Henry Ossian Flipper became, in 1877, the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point – an admirable achievement given both his being born into slavery in 1856 and the abhorrent treatment he received during his military training – and subsequently was the first African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. Despite being found not guilty of embezzlement at trial, a panicked attempt to hide a shortfall in funds in 1881 saw him dismissed from the Army for ‘conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman’. He fought tirelessly to clear his name until his death in 1940.
Below is a beautifully eloquent letter written by Henry; sent to chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs John A. T. Hull in 1898, in support of a proposed bill to reinstate him in the Army.
It wasn’t until 1999 – 101 years later – that Henry Ossian Flipper finally received a full pardon.
Santa Fe, New Mexico,
October 23, 1898.
Hon. John A. T. Hull,
I send you, in this mail and under separate cover, a printed copy of the Brief I have prepared in my case under Bill, H. R. 9849, which was so kindly introduced in the House for me by the Hon. Michael Griffin, at the last session of Congress.
In May last I submitted to you and to the members of the Sub-Committee a type-written copy of a Brief I had hastily prepared in Washington. I have carefully rewritten and revised that Brief and now send you a copy for your perusal and consideration.
In coming to Congress with my case, I do so because there is no individual or other tribunal to which I can go, no official or other official body with power to review the case and grant or refuse my petition. In coming to you, to the Committee and to Congress, I do not ask that aught be done for me from motives of mere sympathy and yet I cannot help feeling that all of us can and do sympathize with those who have been wronged. I am sure that, after reading my Brief through, you will understand and appreciate the struggle I made to rise above the station to which I was born, how I won my way through West Point and how I made as honorable a record in the Army as any officer in it, in spite of the isolation, lack of social association, ostracism and what not to which I was subjected by the great majority of my brother officers. You will recognize also the almost barbarous treatment to which I was subjected at the time I was accused and tried.
It will not be possible, I apprehend, for you or any member of the Committee to wade through the 1000 or more pages of the record, nor is it necessary, but, if you should do so, you will readily be convinced that the crime of being a Negro was, in my case, far more heinous than deceiving the commanding officer.
My utter helplessness and conviction then arose from that cause and without the generous assistance of yourself and the other gentlemen of the Committee, in Committee and on the floor of the House, I shall be equally helpless now.
I believe my case is a strong one as well as a meritorious one and one that will commend itself to you for approval and will enlist your sympathy and support.
I ask nothing because I am a Negro, yet that fact must press itself upon your consideration as a strong motive for the wrong done me as well as a powerful reason for righting that wrong.
I ask only what Congress has seen fit to grant to others similarly situated. I ask only that justice which every American citizen has the right to ask and which Congress alone has the power to grant.
In my Brief I offer for your consideration two cases, one occurring before my trial and of which I should have had the benefit as a precedent, and the other occurring after my trial. They will show how white officers of long years of experience and of high rank have been treated for the same offense as that for which I was tried and dismissed. I also present six precedents in which Congress has granted to dismissed officers what I am asking.
I do not believe Congress ever had before it a case as deserving of favorable action as my case, and for that reason I do not hesitate to appeal to you and to ask you to champion it for me and to see that both the Committee and the House take speedy and favorable action and pass the bill just as Mr. Griffin introduced it without amendment of any character. You will have my gratitude and that of my entire race, as well as the satisfaction of having righted a great wrong done to a member of a harmless but despised and friendless race.
Relying upon you, as I do, I have the honor to be,
Very truly yours,