The Civil Radical Battles of the Black American Soldier

Henry O. Flipper

Second Lieutenant
10th Cavalry Division
March 21, 1856-April 26, 1940


“Born into slavery, Henry O. Flipper fought his way through prejudice and isolation to become the first African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the first commissioned Black officer in the U.S. Army. He fought with distinction in the Indian Wars before a court-martial found him guilty of conduct unbecoming after commissary funds went missing on his watch. Flipper spent the rest of his life in the Southwest, becoming an expert on property law, a mining engineer, a Spanish translator, a writer, and an assistant to the Secretary of the Interior before he died in 1940.

Henry O. Flipper was born to enslaved parents in Thomasville, Georgia in March 1856. His parents were enslaved by different men when his father’s enslaver decided to move to Atlanta. Flipper’s father used all his savings to successfully beg his enslaver to buy his son and wife so they could remain together. Following the Civil War, Flipper’s family remained in Atlanta and Flipper entered the newly established Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) in 1869.

Flipper, as he later wrote in his memoirs, always aspired to become a Soldier for the United States Army. In 1873 he wrote to Congressman James Freeman asking for his recommendation to be appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Flipper succeeded in securing his appointment and entered West Point later that year. Despite enduring almost total social isolation while at West Point, Flipper persevered. In 1877, he became the first African-American to graduate from West Point and the Army’s first African-American officer.

Flipper was commissioned as a second lieutenant and left for Oklahoma. He joined the 10th Cavalry, one of only two units composed of African-American Soldiers and nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers.” The unit had already won renown for its Soldiers’ bravery in the Indian Wars when Flipper joined them at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Flipper proved a capable engineer, building roads and telegraph lines from Gainesville, Texas to Fort Sill. He also engineered a system to drain several ponds blamed for causing malaria. The drainage system, known as “Flipper’s Ditch,” is still in use today and is registered as a National Historic Landmark.

The 10th Cavalry was reassigned to Fort Concho, Texas in June 1880. Two weeks after his arrival, Flipper and the 10th Cavalry were sent out into the field to fight Chief Victorio and his Apache warriors. In recognition of his achievements, Flipper was assigned as assistant quartermaster at Fort Davis, Texas where he was responsible for food inventory, distribution, and keeping track of the commissary’s financials. In the summer of 1881, Flipper discovered a $3,000 discrepancy in the commissary funds. Knowing he would be blamed for the missing money, he attempted to conceal the loss until he could repay it from his pocket. His commanding officer found out about the missing money, however, and Flipper was court-martialed. The court found him guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer” and dishonorably dismissed Flipper from the Army in 1882.

With his military career finished Flipper decided to remain in the Southwest, serving as a Spanish translator and becoming an expert in land rights and property law. He worked with the Department of Justice’s Court of Private Land Claims for eight years, surveying land grants and appearing as a government witness in several court cases. He worked with two Mexican mining companies and moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1912. During Mexico’s civil war, Flipper supplied information on conditions in the country to the U.S. Senate’s subcommittee on Mexican affairs. Due to his expertise, Flipper became a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior from 1921 to 1923, when he left for Venezuela to serve as a mining engineer. He returned to the U.S. in 1930 and retired a year later to Atlanta, Georgia. Flipper lived there until his death from a heart attack in 1940.


It is impossible to imagine the struggles, racism, and discrimination that Henry O Flipper overcame to graduate from West Point in 1877. West Point and the Army were far ahead of society in integrating African Americans but it was still a very discriminatory and racially charged environment. He is an American hero who helped break down racial barriers.
Every year on the date of his birth, March 21st, all cadets celebrate “Henry O. Flipper Day”. His bust is displayed in the Jefferson Library at West Point in the Haig Room, deservedly beside other iconic statues and busts of West Point legends: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley, Pershing, Patton, and Schwarzkopf.©


During his life, Flipper wrote and translated several works on mining, engineering, history, and property law, including two memoirs, “The Colored Cadet at West Point(1878)” and “Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper (1963)”. Both of these works are the only depictions of life as an African American on the frontier and are indispensable historical sources.

Flipper attempted to regain his commission in the Army multiple times, including during the War with Spain but was ultimately unsuccessful. It wasn’t until 1976, nearly 36 years after his death, that a review of his case declared the punishment Flipper received to be “unduly harsh.”

The Army corrected Flipper’s records to show an honorable discharge and President Bill Clinton pardoned Flipper in 1999.”

Megan Willmes
Education Specialist


Dinges, Bruce J. “Flipper, Henry Ossian,” Handbook of Texas Online, Accessed December 26, 2020.

“In pardoning this officer, the President recognized an error and acknowledged the lifetime accomplishments of this American soldier.”



Twenty-three Black cadets attended West Point between 1870 and 1890, but due to the violent discrimination that they faced, only three graduated. Cadet Whittaker would later testify that he had “read and heard about the treatment that [Black] cadets received there, and expected to be ostracized.”



John Hanks Alexander – (1864–1894)


John Hanks Alexander was the second African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, following Henry O. Flipper.

John Alexander was born on January 6, 1864, the son of James Milo Alexander and Fannie Miller Alexander, both of whom were born slaves. Supported and protected by prominent White families in Helena (Phillips County), Alexander’s father prospered as a barber and dealer in toiletries, acquired property, and purchased his freedom, as well as that of most of his family. Alexander’s parents were determined that their seven children would be educated. All seven graduated from high school, and three attended Oberlin College in Ohio.

In 1879, Alexander graduated from high school in Helena at the head of his class and, shortly thereafter, taught for a term in Carrollton, Mississippi, in the spring of 1880. In the fall of 1880, he traveled to Ohio to visit an uncle, Nicholas Alexander, a well-known citizen of Cincinnati. While working at an assortment of odd jobs, he enrolled in Oberlin College in 1881, and at the end of his second year in college, he successfully passed the examination for admission to West Point. He received an appointment to the academy by Democratic Congressman George W. Geddes of Ohio in 1883.

During his four years at West Point, Alexander was popular with the corps and escaped some of the mistreatment experienced by previous Black cadets. A strikingly handsome young man and a skilled boxer, he was an apt student who excelled in languages and mathematics. By the time of his graduation in 1887, he ranked thirty-second in a class that had decreased in size from 122 to sixty-four members. An academy official described Alexander as a “splendid scholar” who had achieved an enviable record.

On September 30, 1887, Second Lieutenant Alexander reported to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, for duty with the Ninth Cavalry, the famous Buffalo Soldiers. The Ninth Cavalry was an all-Black regiment commanded by white officers. Alexander was the sole Black officer in a command position. Transferred to Fort Washakie, Wyoming, in 1888, he had duties including garrison duties, fighting fires, escorting prisoners from place to place, making a seventeen-day march across mountainous terrain to Fort Du Chesne in Utah, supervising the building of a post sawmill and telegraph line, and serving in court martial proceedings. On February 12, 1894, Alexander was detailed to Wilberforce University, an African-American school in Ohio, as a professor of military science and tactics. On March 26, 1894, he was stricken suddenly and died immediately from what was diagnosed as the “rupture of a large artery near the heart.” He was buried in Xenia, Ohio, near Wilberforce University with military honors.

The Department of War, citing Alexander as a “man of ability, attainments, and energy,” honored him by giving a military installation at Newport News, Virginia, the name of Camp Alexander in 1918.



Col. Young was the third African-American to graduate and receive a commission as a second lieutenant from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1889. He was the last to do so until Benjamin O. Davis Jr. in 1936, and the first to advance to the rank of colonel in the regular Army. In addition to assignments with the 9th and 10th Cavalry as a platoon leader and troop commander, Young commanded an all-Black squadron of volunteer cavalry during the Spanish-American War and the 2nd Squadron of the 10th U.S. Cavalry during the Mexican Expedition of 1916-17. After his promotion to colonel, he commanded Camp Grant, where he supervised the training of African-American recruits during World War I.


In the course of his distinguished career, he also served as a park superintendent when the Army administered national parks, a professor of military science at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and a military attaché at different times to Haiti, and twice to Liberia. He passed away of natural causes at Legos, Nigeria, in 1923. After his remains were repatriated to the United States, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.




Major Charles Young in 1916 – 3rd African-American to graduate from West Point, 1st Black U.S. National Park superintendent, 1st Black man to become Colonel.  

“In early 1917, Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) Charles Young and the men of the Tenth Cavalry returned to Fort Huachuca, Arizona after almost a year of campaigning in Mexico during the Mexican Punitive Expedition. Upon his return to Fort Huachuca Young set his focus on the future and his next assignment. He like many others saw World War One in Europe as his next deployment. Young hoped to train and lead a regiment or brigade of all-Black troops in the fight. If he was not selected to go to Europe, he was hoping to be re-assigned to Wilberforce University as their professor of military science and tactics. This was the same position he held from 1894 to 1898.”


“Before Young planned too far in advance, he had his promotion board to colonel. Getting ready for this Young studied upon his return to Fort Huachuca. In a letter to his wife, Ada Young, Lt. Col. Young wrote “Everything is moving on O.K., although I’m obliged to study night and day to catch up.” On May 9, 1917, Young stood for his promotion board to colonel at the Southern Department Headquarters in San Antonio, Texas. The promotion board found Young professionally qualified for promotion however during the medical exam found that Young suffered from high blood pressure and albumin in his urine. Albumin in your urine is a sign of kidney disease that can be caused by multiple health issues including prolonged high blood pressure. The Army ordered Young to undergo a comprehensive medical examination before appearing in front of the promotion board again.


On June 4, 1917, Charles Young arrived at the Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, California to undergo the required medical examination. Young stayed at the hospital for seven days. At that time they tested his kidney, eyes, hearing, and his heart. While at the hospital he wrote to his wife complaining of all the tests as nothing seemed to come up as a problem. Young’s medical report, dated June 11, 1917, was very thorough, stated otherwise. It confirmed his high blood pressure and albumin in his urine along with an enlarged heart, his left heart ventricle had marked hypertrophy and a moderate amount of arteriosclerosis. The report ended with a prognosis; “Unfavorable as to complete recovery and ability to do active field service requiring physical stress and involving endurance without danger to life.” Young was declared physically unfit for promotion by the medical board even though he had no aches, pains, or any history of sickness.


An examining board convened on July 7, 1917, in San Francisco to consider Young’s fate in the army. The examining board still found him medically unfit for duty however they recommended that “given the present war conditions the physical condition of this officer be waived and that he be promoted to the next higher grade.” The board forwarded their recommendation to the Adjutant General of the Army for a final decision.


While Young was in San Francisco, correspondence between President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker would ultimately determine Young’s fate. Wilson received word from southern congressmen that some of the white officers under Young’s command were unwilling to take orders from a Black man. Wilson wrote to Baker to arrange reassignment for the white officers so they do not get court-martialed for insubordination. Baker replied to Wilson saying he also heard about white officers complaining about serving under Young. Baker was going to remedy the situation by assigning Young to train incoming Black officers at Fort Des Moines in Iowa. On July 7, Baker updated Wilson about Young’s situation. By this time Baker received Young’s medical report and told the president not to worry anymore about Young because he was medically unfit for promotion. Upon Young’s medical retirement, he was promoted to colonel and placed on the unlimited retired list. Being placed on this list made it possible for Young to continue to serve in some capacity during the war.


Colonel Young returned to Youngsholm, his family home in Wilberforce, Ohio, before traveling to Columbus, Ohio to work with the Ohio National Guard. Young was tasked with organizing the new Ninth Ohio National Guard Regiment for federal service. This was not the first time Young worked with the Ohio National Guard. During the Spanish-American war in 1898, he was given command of the Ninth Ohio Battalion which was an all-Black infantry battalion. However, the Ninth Ohio National Guard Regiment was never meant to be mobilized and was only authorized for political purposes during World War One. Upon learning that the regiment was not meant to be mobilized Young returned to Wilberforce University and voluntarily resumed his duties as the professor of military science and tactics.


In the Summer of 1918, Young tried one more time to prove to the military that he was fit for duty. On June 6, 1918, Young saddled his black mare named Blacksmith and headed east to Washington DC on what became known as his ‘Protest Ride.’ The Protest Ride was an extension of the fitness ride cavalry officers were required to complete. Cavalry officers were required to ride 90 miles in three days. Colonel Young rode from Wilberforce, Ohio to Washington, DC a total of 497 miles in a total of 17 days. Colonel Young arrived in Washington, DC on June 22. Young was met by Emmett J. Scott, an African American man who was a special assistant to Secretary of War Baker. Scott welcomed Young to Washington, DC, and led him to a meeting with Secretary of War Baker. Baker and Young met and spoke on many topics. At the end of the meeting, Baker asked Young if he would prefer a combatant or noncombatant assignment. Young answered enthusiastically “Combatant!”


Young and the Black Newspapers got their hopes up that Young would still see active combat in Europe. Their excitement was for not as Young never saw combat during the Great War. On November 6, 1918, Young was recalled to active duty and assigned to Camp Grant, Illinois. Colonel Young oversaw the development and training of all-Black battalions of laborers and stevedores. Young entered his work enthusiastically and worked diligently to improve the training and quality of life of the 8,000 soldiers under his command. The men Young oversaw also never saw Europe as the armistice ending World War One went into effect on November 11, 1918, just five days after Young’s arrival. Young stayed in command of Camp Grant until February 1919 when he was relieved of command by the War Department. After the closing of Camp Grant Colonel Young returned to Youngsholm in Wilberforce, Ohio hoping he would get another opportunity to serve his country.”


Charles Young at Camp Grant in 1919.
Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio.


Black West Point Cadet Brutally Beaten by White Students Days Before Graduation

“In the early hours of the morning on April 5, 1880, Cadet Johnson Whittaker, one of the first Black students in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was brutally beaten by white cadets while sleeping in his barracks. Three white cadets ambushed Cadet Whittaker, slashed his head and ears, burned his Bible, threatened his life, and then left him in his underwear, tied to the bed and bleeding profusely.

Born enslaved in South Carolina in 1858, Cadet Whittaker received a congressional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1876. For most of his time at West Point, Cadet Whittaker was the only Black cadet at the institution; he endured social exclusion and racial terrorism perpetrated at the hands of White cadets and faculty alike. Twenty-three Black cadets attended West Point between 1870 and 1890, but due to the violent discrimination that they faced, only three graduated. Cadet Whittaker would later testify that he had “read and heard about the treatment that [Black] cadets received there, and expected to be ostracized.”

After Cadet Whittaker reported to West Point administrators that he had been attacked, the institution opened an investigation into him and declined to hold his White attackers accountable. Administrators instead claimed that Cadet Whittaker had staged the attack to get out of his final exams, and in May, a West Point court of inquiry found Cadet Whittaker guilty of that charge. He was forced to take his final exams while incarcerated and withstand court-martial proceedings in New York City where the army prosecutor repeatedly referred to Black people as an “inferior race” known to “feign and sham.”

In January 1881, Brigadier General N.A. Miles affirmed Cadet Whittaker’s conviction and authorized him to be expelled from West Point, dishonorably discharged from the military, and held for continued imprisonment. Cadet Whittaker’s case was ultimately forwarded to President Chester A. Arthur for approval, and, a year later, President Arthur issued an executive order overturning the conviction based on a finding that military prosecutors had relied on improperly admitted evidence. By the time of President Arthur’s intervention, Cadet Whittaker had been incarcerated for nearly two years; even after his conviction was overturned, West Point reinstated Cadet Whittaker’s expulsion, claiming he had failed an exam.

Johnson Whittaker went on to work in several professional fields and raise a family, including several generations of descendants who served in the U.S. military. In 1995, more than 60 years after his death, Mr. Whittaker’s heirs accepted the commission he would have received upon graduating from West Point. At the ceremony, President Bill Clinton remarked: “We cannot undo history. But today, finally, we can pay tribute to a great American and we can acknowledge a great injustice.”

To learn more about the racial discrimination and violence Black service members and veterans have faced in the U.S. military, explore EJI’s report, Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans.”

Cadet Whittaker portrait

Portrait of Cadet Whittaker at the court-martial proceedings. (Library of Congress)