Henry Ossian Flipper was born slave on March 21, 1856, the eldest of five brothers. He attended Atlanta University during Reconstruction. There, as a freshman, Representative J.C. Freeman appointed him to attend West Point. There were already four black cadets but they had a tough time of it. Nevertheless, Flipper, on todays date, June 15, 1877, became the first black to graduate West Point. He became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army cavalry.
He was sent to Texas and then Fort Sill. There he served as an engineer, supervising the drainage of malaria-infested ponds and the construction of roads and telegraph lines. By 1880, he had worked his way up to the position of quartermaster. Throughout this period, his rise through the ranks was encumbered by racism. In 1880, while serving as quartermaster at Fort Davis, he was brought before a court martial, after money went missing from the post commissary. Realizing that this could be used against him by officers intent on forcing him out of the army, he attempted to hide the discrepancy, which was later discovered. He was charged with embezzlement, and although he was eventually acquitted, he was found guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer” and in 1882 given a dismissal, the officer equivalent of dishonorable discharge. 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. 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.
In 1923 Flipper went to work in Venezuela as an engineer in the petroleum industry. He retired to Atlanta in 1931, and died in 1940.
In 1976, a review board finally granted him a retroactive honorable discharge from the army, and a bust of him 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.”