St. Philip’s very own Jane Eppinga has written a fascinating biography of Henry Ossian Flipper, West Point’s first black graduate. The grandson of slaves, Flipper was not the only black student at West Point in 1867, but he was the first graduate, who, as Eppinga correctly claims, “would assault the color barrier and march into the annals of history” (p 20). Jane summarizes the biography with these words, “Flipper’s life, marked by peaks of spectacular success and high adventure, was often blemished by failure and rejection. However, his many careers have left a profound impact on both the nation’s western frontier and military” (p 2).
Besides Flipper’s story, and it is an epic one, this biography is wonderful social history. Slavery conditions during Flipper’s parents’ and grandparents’ lives; discrimination and rejection at West Point; Army garrison life in the west, where Flipper was, it seems, unjustly charged with embezzlement. Jane explores this story in depth. Flipper was retired dishonorably through a military court martial in which, with Flipper having little or no room for a defense, the prosecution had all the cards. However, his engineering skills gave him a life in the west, doing surveying work in Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas. He was bilingual and got mixed up in the Mexican Revolution. But he also formed a company with six former Confederate soldiers in the southwest. He had a long history living in Nogales doing all sorts of activities. He worked in Washington and Venezuela. Many times he tried to clear his name from his dishonorable discharge and finally achieved this late in life. What makes this book especially interesting is that it is also a history of the late slavery days, the difficulties and conflict during Reconstruction, and maybe above all the settling and unsettling of the southwest in the late 19th Century.
Many specific anecdotes and stories make this biography come alive. What comes through in the end was a picture of Flipper as a dignified, bright, adventuresome person who withstood time after time engagements of discrimination, which he faced without hate or rancor; with pride in himself, his heritage, and his own personal capacities. A noble man indeed. A fine read. Thank you, Jane.
The Rev. Paul Buckwalter
Paul Buckwalter writes reviews of books you can find in the Renouf/Nelson Library.