Henry Flipper, born a slave in Georgia in 1856, became in 1877 the first African-American to graduate from West Point.
After graduation, Flipper served at Fort Concho in San Angelo, Texas. Several white officers protested when Flipper’s commander, Capt. Nicholas Nolan, invited Flipper to his quarters for dinner, with his daughter Kate also present. Nolan insisted that Flipper was as much an “officer and a gentleman” as any other officer at the post. Nolan and Flipper both moved to Fort Elliott in the Texas Panhandle, where Flipper became friends with Nolan’s sister-in-law, Mollie Dwyer. They often went riding together—black lieutenant, white woman—and the gossip mills churned.
In 1880, Flipper arrived at Fort Davis. Buffalo Soldiers finally had an officer of their own race. Not for long, though: In 1881 Col. William Shafter, who apparently did not think African-Americans should be officers, became Flipper’s commanding officer and moved the quartermaster’s safe into Flipper’s quarters. A few months later Flipper found $1,440 or $2,000 (historians vary) missing. He knew the discrepancy could force him out of the Army. He tried to cover up the problem. When challenged, he initially lied about it.
A trial for embezzlement concluded with Flipper found not guilty, but letters he and Mollie Dwyer had exchanged became part of the evidence that he had engaged in “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” The Army discharged him in 1882. Routes of the Texas Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads bypassed the fort. It closed in 1891.
Flipper stayed on in Texas, working as a civil engineer and surveyor, and gaining respect that led to him becoming a special assistant to the secretary of the interior in the 1920s. Flipper died in 1940, but his story did not die. In 1976 the Army, ruling that Flipper had been dismissed unfairly, changed his record to “honorable discharge.” In 1999 Bill Clinton pardoned him: It was the first time a president had pardoned a person posthumously.