This monument is part of the Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area located at 290 Stimson Ave, Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027
From his birth into slavery in Georgia in 1856 to becoming the first Black West Point graduate and commissioned officer in 1877, Second Lieutenant Henry Flipper overcame numerous significant barriers in his life to achieve such important positions. His story highlights both the difficulty of working within an unfair system and the success of renewed efforts to recognize the achievements of those who were wronged in the past.
2LT Flipper, while the first Black man to graduate from West Point, was not the first to attend. It is worth noting that the first Black cadet (and Flipper’s first roommate), James Webster Smith, while largely overshadowed by his successors, did a lot of groundbreaking of his own while at West Point. During his studies, Smith was subjected to constant racist harassment from his peers and, when he complained, the court martial often placed blame on Smith himself for behaving improperly since white cadets’ accounts of any incidents were usually taken as more “truthful.” These events built up over three years and eventually led to Smith’s definitive dismissal from West Point for academic failure, which Smith himself pointed out was not always the outcome for white students with pre-established connections to the Army and government officials. Although he completed his education elsewhere and went on to become a professor, Smith met his untimely death from tuberculosis not even two years after his dismissal, never truly overcoming what he experienced at West Point. This situation somewhat mirrors what befell Flipper in the future.
2LT Flipper’s time at West Point was similarly marked by racist harassment inside and outside of school and a consequent seclusion from most other people for those four years, which 2LT Flipper summarizes with one lament in his 1878 autobiography: “I do think uncultivated white people are unapproachable in downright rudeness, and yet, alas! they are our superiors. Will prejudice ever be obliterated from the minds of the people? Will man ever cease to prejudge his fellow-being for color's sake alone? Grant, O merciful God, that he may!”
As the first Black commissioned officer in the U.S. Army and first Black officer commanding one of the Buffalo Soldier units, 2LT Flipper was assigned to the 10th Cavalry under the command of Colonel Grierson in 1878. The 10th Cavalry was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma at the time. At Fort Sill, 2LT Flipper would have led tasks typical of Buffalo Soldiers at the western frontier such as building telegraph lines and roads. However, 2LT Flipper also lent his abilities to one particularly interesting and important endeavor that bears his name to this day and speaks to his talent as an engineer.
Standing water gives rise to a wide array of diseases that soldiers were quite familiar with in the nineteenth century. One such disease was malaria, which was a mosquito-borne illness endemic to many parts of the United States until the 1950s and posed a particular problem for the Army in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Malaria killed roughly 10,000 Union soldiers in the Civil War alone, for example, and those who survived were left with diminished immune systems, putting them at greater risk of future health complications even if the soldiers had contracted the disease many years earlier. Finding a solution for the malaria issue was therefore crucial to keeping soldiers safe and fit for duty. 2LT Flipper’s successful direction of a drainage system, now a National Historic Landmark aptly named “Flipper’s Ditch,” still stands in the former swamp today and represents a triumph that likely saved the lives of many and ensured the smooth functioning of the 10th Cavalry’s operations at Fort Sill.
In addition to his intellect and technical talents, 2LT Flipper was greatly respected by his soldiers and commanding officers alike for his character. A testament in support of 2LT Flipper can be found on Colonel Grierson’s bust, where he upholds 2LT Flipper as both an officer and a person by stating “his veracity and integrity have never been questioned… his character… as an officer and gentleman beyond reproach… I can testify to his… efficiency and gallantry in the field,” a strong defense that regrettably did not sway 2LT Flipper’s future court martial judges. Numerous white civilians and even officers and soldiers found Flipper’s friendly relationships with some of his white commanding officers, particularly citing dinners and outings with Captain Nicholas Nolan and his family, to be scandalous. 2LT Flipper and those who knew him paid little mind to those accusations.
Trouble arose in 1881 when 2LT Flipper was stationed at Fort Davis, Texas. He’d been there for less than a year when his harsh new commander, Colonel William Shafter, arrived and assigned him to quartermaster duties despite 2LT Flipper’s expertise in engineering. After four months of keeping track of financial matters, $3,791.77 of government money (which is equivalent to over $100,000 as of 2022) disappeared from 2LT Flipper’s trunk, which was previously agreed to between 2LT Flipper and COL Shafter to be the safest place to store funds. Upon discovering the money missing, 2LT Flipper lied to COL Shafter to buy himself some time to recover the money, to which he even contributed his personal funds. Unfortunately, COL Shafter accused him of embezzlement even after 2LT Flipper and local civilians managed to replace the money and some of the original checks were even found in the possession of 2LT Flipper’s servant, leading to the court martial that dismissed 2LT Flipper from the Army entirely. The exact events that led to 2LT Flipper’s dismissal from the Army continue to feature in academic debates, with disagreements about the extent to which 2LT Flipper was culpable and how he came to make this mistake considering his usual carefulness. Nevertheless, 2LT Flipper was deemed not guilty of the embezzlement COL Shafter denounced him for. Instead, the court martial ruled that 2LT Flipper had demonstrated poor conduct. The reasoning behind this extended beyond simply trying to cover up the issue of the missing funds, with old letters written between 2LT Flipper and a white woman named Mollie Dwyer, CPT Nolan’s sister-in-law, taken as evidence of “ungentlemanly” behavior. Regardless of any potential missteps on Flipper’s own part, the court martial was unquestionably tainted by racism in light of the punishment’s strictness and the type of “evidence” they used against Flipper. Flipper naturally appealed the court martial’s decision with much support from officers he’d previously worked alongside, and even the Secretary of War agreed that dismissal was an excessive punishment for what he had done. In petitioning Congress multiple times between 1898 and 1924, Flipper maintained that his dismissal was racially charged and tried his hardest to regain his title as an officer to no avail.
Despite this major setback, Flipper went on to become a successful civilian engineer in the mining and oil industries in Mexico, the western United States, and Venezuela until the Great Depression forced him back to Georgia for his retirement. He worked in government sectors for some brief periods as a translator and as an assistant to the Secretary of the Interior when tackling a project on engineering in Alaska. He also wrote what would become his second autobiography among many of other achievements that showcase his different talents. However, Flipper never forgot his experiences in the Army, where he met his first career successes as well as his traumatic downfall.
Flipper fell into relative obscurity after his death in 1940, but his memory was revived during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. His story has become so widely known in the last fifty years that the original Buffalo Soldier Monument Dedication in 1992 featured a performance of a play about his life, Held in Trust, before Flipper even got his proper memorial here. Previously, a 1978 made-for-TV production featuring a pre-fame Samuel L. Jackson in a supporting role dramatized the circumstances surrounding Flipper’s court martial. President Bill Clinton finally pardoned Henry Flipper in 1999 and restored him to his rightful rank. This bust of Flipper created by Eddie Dixon was added to the Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area in 2007 as a testament to Flipper’s long-unrecognized trailblazing in face of adversity.
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National Park Service. “Second Lieutenant Henry Flipper,” October 30, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/foda/learn/historyculture/secondlieutenanthenryflipper.htm.
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