Historical Biography: Henry Ossian Flipper

Flipper was the first African-American graduate of West Point. During his service, he endured racism and terrible hardship, but he perservered. Information on his life and career.

Every year, the US Military Academy at West Point honors a cadet who succeeds in the face of great hardship. The award is named for Henry O. Flipper. He was the first African-American graduate of West Point.

Henry was born a slave in 1856, but he learned to read and write and attended college. He entered military school at age 17. A lot of people were upset that Henry went to West Point.

They wanted Henry to drop out of school. Fellow cadets did cruel things to him. They publicly shunned Henry. He was often insulted, but Henry did not give up. He graduated from West Point in 1877. The insults did not stop with his graduation.

Henry went to the frontier with the 10th Cavalry, a famous, all-black unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Henry was a good soldier. But he still had trouble from people who thought that he should not have been allowed to go to West Point. In 1881 his white commander accused him of stealing money.

The Army court-martialed Henry. A court-martial is a military trial. He was found not guilty of theft. The court found him guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer instead. That means his behavior was not up to the standards for an officer.

After the trial, even the judge who presided over the trial admitted that the charges were probably caused by racism. He said Henry should have a light punishment, but President Chester Arthur forced Henry out of the service. Henry was given a dishonorable discharge.

Henry was frustrated, but he still wanted to serve his country. He went to work for the Justice and Interior departments and became a respected engineer and historian. He tried many times to clear his name, and failed. Though he led a full and active life, this made Henry unhappy. He died in 1940 at age 84. The stain on his good name was still there.

Henry never gave up in his quest to restore his good name. After his death, Henry's family decided that they wanted to do something about his Army record. They decided to take up his fight because he was no longer there to do so. His family worked hard to clear the charges against him.

In 1976, the Army gave Henry an honorable discharge. The charges brought against him are no longer on his record. President Bill Clinton signed a full pardon for Henry while members of his family watched. Henry had now completely recovered his good name.

The wheels of justice turn very slowly at times, but they still turn. It was a long journey to justice for Henry Flipper. It took more than one hundred years for the unfair charge that led to his dismissal from the army to be removed. Henry's family says they have learned from this experience. Anger does not gain a person anything and you need to persist in the course of action that you have chosen. You need to persevere, and that is just what Henry Flipper did. Henry Flipper is an inspiration to us all.

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