits that his was a "wretched existence . . . There was no society for me to enjoy--no friends . . . for me to visit . . . so absolute was my isolation" (pp. 106-107). On the other hand, he also notes that "I could and did have a pleasant chat every day, more or less, with 'Bentz the bugler,' the tailor, barber, commissary clerk, the policeman who scrubbed out my room and brought around the mail, the treasurer's clerk, cadets occasionally, and others" (p. 107).
Ultimately, Flipper determines that social class has a great deal to do with how individual white cadets treat him. Flipper believes that officers should be gentlemen, and that race-based cruelty is beneath gentlemen: "the majority of the corps . . . are gentlemen themselves, and treat others as it becomes gentlemen to do. They do not associate, nor do they speak other than officially, except in a few cases. They are perhaps as much prejudiced as the others, but prejudice does not prevent all from being gentlemen" (p. 121). In contrast, "there are some [other cadets] from the very lowest classes of our population" whose "conduct must be in keeping with their breeding" (p. 121). What saddens Flipper the most is how the behavior of the latter class of cadets often influences the behavior of the former.
The Colored Cadet closes by describing Flipper's graduation from West Point and its aftermath. Looking back over his time at the Academy, Flipper describes his "experimental life . . . at West Point" as "a sort of bittersweet experience" consisting of "years of patient endurance and hard and persistent work, interspersed with bright oases of happiness . . . as well as weary barren wastes of loneliness" (p. 238). Still, Flipper's last words in the narrative praise West Point: "All I could say of the professors and officers at the Academy would be unqualifiedly in their favor" (p. 322).
Works Consulted: Fredriksen, John C., "Flipper, Henry Ossian," in American National Biography, 3 June 3 2008, online database (Oxford University Press, September 2005); "Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper, U.S. Army 1856-1940," online article, June 3, 2008 (U.S. Army Center of Military History, October 3, 2003).
Harry Thomas

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