Sunday 12 April 2015

Lt.Henry O.Flipper by Tanya Landman

On 19th February 1999 President Clinton officially pardoned Lt. Henry O.Flipper in a ceremony at the White House.

I hadn’t heard of Henry Flipper until I started researching Buffalo Soldier.  Here’s an extract from the President’s speech.

“The man we honor today was an extraordinary American. Henry Flipper did all his country asked him to do. Though born a slave in Georgia, he was proud to serve America: the first African American graduate of West Point; the first African American commissioned officer in the regular United States Army. He showed brilliant promise and joined the 10th Cavalry. While stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he perfected a drainage system that eliminated the stagnant water, and malaria, plaguing the fort. Still known as "Flipper's Ditch," it became a national landmark in 1977. He distinguished himself in combat on the frontier, and then was transferred to run a commissary at Fort Davis in Texas.

In 1881, Lt. Flipper was accused by his commanding officer of improperly accounting for the funds entrusted to him. A later Army review suggested he had been singled out for his race, but at the time there wasn't much justice available for a young African American soldier. In December, a court-martial acquitted him of embezzlement, but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer. President Chester A. Arthur declined to overturn the sentence, and in June of 1882, Lt. Flipper was dishonorably discharged.

His life continued. He became a civil and mining engineer out West. He worked in many capacities for the government, as special agent for the Department of Justice; as an expert on Mexico for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. He died in 1940, at the age of 84. But even after his death, this stain of dishonor remained. One hundred and seventeen years have now elapsed since his discharge. That's a long time, even more than the span of his long life. More than half the history of the White House, indeed, of the United States itself. And too long to let an injustice lie uncorrected.

The army exonerated him in 1976, changed his discharge to honorable and reburied him with full honors. But one thing remained to be done, and now it will be. With great pleasure and humility, I now offer a full pardon to Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper of the United States Army. This good man now has completely recovered his good name. It has been a trying thing for the family to fight this long battle, to confront delays and bureaucratic indifference, but this is a day of affirmation. It teaches us that, although the wheels of justice turn slowly at times, still they turn. It teaches that time can heal old wounds and redemption comes to those who persist in a righteous cause. Most of all, it teaches us -- Lt. Flipper's family teaches us -- that we must never give up the fight to make our country live up to its highest ideals. Outside of this room Henry Flipper is not known to most Americans. All the more reason to remember him today. His remarkable life story is important to us, terribly important, as we continue to work -- on the edge of a new century and a new millennium -- on deepening the meaning of freedom at home, and working to expand democracy and freedom around the world, to give new life to the great experiment begun in 1776. This is work Henry Flipper would have been proud of. Each of you who worked so hard for this day is a living chapter in the story of Lt. Flipper. I thank you for your devotion, your courage, your persistence, your unshakable commitment. I thank you for believing, and proving, that challenges never disappear, but in the long run, freedom comes to those who persevere.”


Sue Purkiss said...

A great story - and what a good speech, too!

Joan Lennon said...

I agree!

Simon Jones said...

The positions he was later entrusted with suggest that not everyone at the time believed the slur against his character.

Anonymous said...

For a different view of Flipper's dismal from the Army, take a look at the following works:
The Fall of a Black Army Officer: Racism and the Myth of Henry O Flipper by Charles Robinson III, Univ of Oklahoma Press, 2008
From 1980, Flipper's Dismal: A monograph by Barry Johnson in Ho, for the Great West, English Westerns' Society;
Also Expanded privately printed version of this from Johnson, London 1980

Catherine Johnson said...

What a sad story Tanya, and one I'd never heard. Thanks