Black History Month: The Buffalo Soldier Who Went to West Point
by Alice Adams
Henry Ossian Flipper began life as a slave, March 21, 1856, in Thomasville, Georgia, the eldest of six boys. His parents, Festus and Isabelle Flipper, were owned by Ephraim G. Ponder, a wealthy plantation owner, who encouraged his slaves to excel in individual trades. Because of this, Festus Flipper became an experienced shoemaker and carriage trimmer, and eventually was able to buy freedom for himself and his family.
As a free person, Flipper attended high school classes at the American Missionary Association Schools in Georgia, later enrolling as a freshman at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). He was such a good student that he decided to petition U.S. congressman from Georgia James C. Freeman to recommend him to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Flipper became one of only two black students to enter West Point in the Fall of 1873. Although he was actually the seventh African American to enter West Point, Flipper was the first to graduate. The reason was that black students were treated horribly there. White students would not speak to them other than to call them names and make degrading comments. Because of this, John Williams, the other black student who entered with Flipper, left during the first term. But Flipper endured, later remarking of his experience that “there was no society for me to enjoy—no friends, male or female, for me to visit . . . so absolute was my isolation.” (Between 1870 to 1898, twelve African Americans entered the Academy, but only six stayed longer than one semester, and, of those, only three graduated.)
After his graduation and commissioning in 1877, Lt. Flipper was assigned to the Army’s 10th Cavalry Regiment, the all-Black “buffalo soldiers,” becoming the first non-white officer to lead one of their units.
Created by an Act of Congress in 1866, the buffalo soldiers were all-black regiments in the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry and the 24th and 25th U.S. Infantry. By 1869, trained regiments were in the field. Most were sent to a line of forts across Texas, built to protect new settlers from Indian raids. These assignments were some of the Army’s most grueling and most dangerous.
These regiments came to be called “buffalo soldiers” by their Indian foes, who equated the color of their skin, their wooly hair, innate tenacity, toughness, and courage with that of their sacred buffalo.
Second Lieutenant Flipper was first assigned to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory. At Fort Sill, the young lieutenant, who had been trained as an engineer, directed the construction of a drainage system that helped prevent the spread of malaria. Still known as “Flipper’s Ditch,” the system is commemorated by a bronze marker at Fort Sill. The fort is now listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Flipper was a popular leader and was later posted to Forts Elliott, Quitman, Concho, and Davis in Texas, where he served as a signal officer and quartermaster, fought relentless Native American warriors, installed telegraph lines, and supervised the building of roads.
In 1881, while serving at Fort Davis, Flipper’s commanding officer accused him of embezzling $3,791.77 from commissary funds. A court-martial found him not guilty of embezzlement but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer and ordered him dismissed from the Army. Although Flipper tried for the rest of his life to be re-instated, he was unsuccessful. Only after his death was Flipper’s name was cleared, as it became clear he had been a victim of a plot concocted by jealous and racist officers.
After his dishonorable discharge, Flipper pursued a career as an engineer and an expert on Spanish and Mexican land law. As a civilian, he distinguished himself in numerous fields. First working as an engineer, he also surveyed land and worked as a special agent for the U.S. government on land claims in the Southwest. Fluent in Spanish, he also translated texts on Mexican tax, mining, and land laws. He also worked in Mexico from 1901 to 1912 as a mining engineer.
In 1923, after briefly serving as an Assistant Secretary of the Interior, he accepted an engineering position with a petroleum company in Venezuela. When he returned to the U.S., Flipper supplied information on internal Mexican affairs to the U.S. Senate during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20). He wrote two memoirs, both of which were published posthumously: Negro Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper and The Colored Cadet at West Point.
Finally retiring in 1931, Flipper returned to Atlanta to live with his family. He died following a heart attack on May 3, 1940. He was 84.
In 1976, before the centennial of his graduation from West Point, after Flipper’s descendants ﬁled for review of the court-martial decision, the Army issued a Certiﬁcate of Honorable Discharge, citing the unjust nature of the proceedings and punishment. A bust of Flipper was unveiled at West Point in the same year. In June 1999, President Bill Clinton granted him a full pardon.
West Point now gives an award during a banquet in his honor to the graduating senior who has displayed “the highest qualities of leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties while a cadet.”
Photo credit by: National Park Service.
Alice Adams has combined her passions for writing, history, grandparenting, education, and medicine in a career spanning more than three decades. She holds a doctorate in education leadership and taught marketing and business communications at Odessa College and The University of St. Thomas in Houston. She has written for the Houston Chronicle and currently contributes articles to a number of Texas and national publications.