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Col. Charles D. Allen
Military scholar

Col. Charles D. Allen

Colonel Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, Ret.) is the Professor of Cultural Science in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College.

Henry Flipper at West Point: From slave to Army officer

This week, the U.S. Army marked its 235th birthday on June 14 -- and another anniversary that has a personal meaning to many of us. In 1877, Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African American graduate of West Point, the same school where this May the president and Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama, delivered the commencement address. That a black man would be elected president 130 years after the first black graduate of West Point would have been beyond the pale for many Americans of that generation and culture.

Henry O. Flipper was born into slavery in 1856 and gained his freedom after our bloody Civil War. In 1873, talented and well educated, Flipper received an appointment to West Point and left Atlanta University for New York state. While the U.S. War Department sought to create a cadre of African American officers, the military academy staff and students resisted the introduction of Negroes into the Corps of Cadets. Flipper was the seventh African American to enter West Point and, as a member of the Class of 1877, was the first to graduate and be commissioned as an Army officer. This was quite an accomplishment since from 1870 to 1898, 12 African Americans entered the Academy and only six stayed longer than one semester. Flipper would be one of only three black cadets who completed the curriculum and graduated in the 19th century.

Flipper's graduation was marked with curiosity, fanfare, and respect by some for his success as a cadet. That respect, however, did not readily translate into a successful Army career. Assigned to the Buffalo Soldiers of 10th Regiment U.S. Cavalry, Flipper was charged and faced courts-martial for embezzlement of funds. Though found not guilty of that charge, he was convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer for filing false official reports and was dishonorably discharged. After the Army, Flipper was a successful civilian engineer who would eventually serve in the Department of Justice and later would be a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior.

In 1976, before the centennial of his graduation from West Point, Flipper's descendants filed for review of the courts-martial decision. The Army Board for the Correction of Military Records recommended setting aside the conviction and, as a result, the Army issued a Certificate of Honorable Discharge, citing the unjust nature of the proceedings and punishment. The story of Henry O. Flipper reached another Commander in Chief and in 1999, President Bill Clinton issued a pardon for him.

What is the legacy of this Georgia-born slave? Some might have expected that his graduation would have led to easier acceptance of African Americans into West Point and into the Army officer corps. That was not to be. Despite the evidence of heroic actions of African American soldiers on the western frontier and in the Spanish American War, our published U.S. history reflected something to the contrary. A 1925 study conducted by the Army War College offered the following conclusion:

"As combat troops under modern war conditions, [negroes] never rose to the standard of white units even when well led by white officers. The negro officers were educationally and in character far inferior to the whites, and troops under negro officers were unfit for battle against an aggressive and active enemy."

It was not until the Class of 1936 that the fourth African American cadet graduated from West Point, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. In 1940, his father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. became the first African-American general in the United States military. When World War II started, father and son were the only two African American line officers in the Army.

As a cadet, Davis Jr. faced some of the same hardships as Flipper, subjected to "silencing" and isolation during his four years at the Academy. Davis Jr. would join the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, and then the 332nd Fighter Group "Red Tails." Later he would achieve the rank of Brigadier General. Another Tuskegee Institute graduate, Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr. would become the first African American four-star general in the U.S. military.

In 1948, perhaps taking note of the performance of African-Americans in WWII , President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 directing the integration of the Armed Forces. Cadet Roscoe Robinson, Class of 1951, would become the first African American graduate to wear four stars and culminate his Army career as the United States Military Representative NATO. Robinson's alma mater honored him with the Distinguished Graduate Award in 1993. In 2000, West Point posthumously dedicated the General Roscoe Robinson, Jr. Auditorium.

This is more than just a history lesson; there is a personal connection for me. A West Point liaison officer who was recruiting young men of color to join the officer ranks of our Army contacted me as a high school senior in the fall of 1972. During my four years at West Point, I met cadets and officers of color of proven ability on the staff and faculty who accomplished great things in their service to the nation.

With the Class of 1978, we were among the first 300 black graduates. The West Point Classes of 1979 and 1980 included African American brothers, Leo and Vincent Brooks, who would follow their father's example and attain the rank of Army Major General. Vincent would become First Captain of the United States Corps of Cadets. During my teaching assignment in the late 1980s, we welcomed the appointment of Brigadier General Fred A. Gordon (Class of 1962) as the first African American commandant of West Point.

When I graduated from the United States Army War College in 2001, a retired non-commissioned officer presented me with a framed print of Henry O. Flipper--that print has been on my living room wall since. I returned to the War College faculty in 2003 and to the right of my office doorway is a display of the achievements of Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. This summer another group of students will enter the Army War College, and I hope each will take notice of the Davis print as they walk our hallways.

The legacy of Henry O. Flipper is long and significant. The institution that actively resisted enrollment of African American officers now has an award in his name to graduating cadets who exhibit "leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties." As is often the case in our history, U.S. civilian leadership directs change of the Army. The Army, as an institution, resists change that is perceived to challenge its identity, its culture, and its core mission.

Institutional bastions, like West Point, are the holders of traditions and can be the fiercest resisters. Civilian direction and oversight is required to ensure that strategic change is not subverted and diverted. This is reaffirmed by the legacy of a talented former slave who was motivated to serve his country. The opportunity provided to Henry O. Flipper led to opportunities for countless named and unnamed soldier-leaders.

That's the way it should be in our institutions and our society. We should look for and identify talented people, protect and provide for their personal and professional development, and allow them to reach their full potential as leaders in our nation. This is what will keep America great.

By Col. Charles D. Allen

 |  June 17, 2010; 10:40 AM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

Thank you for bringing this remarkable story of military accomplishments of some outstanding African-American men, including yourself.

I can remember the pride my mother felt as the Davis men earning increasingly greater responsibilities over the years.

I would like to suggest that you speak of the women of the military as well and the challenges they face(d). Perhaps you can start with Harriet Tubman who unofficially served in the military during the civil war as a spy and nurse among other things. The blog I publish at www.historicalwomenofleadership.com notes some of her accomplishments.


Posted by: hxwomenlead | June 25, 2010 10:33 PM
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If I recall from 1968, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was a Lt. Gen. not just a Brigadier. But the 3 stars were in the Air Force, after that service was separated from the Army, so it might not count at West Point.

Posted by: OldGeezer | June 22, 2010 2:52 PM
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COL Allen, thank you for your service, and for this inspiring column. I recently visited the Stockyards in Fort Worth, TX, and there is a "walk of fame" honoring citizens and Soldiers who made a significant contribution to Fort Worth and TX history. There is a star honoring Henry Flipper. I recognized him as the first African-American officer in the Army, but I had forgotten the travesty of the court-martial until I read your article. The man had indomitable courage and his perseverence in the face of such entrenched cultural hatred is truly inspiring.

Posted by: RogerGoldleader | June 22, 2010 10:58 AM
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What a tremendously interesting and valuable column, which should be read particularly by people such as Gov. McDonnell and Atty. Gen. Cuccinelli, who think that life in the past was always clear sailing for everyone.

I am SO glad that Pres. Truman did not ask the parents of members of the Armed Forces how they felt about the prospects of their little darlings serving alongside African-Americans (I think that there were a lot of people who didn't call them "African-Americans" then), let alone the possibility that they might, GASP, have to take orders from them.

Thank you, Col. Allen, for your own service, and thank you also for reminding us of what so many other people had to endure in order to serve their nation, our nation.

Posted by: edallan | June 18, 2010 9:26 PM
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Wow! What a revelation and education! Articles like this, make me "proud" to be a Black American.

Posted by: WhitneyDavid | June 18, 2010 3:34 PM
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In regards to paragraph 8: "Davis, Jr. would join the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, and then the 332nd Fighter Group "Red Tails"

Please note that during WWII, the 332nd Fighter Group was known as the "Red Tails" and not the Tuskegee Airmen.

The legendary black military aviators didn't get the name "Tuskegee Airmen" until May, 1955 when Charles E. Francis published "The Tuskegee Airmen--The Story of the Negro in the U.S. Air Force"

Ron Brewington, former National Public Relations Officer, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (TAI)

Posted by: bron215 | June 18, 2010 2:51 AM
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I know there have been extreme wrongs against blacks over the generations; just stuff that would make you shudder.

But I also have known many blacks and have never really seen angels among them. I think truth is always in between the two poles of presentation.

Posted by: RealTexan1 | June 17, 2010 10:25 PM
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I'm Ron Brewington, former National Public Relations Officer, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (TAI)..

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. retired from active service on February 1, 1970 as a Lieutenant General vice a Brigadier General..

On December 9, 1998, he was advanced to the rank of General, U.S. Air Force (retired) by then-President Bill Clinton.


Posted by: bron215 | June 17, 2010 9:57 PM
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Thank you for this column Col. Allen. So many white Americans who don't harbor ill will to our fellow citizens who have African ancestry still harbor the misconception that men like General Powell and President Obama are exceptional standouts. People don't realize that these outstanding men stand on the shoulders of exceptional men reaching back to the first years of this republic.

The more information such as this article that we get the sooner we really will move toward a post racial society.

I also thank you for your service to the nation.

Posted by: mickle1 | June 17, 2010 9:04 PM
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"We should look for and identify talented people, protect and provide for their personal and professional development, and allow them to reach their full potential as leaders in our nation."

Sage advice from Col. Allen for both business
and government.


Posted by: kerrd | June 17, 2010 9:00 PM
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