The First Black Graduate of West Point and the Quest for Restored Honor

Henry Ossian Flipper paved the way for other African Americans to serve at the nation’s oldest military academy—and chipped away at the segregation practices of the day.

As the first African American to graduate from West Point, Flipper described his years there in an autobiography, The Colored Cadet at West Point, published in 1878. West Point, he wrote, was “a sort of bittersweet experience” comprised of “years of patient endurance and hard and persistent work, interspersed with bright oases of happiness … as well as weary barren wastes of loneliness.”

According to the U.S. Army, Flipper was commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation, becoming the first black commissioned officer in the Army. He was assigned to the 10th Cavalry, the famed Buffalo Soldiers, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and worked his way up to becoming the first black commander of Troop A.

His engineering skills were also singled out for helping to save lives. The U.S. National Archives noted, “At Fort Sill, the young lieutenant directed the construction of a drainage system that helped prevent the spread of malaria. Still known as ‘Flipper’s Ditch,’ the ditch is commemorated by a bronze marker at Fort Sill and the fort is listed as a National Historic Landmark.”

Later while stationed at Fort Davis, a superior officer accused him of embezzling $3,791.77 in commissary funds and of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. A court martial cleared Lt. Flipper of the embezzlement charge but found him guilty of unbecoming conduct. Flipper, who steadfastly maintained his innocence, was dismissed from the Army in 1882.  A later Army review of the case suggests that he was targeted because of his race.

After Flipper died in 1940 at age 84 following a long career as a civil and mining engineer, his family worked tirelessly to clear his name. Redemption was slow to come and arrived in stages. In 1976, the Army granted Flipper an honorable discharge and a reburial with full honors. And in 1999, President Bill Clinton issued a full pardon, more than a century after his dismissal from the Army.

“Outside of this room Henry Flipper is not known to most Americans,” President Clinton said in granting the pardon. “All the more reason to remember him today. His remarkable life story is important to us, terribly important, as we continue to work — on the edge of a new century and a new millennium — on deepening the meaning of freedom at home and working to expand democracy and freedom around the world, to give new life to the great experiment begun in 1776. This is work Henry Flipper would have been proud of.”

Henry Flipper’s life, and his family’s herculean efforts to restore his name, underscore that perseverance for justice, often against great odds and small minds, is a bedrock American characteristic necessary to ensure the nation lives up to its highest ideals.

Jim Cowen is Executive Director of the Collaborative for Student Success