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Excerpts on the following pages were taken from the magazine on the left,
"Wild West Magazine",

by Jon Guttman

Henry O. Flipper fought bigotry and the Apache, but

won his greatest battle 36 years after his death.

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Second Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper (foreground) and troopers of his A Company, 10th U.S. Cavalry, trade shots with hostile Mimbreno and Mescalero Apache marauders during The Victorio Campaign, in a painting by Bob Vann.

Somewhere in the American Southwest in October 1880, a soldier squinted into the distance, then wheeled his horse around and rode back to rejoin his unit-Troop A of the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. Upon his arrival, he reported what he had seen to the young officer at the head of the column. He had found the trail of the Mimbreno Apache that the troop had been pursuing. But it might as well have been a blind alley because the hostiles had slipped across the border. They were Mexico's problem now. As he led his troopers back to camp, 2nd Lt. Henry O. Flipper shared in their disappointment but was far from discouraged. The renegade Apache were being hunted as diligently by the Mexicans as they were by the U.S. Army. Unless the Mexicans got lucky, the Apache would soon be back on the American side, and the 10th Cavalry would have another chance to bring Victorio's war band to bay.

Until then, there would be more long expeditions in search of an elusive and treacherous foe. But when one had known the stifling confines of slavery as Henry Flipper had, the desert sun just added extra luster to the brass shoulder bars that marked him as the first member of the all-black 10th Cavalry to hold an officer's commission, and the wide open spaces in which he rode served as a reminder that the sky was the limit. As he raised his canteen and let a small, measured sip of water tickle down his parched throat, Flipper might hae thought: It doesn't get any better than this. Little could he have suspected at the time that it wouldn't.

The eldest of five sons, Henry Ossian Flipper was born into slaery on March 21,1856, in the town of Thomasville, Ga. His father, Festus Flipper, was a skilled craftsman who served as a cobbler for Ephraim Ponder, one of teh richest slave traders in southern Georgia, while Henry and his mother, Isabella, belonged to the Reverend Reuben H. Lucky. When Ponder planned to move to Atlanta just after teh Civil War, Festus Flipper bought his wife and son from the minister, using money he had saved over the years.

As postwar Reconstruction took effect in Georgia, the entire Flipper family gained its freedom and faced the challenge of adjusting to a new social environment. No longer the responsibility of a master, a former slave had to fend for himself, but he often lacked an education or a vocational skill, and even if he possessed them, he had to deal with the prejudices of white competitors who viewed him as an economic threat.

Nevertheless, freedom offered one precious gift to the black American--the right to make his own choices in life. For his own part, young Henry Flipper set his ambitions high and set out to attain them with extraordinary determination. While a slave, he had learned to read and write from a slave mechanic. As a freedman, he enrolled in missionary school and, later, in Atlanta University. There, Flipper distinguished himself sufficiently to be nominated for the military academy at West Point, New York, in 1873. A white student from Atlanta offered to buy the nomination from him for $5000, but Flipper would not sell. He had found his calling--to be an officer in the U.S. Army. Not tht Flipper would be the Army's first black officer; there had been others. Nor was he the first black to enter the prestigious military academy; there had been a few--but none had graduated.

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Eastern trailblazer: Henry Flipper at West Point. Three other black cadets would also graduate from there in his lifetime.

Flipper knew what he was in for when he arrived at West Point...and he got it. He had to endure not only the standard degradations suffered by every officer candidate but also the ostracism of his fellow cadets. One classmate recalled that Flipper "behaved himself very well indeed, and was generally liked by his classmates, but no one openly associated with him, and anyone seen doing so could have been 'cut' from the Corps." Flipper not only endured the abuse and "the Silence," but actually developed a liking for the military life that kept him single-mindedly on track to his academic reward in 1877: West Point's first black graduate.

To read more about this great American please contact Wild West magazine and ask for the February 1994 issue. You can click on the Wild West logo at the top of this page for more information on ordering a subscription to this great magazine.

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