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Featured Document: Henry O. Flipper

Sunday, July 25, 2004
Featured Document: Henry O. Flipper
Lt. Henry O. Flipper's Quest for Justice:
"As honorable a record in the Army as any officer in it"

Born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia, on March 21, 1856, Henry Ossian Flipper was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1873. Over the next four years he overcame harassment, isolation, and insults to become West Point's first African American graduate and the first African American commissioned officer in the regular U.S. Army. Flipper was stationed first at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and, later, at Forts Concho, Elliott, Quitman, and Davis, Texas. He served as a signal officer and quartermaster, fought Apaches, installed telegraph lines, and supervised the building of roads. At Fort Sill, the young lieutenant directed the construction of a drainage system that prevented the spread of malaria. Still known as "Flipper's Ditch," it is now a national historic landmark.

In 1881, while serving at Fort Davis, Flipper's commanding officer accused him of embezzling $3,791.77 from commissary funds. Flipper denied the charge and claimed that he had been framed by his fellow officers, who hated him because he was African American. A court-martial found him not guilty of embezzlement but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer and ordered him dismissed from the Army.

After his dishonorable discharge, Flipper fought to clear his name as he pursued a distinguished career as an engineer and an expert on Spanish and Mexican land law. In 1898, a bill reinstating him into the Army and restoring his rank was introduced in Congress on his behalf. To bolster his case, he sent Congressman John A. T. Hull, chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs, the letter displayed below along with a brief supporting the bill's passage. Flipper's letter to Hull is an eloquent statement professing his innocence and asking Congress for "that justice which every American citizen has the right to ask." The bill and several later ones were tabled, and Flipper died in 1940 without vindication, but in 1976, the Army granted him an honorable discharge, and a review board stated that he had been singled out because of his race. In 1999, President Bill Clinton issued him a full pardon.

The National Archives and Records Administration is pleased to present these documents from the career of a man who not only served his country with honor but fought injustice tenaciously and with dignity.

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