Henry Ossian Flipper (21 March 1856 – 3 May 1940) was an American soldier and though born into slavery in the American South, was the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877 at the age of 21 and earn a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army. Flipper was born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia the eldest of five brothers. His mother was Isabelle Flipper and his father, Festus Flipper, a shoemaker and carriage-trimmer, was a slave of Ephraim G. Ponder, a wealthy slave dealer.
Flipper attended Atlanta University during Reconstruction. There, as a freshman, Representative James C. Freeman appointed him to attend West Point, where there were already four other black cadets. The small group had a difficult time at the academy, where they were rejected by the white students. Nevertheless, Flipper persevered and in 1877 became the first of the group to graduate, becoming a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army cavalry. He was assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment,one of the four all-black Buffalo Soldier regiments in the army, and became the first black officer to command regular troops in the U.S. Army. (Previously all-black regiments were led by white officers
Following Flipper’s commission, he was transferred to one of the all-black regiments serving in the US Army which were historically led by white officers. Assigned to A Troop under the command of Captain Nicholas M. Nolan, he became the first non-white officer to lead Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. Flipper served with competency and distinction during the Apache Wars and the Victorio Campaign but was haunted by rumors alleging improprieties. At one point he was court martialed and dismissed from the US Army.
After losing his commission in the Army, Flipper worked throughout Mexico and Latin America and as an assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. He retired to Atlanta in 1931 and died of natural causes in 1940.
In 1976 his descendants applied to the US military for a review of Flipper’s court martial and dismissal. A review found that the conviction and punishment were “unduly harsh and unjust” and recommended that Flipper’s dismissal be changed to a good conduct discharge. Shortly afterwards, an application for pardon was filed with the Secretary of the Army which was forwarded to the Department of Justice. President Bill Clinton pardoned Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper on 19 February 1999.
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