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|
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.
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
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|
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|
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.
|Fort Concho, Texas|
|Captain Nicholas Nolan|
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|
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.
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.
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.
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|
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.
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. The 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 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."
|Bust of Henry Flipper at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas|