On this day in 1877, Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point. He went on to be the first non-white officer to lead on the all-black regiments who were being used to kill the Native American tribes throughout the United States. He was generally considered a fine officer. But he only stayed in the Army for five years. The entire time, he faced intense racism. Eventually, his bigoted supervisor William Rufus Shafter manage to railroad Flipper through a Court Martial. Despite the fact that he was found innocent of the charge, he was found guilty of a lesser charge — “conduct unbecoming an officer” — that was introduced in the middle of the trial. Although white officers had previously gotten wrist slaps after being found guilty of the far more serious charge of embezzlement, Flipper was thrown out of the Army.
Flipper did have his defenders, however, and he went on to have a good career as a civil servant. At first he worked as a a civil engineer but eventually became an adviser on revolutionary politics in Mexico for Senator Albert Fall. When Fall because Secretary of the Interior, Flipper followed him. He finished out his career as an engineer for the petroleum industry in Venezuela. He retired to his home state of Georgia, and died at the age of 84.
What I think is interesting about Flipper’s story is how it shows that the end of slavery was very important to the equality in this country. But it was just one step of an endless number of steps. The people who claim that we are in a post-racial time were matched by people in Flipper’s time who also claimed that there was nothing that needed to be done. After all: slavery was over! The struggle goes on and on. Henry Ossian Flipper could not possibly have been any better a person, yet he was nonetheless dumped on by individuals and establishment alike.
We mark this day 138 years ago when one more step was taken in the cause of equality.