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This Former Slave Became The First African American West Point Grad

Henry Flipper, born a slave, beat astonishing odds and overcame classmates' racism to become the first black graduate in 1877.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When Henry Flipper arrived at West Point, there were already three other black cadets attending the famed military academy. When it came time for Flipper to graduate, those three would be long gone, rejected by their classmates. An engineer, he reduced the effects of malaria on the U.S. Army by creating a special drainage system that removed standing water from camps. Flipper's life would take him from being born into slavery to becoming the first black commander of the Buffalo Soldiers.

Henry Flipper was born a slave in Georgia in 1856. After he was liberated in the Civil War, he remained in Georgia, attending missionary schools to get a primary education. He began to pursue his secondary education at Atlanta University, but soon set his sights higher. Flipper requested and received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1873 through Congressman Thomas Freeman.

When he arrived, Flipper found that he was not the only black student there. However, constant harassment, including bodily harm, hostility, and insults caused other cadets like James Webster Smith and Johnson Whittaker to drop out or face expulsion. Flipper persevered and graduated in 1877. He was the first African-American West Point grad and the first African-American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army.

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Though his specialty was engineering, Flipper was a more than capable officer. He was sent to bases in Texas and the Oklahoma Territory, where he served as quartermaster and signals officer. As an engineer, he was second to none, laying telegraph lines and building roads, and constructing a drainage system known today as "Flipper's Ditch," which removed standing water to prevent the proliferation of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. He would fight Apaches alongside his fellow soldiers, as brave in combat as he was competent in peacetime.

But just as he was ostracized by his classmates as a cadet at the Military Academy, he would soon find resistance to his service as a Second Lieutenant in the regular Army. In 1881, his commanding officer at Fort Davis would accuse him of stealing $3,791.77 from the installation's commissary fund. In his subsequent court-martial, he was found not guilty of stealing the money, but he was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer. He was then kicked out of the Army after some four years of service.

He spent the rest of his life trying to restore his name.

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The closest Flipper came to exoneration during his lifetime was when a bill was introduced by Congress to reinstate him into the Army in 1898. Flipper had the full support of some Congressmen, including the Chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs, but the bill was tabled. Every subsequent attempt suffered the same fate. Flipper died in 1940, but eventually, thanks to the lobbying of the descendants of his siblings, his reputation was restored after his death. In 1976, he was given an honorable discharge by the Army, and in 1999, he was pardoned by then-Commander-in-Chief, President Bill Clinton.