by iampunha | 6/15/2008 08:00:00 AM
He was born a slave, and he died in anonymity.

So goeth the obituary for too many millions of black Americans.

But this one is different. The oldest of five children, this ex-slave was taught to read, as a child (first by a fellow slave, when teaching a black person to read was a crime) on and got himself appointed to West Point, becoming the fifth black cadet at this country's greatest institution for graduating Army officers.

He graduated as a second lieutenant, working for the Army as an engineer in the South.

And then race relations came calling, and he was dishonorably discharged for dating a white girl. (Those who doubt me are invited to revisit Loving v. Virginia.) Into his 70s, he never stopped working for this country, and he never stopped working to clear his name.

But first things first. On this date in 1877, Henry Ossian Flipper became the first black graduate of the USMA.

Portions of this post contain offensive language. Reader discretion is advised.

Portions of this post contain offensive language. Reader discretion is advised.

For Thomas Huckle Weller, born on this date in 1915, whom I intended to include in this diary for comparison to Flipper and for his own achievements, but who must take a seat in the Tomorrow in History bus.

When Henry Flipper went to West Point in 1873, he had two very good reasons to expect he'd stare racism square in the face:

1) 135 years later, you can still stare racism square in the face in many states (and on the news);
2) This guy was his roommate.

One could very easily dedicate all or most of a post here to that site (or others I've found in my attempt to tell as full of a story as is interesting), but to me, two things stick out (same source as above):


I reported there on the 31st of May, 1870, and had not been there an hour before I had been reminded by several thoughtful cadets that I was nothing but a d d nigger.

I first thought the d d was dead, but I figured out on the second such use that it was damned.

I'm, ah, pretty glad I live in a society in which damned is no longer considered worse than nigger. (Of course, back, then, fuck wasn't even in the dictionary.)

Related to that dictionary note: In a subsequent letter, Smith wrote:

He seemed to be insulted at that, and asked: Do you think I would eat after a d d Nigger? I replied: I have not thought at all on the subject, and, moreover, I don t quite understand you, as I can t find that last word in the dictionary.

A man after my own heart.


On the second charge I was acquitted, for I proved, by means of the order book of the Academy that there was no company drill on that day the 15th of August that there was skirmish drill, and by the guard reports of the same date, that Cadet Beacom and two of his three witnesses were on guard that day, and could not have been at drill, even if there had been one. To some it might appear that the slight inconsistencies existing between the sworn testimony of those cadets and the official record of the Academy, savored somewhat of perjury, but they succeeded in explaining the matter by saying that Cadet Beacom only made a mistake in date. Of course he did; how could it be otherwise? It was necessary to explain it in some way so that I might be proved a liar to the corps of cadets, even if they failed to accomplish that object to the satisfaction of the court.

Smith likely knew The Powers That Were and The Powers That Wanted To Be would find or invent a reason to kick him out. He went anyway. He defended himself anyway.

And Flipper, who roomed with Smith, certainly was aware of these stories, at least from Smith, as Flipper published the letters in one of his books.

Obviously, Flipper managed to not get court-martialed or otherwise sufficiently punished while at West Point. This source indicates that his treatment at the hands of his fellow cadets was on a level or two better than Smith's treatment:

Flipper often stated that he was treated very courteously by his instructors, but his fellow cadets often treated him with discourtesy. However, he was treated often as an equal in private, but due to the tempo of the times and for fear of being labeled as a friend of a Negro, many of his peers publicly ignored him more as a matter of necessity rather than out of a feeling of contempt. As a result, Flipper maintained his dignity and remained aloof and very polite to all who came in contact with him.

To some, this might seem a creature of but small comfort. To a victim of some pretty heinous bullying, it is the difference between having friends and having to befriend the janitorial staff (but only the black members) lest one go mad.

And why was Flipper privately at least not assaulted, while Smith earned the ire of all involved? Because ...

Flipper was no more popular than Smith, but, in the words of a classmate, “never pushed” the bounds of social equality and so was more easily tolerated. Flipper survived his years at the academy by being as determined as his classmates were prejudiced. In 1877 he became the academy’s first African-American graduate, ranking 50th in a class of 76.

Various sources indicate that Flipper was the fifth black cadet at West Point, but I have been able to find only three, including him, who had even taken the entrance exam as of June 15, 1877.

These various sources all seem to have copied one source (call it Q) for their histories of Flipper. I say this because I keep seeing the same elements in stories about the man, the same unexplained or unelucidated events.

That site above, for example, is the only one that mentions any of various facts that (to borrow from my "Historians And Storytellers" post) make the story more interesting instead of simply more fact-laden:

Fort Davis was an isolated post, miles from civilization. No one lived there but military families. Flipper was 25 years old. The only young men he could socialize with were White officers. No problem. The only young women he could socialize with were White officers' daughters. Problem.

The rumors say she was a Colonel's daughter. She was pretty, vivacious and, like countless Colonel's daughters before and since, had a mind of her own. Henry Flipper was handsome, intelligent, fun to be with and, like countless love-struck young men before and since, was blind to every pitfall. She was ordered to stop seeing him. She tossed her curls and laughed. He was ordered to stop seeing her. He tried to obey but crumbled each time she beckoned him to a horseback ride into the surrounding hills.

Combine rumor with fact:

When Col. William Rufus Shafterqv became commanding officer of Fort Davis in 1881, he immediately relieved Flipper as quartermaster and planned to relieve him as commissary as soon as he found a replacement. Flipper suspected what he later called a systematic plan of persecution, and is said to have been warned by civilians at the post of a plot by white officers to force him from the army. The following year, when he discovered post funds missing from his quarters, he attempted to conceal the loss until he could find or replace the money. When Shafter learned of the discrepancy, he immediately filed charges against him. A divided court-martial acquitted Flipper of charges of embezzlement but pronounced him guilty of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman."

Was Col. Shafter the father of the rumored girl? I have no idea. Would it make sense? Sure, but it would make sense for most anyone to have been the colonel in question:

The Army had needed Henry Flipper much more than Henry Flipper had needed the Army, and they both knew it. The brass vowed to post future horny young lieutenants near cities with bustling Black communities -- at least until married. But it was too late. In the end, they sent over twenty young African-Americans to West Point. Twelve passed the entrance exam. Only Flipper and two others overcame the hazing and graduated. Then, Grant, Upton, and Sheridan died. The Jim Crow wave of racial hatred swept over America, and darkness fell on the Army's hope for African-American officers. It would not start to revive again for another half-century.

On that half-century note, and at the risk of quoting that entire document by the time this portion of today's Day in History:

[T]he nation needed a cadre of African-American families with traditions of military command. The first step was to grow a crop of bright young Black lieutenants. The second step would be to get them married and producing little future colonels and generals. This is why, when Congress ordered the racial integration of the Army in 1867, it was the Black soldiers themselves who talked Congress out of it. Integration then would have condemned African-Americans to the enlisted ranks forever. Segregated regiments were intended as a temporary sheltered greenhouse where the Army could raise its first crop of Black line officers.

For all black soldiers wanted their own officers, surviving four years at West Point, let alone actually getting in, was slow going:

From 1869 to the beginning of the Hispano-American War there were in the Regular Army at some time, as commissioned officers, the following colored men, all from West Point, all serving with the cavalry, and none rising higher than first-lieutenant, viz: John H. Alexander, H.O. Flipper and Charles Young. H.O. Flipper was dismissed; Alexander died, and Young became major in the volunteer service, and was placed in command of the Ninth Battalion of Ohio Volunteers, discharging the duties of his position in such a manner as to command general satisfaction from his superior officers.

The Army had had its fill of Flipper, who would go on to serve his country and various communities masterfully as an engineer and a lawyer:

In 1887 he opened a civil and mining engineering office in Nogales, Arizona. In 1891 the community of Nogales employed Flipper to prepare the Nogales de Elias land grant case (1893), a dispute over title to the San Juan de las Boquillas y Nogales Mexican land grant in Cochise County, Arizona. Flipper served as the government's only witness, and his testimony resulted in the grant's being declared invalid. The ruling saved the property of hundreds of landowners.

So significant was Flipper's work in Arizona and New Mexico that Albert Hall, a senator from the latter state, took Flipper with him all the way to President Harding's Cabinet:

Two years later the newly elected president, Warren G. Harding, named Albert Hall to his cabinet as secretary of the interior. Flipper had performed so competently for the Senate committee that Fall promoted him to assistant to the secretary of the interior[.]

Flipper would resign amid the Teapot Dome scandal, though I don't see any evidence that he bore any guilt for it. Perhaps he just expected that, as had been the case in the Army, white people would see a black man somewhere and assume he was guilty.

That book gives no indication that Flipper did anything untoward, and no other source does either. Indeed, sources talk instead about Flipper's repeated attempts to get his commission restored. And he was finally so honored in 1976 with a retroactive honorable discharge.

And things got better 58 years, 10 months and 16 days after he was found dead of heart failure in his brother's house in Georgia:

Continued advocacy on his behalf by Flipper's descendants was instrumental in his achieving a final unique historical accomplishment. On February 19, 1999, President Bill Clinton granted Henry Flipper a presidential pardon. It was the first posthumous presidential pardon ever granted to anyone in the history of the United States.

But wait, there's more:

Now, Flipper is immortalized with a bust in the Circle of Firsts near Fort Leavenworth's Buffalo Soldier Monument.

The March 30 dedication ceremony for the Lt. Henry O. Flipper bust was in the newly constructed Lewis and Clark Center because of rain, making it the first formal ceremony to be held there.
The Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area acknowledges the contributions of African-American Soldiers in U.S. military history. Fort Leavenworth was selected as its home because the 10th Cavalry Regiment was organized on post in 1866.

The Buffalo Soldier Monument itself honors the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments.

A bust of Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr., the first African-American four-star general, and the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment bust preceded the Flipper bust.

And classes of West Point cadets have since 1981 had a pretty good reason to know of him:

West Point now presents an annual Henry O. Flipper award, established in 1981 through the West Point Association of Graduates, to the member of each graduating who has displayed "the highest qualities of leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties while a cadet."

On this Father's Day, how deeply I wish I could save something poignant at the end for "And if you really want to know about Henry Ossian Flipper, check out his great-great-great-grandson," complete with a link to some professor or researcher or whatever.

Henry Ossian Flipper never married. The two women we know he courted were not black, and because of anti-miscegenation laws in place in the West back in the day, he was not allowed to marry either. (He didn't try, with the white one, but he did with the Mexican one. No dice.)

I don't know if there was only one woman for him (the one who didn't get away so much as she wasn't allowed to stay with him), if he simply tired, on that front, of trying for equality, or if he saw the lot the world had dealt him and decided he wouldn't drag anyone else into it. And I'm not sure, in the end, that it matters.

What matters today is that heterosexual couples are allowed to marry even if one of them is blue and the other is striped. (This would, of course, be the case of a Smurf marrying an old-time convict. Or a Yankee. On second thought, I'll go with the convict.) And we are gaining, slowly but surely, on the homosexual front. Who knows how long it will be before we have "Fathers' Day" on the front page of a newspaper — because one family is celebrating their two fathers?

I have been working on this piece now for about three days. One of the benefits of my Sunday night writing, when I often turn out three Todays in History in six hours, is that I can then really hunker down and focus on the one I want to be the best.

One of the drawbacks is that sometimes (fittingly, for today) I do not want to let a piece go, do not want it to be over. So I will end this with a story only barely related to the one I started telling.

In Season 10 of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye finds out that his father is undergoing emergency surgery. While Hawkeye waits to find out, essentially, if his remaining parent is going to live or die, Charles comforts him. Charles then reveals a side of his family life that we get only glimpses of in other episodes (most notably a Christmas episode in which Radar gets Charles' mother to send him his toboggan cap).

At the end of the episode, Hawkeye and Charles are sitting having drinks (the only source I can find to confirm this says they were in the Officers' Club). Hawkeye proposes a toast, and Charles returns it.

In the spirit of that exchange, here's to our fathers.

And to their kin.