First black West Point grad, commissary officer overcame prejudice during illustrious career
FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 1, 2016) – In a White House ceremony Feb. 19, 1999, President Bill Clinton issued a posthumous official pardon to Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, who had been dishonorably discharged in 1882 from the Army for conduct unbecoming an officer. Clinton's presidential pardon wiped out a 117-year-old decision that had been upheld by military courts-martial and approved by President Chester A. Arthur.
Clinton's pardon legitimized the efforts of Flipper and his supporters to reverse an original verdict that caused a great disservice to him, African-Americans and all fair-minded, unprejudiced U.S. citizens.
Flipper is widely remembered as the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy. But nearly 140 years ago, he was an Army lieutenant and assistant commissary of subsistence at Fort Davis, Texas, a position known today as deputy store director or store administrator. In those days, "commissary" could mean a person as well as a building.
He was born a slave in Thomasville, Ga., in 1856. By 1864, with the help of another slave, Flipper was learning to read – and by doing so risked severe punishment, since it was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write.
At the end of the Civil War, he accompanied his family to Atlanta, where his father found work as a shoemaker. That enabled Flipper to continue his education. First, he was tutored by the wife of an ex-Confederate captain; later, he attended several schools set up for the freedmen by the American Missionary Association. Eventually, he attended Atlanta University for three years. When he entered West Point in 1873, he was the fifth African-American to enter the academy, but the previous four had all been forced to leave. Although several hundred thousand black soldiers had fought with courage and distinction during the Civil War, white society persisted in believing that black troops could effectively function only under the command of white officers.
Flipper later stated his instructors at the academy always treated him courteously, but most of his classmates ostracized him. Nonetheless, he graduated on schedule, placing 50th in a class of 76.
Flipper was initially assigned to the 10th Cavalry at Fort Sill, Okla. The 10th was one of two famous all-black cavalry regiments in the Army – the other was the 9th Cavalry – known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Within the Army and among the Indians, the Buffalo Soldiers were widely acknowledged to be among the finest soldiers in the service. However, they would continue to be led by white officers because of the stereotype of "Negro inferiority." It was not until 1948 – after World War II – that the armed forces would be desegregated.
After two years at Fort Sill, he was assigned as assistant commissary at Fort Davis. This was the approximate equivalent of a deputy store director/store manager in a modern commissary store. Flipper had the multifaceted role of ordering and issuing subsistence rations, ordering rations that were served in the post mess hall, and selling goods to officers and enlisted men in the sales commissary, which then was simply a table set up in the commissary warehouse.
In 1881, the commanding officer at Fort Davis accused Flipper of stealing $3,800 in commissary money. A general court-martial acquitted him of theft. But it did convict him of conduct unbecoming an officer because his commanding officer asserted that Flipper had lied to him about the commissary accounts.
Over the years, many historians have dissected Flipper's case and found no logical motive for his alleged lies. Still, his conviction contributed to the segregationist sentiment and "Jim Crow" legal restrictions that were common in the United States in the late 19th century, when African-Americans were routinely denied positions of responsibility or advancement in countless professions.
However, after Flipper's court-martial, he went on to lead an extraordinary life.
He opened his own land-surveying firm in 1890 and surveyed the boundaries of several Western states and Latin American republics. He was editor of the Nogales (Arizona) Sunday Herald in 1901. His command of Spanish and his knowledge of Mexican law helped him become a special agent for the Department of Justice's Court of Private Land Claims from 1893 to 1910.
Still, Flipper continued to try to clear his name. In 1898, his first attempt to get his court-martial reviewed ended in failure.
By 1919, he became a translator for the Senate subcommittee on Mexican affairs; and then, crowning a comeback to rival all comebacks, in 1922 he became an assistant secretary of the interior. He retired in 1931, returned to Atlanta and died there in 1940.
In December 1976, thanks to the efforts of his living relatives, the Army reversed the decision of the 1882 court, holding Flipper had been convicted because of racism and the desire to remove him from the officers' rolls. The Army changed the terms of Flipper's discharge from dishonorable to honorable.
Following his exoneration, Flipper's remains were reburied with full military honors in Thomasville. The local post office has been renamed in his honor. Finally, since only a president could formally overturn President Arthur's approval of the court-martial's decision, President Clinton did that in 1999, and Lt. Henry O. Flipper's name was finally fully cleared.
NOTE: The following story, published in observance of African-American History Month, was first run Feb. 17, 2006. Ten years later, it remains a stellar example of perseverance in the face of systematic prejudice. The story also appears in "The Illustrated History of American Military Commissaries" written by Dr. Peter D. Skirbunt and published in 2009. For a video related to this story, watch this YouTube video.
To learn more about DOD's observance of African-American History Month, visit the DoD's Black History Month page.
About DeCA: The Defense Commissary Agency operates a worldwide chain of commissaries providing groceries to military personnel, retirees and their families in a safe and secure shopping environment. Commissaries provide a military benefit and make no profit on the sale of merchandise. Authorized patrons purchase items at cost plus a 5-percent surcharge, which covers the costs of building new commissaries and modernizing existing ones. By shopping regularly in the commissary, patrons save thousands of dollars annually. A core military family support element, and a valued part of military pay and benefits, commissaries contribute to family readiness, enhance the quality of life for America's military and their families, and help recruit and retain the best and brightest men and women to serve their country.
Kevin L. Robinson
(804) 734-8000, Ext. 4-8773