This past week, I had a discussion with some students about local history. One topic that came up was the Old City Cemetery downtown and whether anyone famous was buried there. When I mentioned the name Henry Flipper, the students looked at me as if I was speaking Latin. When I inquired if they knew who Henry Flipper was, they were clueless.
There’s a good chance many locals don’t know who Henry Flipper is either. So today I’ll do my best to introduce you to him, because of all the historical jewels of Thomasville and Thomas County, Lieutenant Flipper is a diamond in our crown.
Born into slavery in Thomas County at 1856, Henry Ossian Flipper was one of five sons of Festus Sr. and Isabella Flipper. Festus, Sr. was a successful businessman here, operating a shoemaking shop eventually inherited by Festus Jr.
Young Henry stayed in Thomasville, then during the Civil War lived in Macon and Atlanta. Taught to read in 1864 by a slave who taught school at night, in late 1865 he attended schools established by the American Missionary Association.
Intelligent beyond his years, his famous military journey truly began in January 1873 after writing Congressman James Freeman asking to be appointed to West Point. Freeman responded that he would recommend him if he proved “worthy and qualified.”
Freeman eventually forwarded the nomination to the Secretary of War. Flipper passed the required examinations and officially entered the Academy on July 1, 1873.
Henry excelled in engineering, law, French and Spanish, ranking 50th in a class of 76 when he graduated in 1877. The young second lieutenant soon found himself stationed on the frontier at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, assigned to Troop A of the 10th Cavalry, one of the original “Buffalo Soldiers,“ named by Indians because of the resemblance of the black soldier’s hair to a buffalo’s mane.
While there, Flipper was detailed as the post’s engineer and was ordered to construct a new drainage system to eliminate stagnant ponds blamed for causing malaria. His efforts were so successful that the ditch he engineered soon bore his name. In 1977, “Flipper’s Ditch” was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Now Lt. Henry Flipper was ordered to Fort Davis, Texas as acting assistant quartermaster and acting commissary of subsistence. All seemed well for the only black officer in the Regular Army until the spring of 1881, when Col. William R. Shafter became commander of the post. Known for being particularly hard on subordinates, he relieved Flipper of his quartermaster duties.
Flipper discovered commissary funds missing from his trunk, and fearful of the ill-tempered Shafter tried to conceal the loss, even lying to his commander, until the money could be found.
Flipper’s efforts resulted a court-martial, charged with “embezzlement” and “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” His trial was held in November and December of 1881. The court found him not guilty of embezzlement but guilty of misconduct, and ordered his dismissal.
After leaving the army, Flipper attained respect as a surveyor. In 1890 he opened his own civil and mining engineering office in Arizona. From 1893 to 1901, Flipper worked for the Department of Justice as a special agent for the Court of Private Land Claims. His main task was translating Spanish documents into English, but he also surveyed land grants and appeared as an expert witness in several court cases.
Flipper next took a job as resident engineer with a mining company in Mexico. Following the Mexican Revolution, he moved to El Paso. In 1919, he served as an interpreter and translator for a Senate subcommittee on foreign relations, and in 1921 was appointed special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior working with the Alaskan Engineering Commission. From 1923 to 1930, Flipper worked as a consultant for a New York-based oil company.
Following his army dismissal, Flipper maintained his innocence, seeking to clear his name through the only avenue open to him: passage of a bill by Congress. The first attempt to restore his rank and status occurred in 1898. His eighth and final effort resulted in a bill being introduced into the Senate in 1924. None of the bills, however, gained enough support or interest, all dying quietly in committees
Henry Flipper died in 1940 at the age of 84 never having married, his record never cleared. He was buried in Atlanta.
In 1972, the late Ray MacColl, then a student at Valdosta State, began researching Lt. Flipper’s case at the urging of Flipper’s niece, the late Mrs. Irsle Flipper King, and other family members, including citizens from Thomasville.
On December 13, 1976, the U. S. Army reviewed his case, and posthumously awarded Flipper an honorable discharge, backdated to June 30, 1882. While acknowledging that Flipper falsified reports and lied to his commanding officer, the army ruled that the sentence was too severe for the crime.
Flipper was re-interred to Thomasville with much pomp and circumstance in 1978, reburied near his parents in the Old Magnolia Cemetery.
Henry Flipper’s brothers became prominent citizens in their own right: Bishop Joseph S. Flipper, a national leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and past president of Morris Brown College; Carl Flipper, professor at Savannah State College; Festus Flipper, Jr., successful businessman and civic leader of Thomasville; and Dr. Emory Flipper, one of the early black physicians in South Georgia.
On February 19, 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Lt. Flipper, posthumously erasing the stigma on a landmark military and professional career. Thomasville honored Lt. Flipper by dedicating a new post office named after him. Over 400 citizens and dignitaries attended the dedication services.
Today, you can visit Lt. Flipper’s grave in downtown Thomasville, marked with a historic monument recognizing this incredible man and his accomplishments.