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College of Education > News and Publications > News: 2009 > Former Slave Henry O. Flipper Is Topic of Penn State Researchers

Former Slave Henry O. Flipper Is Topic of Penn State Researchers

The work of Edgar Farmer and Shakoor Ward

(February 2009)

Black History Month is a perfect time to share the work of Edgar I. Farmer, professor and head of the Department of Learning and Performance Systems, and Shakoor A. Ward, doctoral candidate in the Workforce Education and Development program. Farmer and Ward have been conducting research on the life and influences of a remarkable nineteenth-century figure—Henry O. Flipper.  Flipper’s trailblazing accomplishments serve as an inspiration for all of us.

Farmer and Ward co-authored the following tribute.

Life Lessons from an Unsung American Hero: The Experiences of Henry O. Flipper


Henry Flipper.jpgby Edgar I. Farmer and Shakoor A. Ward

Sometimes in life a person will come along that we can learn so much from; Henry Ossian Flipper was such a person. He was born on March 21, 1856 to the slave parents of Festus Flipper and Isabella Burkhalter in Thomasville, Georgia. Henry Flipper was a pioneer who was ostracized socially by his white counterparts, yet persevered in overcoming racial barriers to become the first African American to graduate from West Point Military Academy (June 14, 1877). He paved the way as an unsung American hero for African Americans in their struggle for equality in the United States Military. 

The magnitude of Flipper’s accomplishments must be considered in the context of a young man born during the institution of slavery in the United States, who was determined to beat the odds of successfully matriculating in the nation’s top academic military institution. His father must be given credit for having the vision to see that his son was exceptional, so he hired the wife of an ex-confederate officer to conduct private education lessons for young Henry at the age of eight. Flipper’s early childhood education was extraordinary. It was illegal in America, prior to President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, to teach a slave to read or write. Therefore, acquiring a quality education during the Civil War era was an incredible accomplishment for African Americans.

Several years later in 1869, at the age of 13, Flipper attended Atlanta University, which has since merged with Clark College to become Clark Atlanta University. Although 27 other African American men were nominated in the nineteenth century to West Point Military Academy, only 12 of the 27 were admitted.  Flipper was the first to graduate, while enduring the hostility and brutality of the white cadets. His scholarship was impressive enough to be ranked 50th in his graduating class of 76 cadets. Ten years later, two other African Americans graduated: John H. Alexander in 1887 and Charles Young in 1889. Only those three African Americans graduated from West Point Military Academy in the nineteenth century, and it would be 47 years (in 1936) before another African American would graduate from this distinguished institution.

During the post-Civil War era in 1877, Henry Flipper also became the first African American commissioned officer in the regular United States Army. He was assigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma and later to “A” Troop of the 10th Cavalry known as the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Davis, Texas.