Thursday, March 21, 2013

Henry Flipper, born March 21, 1856

Henry Ossian Flipper was born into slavery in 1856 in Thomasville, Georgia.  A mulatto, he was the eldest of five sons born to a slave couple, Festus Flipper, a shoemaker, and Isabelle Buckhalter. 

Ponder House in Thomasville, Georgia
Festus Flipper was owned by Ephraim G. Ponder, a  wealthy slave dealer.  Ponder purchased Festus in 1855 for $1,180.  Isabelle and Henry were owned by Reverend Reuben Lucky, a Methodist minister.  Festus borrowed money from Ponder to purchase his wife and oldest son from Rev. Lucky.

Henry spent most of his childhood in Thomasville.  He was 6 years old when the Civil War began in April 1861.  

In October, 1861, Ephraim G. Ponder filed a petition for divorce in Fulton County Superior Court.  Among the allegations made in the petition were that his wife, Ellen Ponder, had committed adultery as long ago as 1854; that she was a continuous drunkard; had threatened her husband with a pistol; had used abusive language and treated him with the utmost disrespect. The petition sets forth that he did not become fully convinced of her infidelity until March 1861. The petition further indicates the solvent condition of the couple, with slaves valued at $45,000 and home, $10,000. 

The divorce was not granted until 1871, at which time Ephraim was living in his home in Thomasville, to which he had returned in 1861. Meanwhile, Ellen Ponder continued to live at the Marietta Road home in Atlanta.  The marriage contract prevented the sale of any of the property, including their 65 slaves, without the mutual consent of husband and wife.

Henry and his family lived in Atlanta during the early years of the war.  When Atlanta was evacuated in 1864, Ellen Ponder and the slaves moved to Macon, Georgia.  

Ephraim G. Ponder Manison in Atlanta, Georgia 
after Battle of Atlanta, 1864
In the spring of 1865, Festus and his family returned to Atlanta. Isabella cooked for Union officers while Festus repaired boots in his shoe shop. Their home was the first restaurant in Atlanta after the war.

Henry was taught to read by another slave who taught school late at night.  Later, Henry attended schools established by the American Missionary Association.  He later attended Atlanta University during Reconstruction

Flipper's father, Festus, became a prominent Thomasville businessman after he was freed. He owned a shoemaking shop which was later inherited by his son Festus, Jr.

James C. Freeman
In 1873, he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy West Point by Representative James C. Freeman of Georgia.  There were four other black cadets; they had a difficult time at the academy, where they were rejected by white students. His roommate, James Webster Smith (another black cadet), completed only three years of academic work before he received a court martial conviction for assaulting another cadet. Flipper had few conversations with the other cadets. His social existence was lonely; he wrote in his memoirs that he did not speak to a female from October 1875 to May 1876.  
Emory Upton

Colonel Emory Upton, Commandant of Cadets, frequently counseled Flipper to remain at West Point and not give up.  Flipper persevered and in 1877 became the first of the group to graduate, earning a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Cavalry.
Henry Flipper as a West Point Cadet
The Academy's first Black graduate received world-wide praise for his achievements. Although he received many telegrams and letters of congratulations, his proudest moment came during the graduation ceremonies. When he was handed his diploma, Flipper received a standing ovation from his classmates and spectators for his four years of dedication and courage. During his speech, Major General John Schofield, West Point's Superintendent, gave a tribute to Flipper's bravery against isolation and exclusion by his classmates. He stated, "No white cadet had ever been burdened with the hopes of an entire race on his shoulders. Anyone knows how quietly and bravely this young man , the first of his despised race to graduate from West Point, has borne the difficulties of his position; how for four years he has had to stand apart from his classmates as one with them but not of them..."
John Schofield

Flipper was assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, one of the four all-black Buffalo Soldier  regiments in the army.  He became the first black officer to command regular troops in the U.S. Army. Previously all-black regiments had been commanded by white officers.
Buffalo Soldiers
Flipper received orders to report to Fort Concho in West Texas in October 1877 and was assigned to A Troop. 
Fort Concho, Texas
Captain Nicholas M. Nolan, the commander of A troop, was the officer assigned to teach him about being a cavalry officer. Nolan was censured by several white officers for allowing Flipper into his quarters for dinner, where his daughter Kate was present. Nolan defended his action by stating that Flipper was an "officer and a gentleman" just like any other officer present.
Captain Nicholas Nolan
In August 1878,  Nolan married his second wife, Annie Dwyer,  in San Antonio, Texas. Miss Mollie Dwyer, Mrs. Nolan's sister, arrived in early 1879, shortly after Troop A moved to Fort Elliott.  Mollie Dwyer and Flipper became friends and often went riding together. Nolan was the de facto commander of Fort Elliott and he made Flipper his adjutant. Flipper received high marks from his commander. However, there were rumors and letters hinting at improprieties against Flipper and Mollie Dwyer. It would be the beginning of a smear campaign. During the next months he sent and received letters from Mollie.
In November, 1880, at Fort Davis, Flipper was assigned as Acting Assistant Quatermaster and Post Quartermaster, as well as the Acting Commissary of Subsistence and Post Commissary Officer. He was given responsibility for the entire military reservation - its houses, water, fuel, transportation, clothing, food, and equipment for the troops and animals. Flipper performed all of his tasks well, and was cited for his efficiency, dedication, and loyalty.

Lieutenant Charles Nordstrom, who was in love with Mollie Dwyer , now became Flipper's bitter enemy. Some of the other officers sided with Nordstrom, blaming Flipper for Miss Mollie's refusal of his marriage proposal.  About this time, Major McLaughlin, the Commanding Officer, was replaced by Colonel William R. Shafter. Shafter had a reputation for being coarse and harsh and for harrassing those under him. Flipper was well liked by the Fort Davis townspeople. Some of his civilian friends warned him that Nordstrom and his best friend, Lieutenant Louis Wilhelmi, had bragged that they were preparing a trap for him. The State Hide Inspector told him that Lieutenant Wilhelmi had boasted to him that he "had found a way to get rid of the nigger." 
William Rufus Shafter
Flipper, now twenty-four, was responsible for keeping financial records and collecting accounts at the post. The funds were always kept in the quartermaster's vault. In May, 1881, according to Flipper, Shafter ordered him to store the $2,000 in his (Flipper's) private quarters. Although Flipper worried because Wilhelmi had access to the keys to his quarters, he did as he was ordered. From May 2 to July 8, 1881, Shafter suddenly stopped conducting his weekly check of funds. Flipper made two bad mistakes during this time: he allowed his  servant, Lucy Smith, to store some personal belongings in the same trunk that contained the money; and he gave credit at the commissary to the soldiers.

On July 8, 1881, Colonel Shafter ordered a special audit of the funds. This is when Flipper discovered that $1,440.43 was missing. Since he had seen Lieutenant Wilhelmi "prowling around my quarters at unseemly hours of the night," he decided that Wilhelmi and Nordstrom had taken it. Because he wanted to avoid Colonel Shafter's severe discipline and the embarrassment, he decided to handle his problem alone, as he always had. He balanced his books by writing a personal check, counting on the $2, 500 which the Homer and Lee Book Company owed him for royalties on his West Point book to cover the check. The company, however failed to deposit the money in time.

On August 13, Colonel Shafter ordered Wilhemi and Edmunds to search Flipper's quarters. They seized the ledger and funds from the trunk. The two arrested Flipper and wrote a report recommending a court-martial. Shafter, who later discovered some of the checks in the possession of the servant, Lucy, approved the report and charged Flipper with stealing $3,791.77. This amount included the missing $1,440.43, the seized funds, and the credit issued to the soldiers. Shafter, then ordered him put in the guardhouse.

Shafter was later ordered by his superior to stop abusing the officer, to remove him fdrom the guardhouse, and to "treat him like a white officer." Fort Davis residents liked the Black officer and raised $1,700 in one day (and the rest of the money later) to repay the commissary account. Flipper was finally released from the guardhouse, but shackled and placed under house arrest until the trial.

The prosecutor admitted that they lacked evidence of theft, but was able to show Flipper's carelessness in performing his duty. Flipper had committed a misdemeanor and, according the the Handbook of Military Justice, could have been issued a reprimand or an extra duty assignment. Instead, Colonel Shafter recommended a general court-martial, the penalty for a felony.

Flipper did not have any money to hire a lawyer, but received help from Captain Merritt Barber, an attorney in the Sixteenth Infantry. Barber thought he was the victim of a scheme and worked hard to help him. 

Merritt Barber
On November 4, 1881, Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper was charged with embezzling money and of "conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman." The prosecution's case was weak, partly due to Shafter's bad memory and contradictions in his and Wilhemli's testimonies. Colonel Benjamin Grierson, Flipper's previous commander, wrote a letter saying the Flipper's "character and standing as an officer and gentleman was beyond reproach." He also stated: 
General Davidson, Captain Nolan, and others under whom he has served, have spoken to him to me in the highest terms; and he has repeatedly been selected for special and important duties, discharging them faithfully... I believe the problem arose from youth and inexperience.
Benjamin Grierson
On December 8, 1881, the all-white court decided that Flipper was not guilty of embezzlement but was guilty of the charge of "conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman." Lieutenant Henry Flipper was sentenced to a dishonorable discharge.  It was a harsh sentence.  In two prior situations involving white officers who were found guilty of embezzlement, neither officer was dismissed nor dishonored.

General D. G. Swaim, Judge Advocate General of the Army, reviewed the case and stated the "no case existed in the Army history in which an officer was treated with such personal harshness and indignity as was Lieutenant Flipper." He wrote a letter to Robert Todd Lincoln, Secretary of War, and recommended that Flipper's sentence be changed to a lighter punishment. Lincoln quickly approved this and sent the papers to President Chester A Arthur, but the president ignored them. 

Robert Todd Lincoln
Flipper spent the last six months of his arrest at Ft. Quitman under the command of Lt. Nordstrom.  Nordstrom had married Mollie Dwyer; they later had two daughters.

On June 30, 1882, at the age of 26, Henry O. Flipper was dismissed from military service and the officer corps became all-white again.  For the rest of his life, Flipper contested the charges and fought to regain his commission.

After his dismissal, Flipper remained in Texas, working as a civil engineer.   Flipper went to El Paso where there was a large community of blacks, some of whome were former Buffalo Soldiers.  He wrote newspaper articles for the El Paso Times and was the city editor for the Ft. Worth Gazette. In 1883, he was hired as an engineer for a Chicago-based firm. His engineering ability and fluency in Spanish became famous throughout the southwest and Mexico. In 1886, he was commissioned by Mexico’s Banco Minero which was conducting surveys for the Mexican government.  His abilities and talents came to the attention of the people in Nogales, Arizona. They hired him to prepare their land grant case for the Court of Private Land Claims. 

He had a brief, common-law relationship with a Mexican woman in Arizona in 1891, but they had no children.

In 1898, he volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War, but requests to restore his commission were ignored by Congress.  He spent time in Mexico, and on returning to the United States, he served as an advisor to Senator Albert Fall on the revolutionary politics in that country.  When Fall became Secretary of the Interior in 1921, he brought Flipper with him to Washington, D.C. to serve as his assistant.  Among other duties, he translated Spanish and French documents.

Albert Fall
Mollie Dwyer Nordstrom also lived in Washington, D.C., later in her life, working for the Library of Congress.
Henry Flipper
In 1923 Flipper went to work in Venezuela as an engineer in the petroleum industry. 

Throughout his life, Flipper was a prolific author, writing about scientific topics, the history of the Southwest, and his own experiences. In The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878) he described his experiences at the military academy. In the posthumous Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper (1963), he described his life in Texas and Arizona after his discharge from the army.

Henry Flipper never married.  He retired to Atlanta at age 75 to live with  his brother, Bishop Joseph Flipper.

On May 3, 1940, Henry O. Flipper, at the age of 84, was found dead in his bedroom of a heart attack. 

Flipper was buried in the family grave site at the Southview Cemetery in Atlanta , Georgia . His brother, Bishop Flipper, placed a headstone at his grave that read, "Lt. Henry O. Flipper, Retired U.S. Army Officer, 1856-1940."

In 1978 , Lt. Flipper came home again to Thomasville, 101 years after his last homecoming. His remains were disinterred and then re-interred in the Old Magnolia Cemetery in Thomasville. He was buried beside his mother and father.  T
he homecoming began at the First Missionary Baptist Church , where about 500 people black, white, dignitaries and common people alike came to pay their respects. 
Grave of Henry Flipper

In 1972, the Ray MacColl, a Valdosta , Georgia school teacher, began researching Lt. Flipper's case at the urging of  Irsle Flipper King, Flipper's niece, of Valdosta and other family members, including citizens from Thomasville.  In 1976, family members and supporters applied to the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records on behalf of Flipper. The Board, after stating that it did not have the authority to overturn his court-martial conviction, concluded the conviction and punishment were "unduly harsh and unjust" and recommended that Flipper’s dismissal be changed to a good conduct discharge. The Assistant Secretary of the Army and the Adjutant General  approved the Board's findings, conclusions, and recommendations and directed that the Army issue Flipper a Certificate of Honorable Discharge, dated June 30, 1882, in lieu of his dismissal on the same date. 

In 1997, a private law firm filed an application of pardon with the Army on Flipper's behalf.  Many pardon applications had been rejected in the past because the intended recipients were deceased. However, President Bill Clinton pardoned Flipper on February 19, 1999.

After his discharge was changed, a bust of Flipper was unveiled at West Point. Since then, an annual Henry O. Flipper Award has been granted to graduating cadets at the Academy who exhibit "leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties."

On March 30, 2007 , the Army at Fort Leavenworth , Kansas , took another step in honoring Lt. Henry O. Flipper’s legacy with the dedication of a bronze bust of him at the Buffalo Soldier Monument at Fort Leavenworth . It sits on a concrete pedestal that chronicles his military and civilian careers.
Bust of Henry Flipper at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
The Flipper family had four other sons: Bishop Joseph S. Flipper, nationally known leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and past President of Morris Brown College; Dr. Carl Flipper, former professor at Savannah State College; Festus Flipper, Jr., successful businessman and civic leader of Thomasville; and Dr. Emory Flipper, one of the early black physicians in South Georgia and Jacksonville , Florida .

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