Monday, June 16, 2014

Finding Henry O. Flipper in El Paso

One of the most remarkable life stories has roots in our region, that of Henry O. Flipper, who was stationed at Fort Davis and lived many years in El Paso.

Who was Henry Flipper?  From our website:

"Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, engineer and military officer in the Tenth United States Cavalry, lived a remarkably successful life through the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly in light of the fact that he was born a slave in 1856. His education began at the American Missionary Association, an opportunity available to him as a result of the Civil War, and concluded with membership in the 1877 graduating class of West Point, becoming the first African American to do so. As Lieutenant, Flipper served on the front lines of an expanding western settlement, commanding forces in two battles at Eagle Springs and serving as engineer surveyor, construction supervisor, quartermaster, and commissary officer. Flipper was stationed at posts across the frontier including Fort Davis, Fort Concho, Fort Sill in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Fort Quitman, and Fort Elliott. Later in civilian life, Flipper continued his success as civil engineer, author, translator, and surveyor, and occupied positions on the national stage including agent of the Justice Department, aide to Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and assistant to the Secretary of the Interior with the Alaskan Engineering Commission.  As an authority on mining and land laws of Mexico, Flipper worked with mining and mineral companies in northern Mexico and Venezuela and authored several works, including an autobiography called “The Colored Cadet at West Point” and a memoir titled “Black Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, first Black Graduate of West Point.”

While these accomplishments are laudable by any standard, they are all the more admirable considering the level of prejudice Flipper faced while tackling his aspirations. Flipper suffered a humiliating court-martial in 1882, the result of a manipulative subterfuge perpetrated by his commanding officer Col. William Rufus Shafter at Fort Davis and one that will reside in military history as a disturbing chapter where bigotry derailed an otherwise stellar career. Over a hundred years later, Flipper received a pardon, courtesy of President William Jefferson Clinton, exonerating him of the accusations and conviction that led to his court martial; a posthumous validation of his innocence, a position Flipper maintained his entire life. Today, his story is interpreted throughout the frontier fort history and across the Texas west, including museums at the Fort Concho and Fort Davis National Historic Sites, where his reputation is restored and his service is honored in perpetuity."

A historic marker in El Paso, at 3231 E. Wyoming at Cebeda Avenue, continues the story of his 10 years in El Paso:

"Henry O. Flipper - Henry O. Flipper Henry Ossian Flipper (1856-1940) was the first African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877. Born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia, he came from a family of achievers; his brothers were an African Methodist Episcopal Bishop, a college professor and a farmer. Commissioned as Lieutenant in the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, Flipper was stationed at bases in western states and territories. At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he designed a drainage system, now a National Historic Landmark known as "Flipper's Ditch," that removed standing water, thus minimizing malaria outbreaks. Despite his many accomplishments, Flipper is most remembered as a victim of racism. In 1882, at Fort Davis, Texas, he was court-martialled on questionable charges. He was eventually acquitted of all charges save one: conduct unbecoming an officer. Dismissed from the army, Flipper went on to become a civil mining engineer, surveyor, translator, newspaper editor, historian and folklorist in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. For 10 years, he lived in El Paso, working for prominent mining companies. He was appointed Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior during the Harding administration. Flipper tried, but was unable, to clear his name before his death in 1940. In 1976, the U.S. Army granted Lt. Flipper an honorable discharge, and he received a full presidential pardon of all charges in 1999."

The El Paso Community College Libraries has a web page on Henry Flipper, including this information about his time in the city:

"From the 1880s to the early years of the 20th century, Flipper spent time in El Paso, arranging work and writing reports. He did contract work for many mining companies in both the United States and northern Mexico. He worked extensively for Colonel William C. Greene and Albert Fall who both promoted his work and became close friends. Flipper also became an authority on Southwestern history and folklore, writing articles for Old Santa Fe (forerunner of the New Mexico Historical Review) and conducting research in New Mexico, Mexico, and Spain. Flipper was well-known and respected in the African-American community of El Paso. During the Mexican Revolution, there was a rumor that Flipper was serving with Pancho Villa’s troops, a rumor that followed him the rest of his life.

Flipper never owned property in El Paso but according to city directories he spent ten years living in two of the city’s many boarding houses. For eight years, from 1910 to 1919, he resided at  803 ½  El Paso Street. This two-story building is still standing and in use at the corner of El Paso Street and Father Rahm Avenue. From 1919 to 1920, Flipper lived at 202 E. Third Street. This two-story brick building stands at the corner of Third and Oregon Streets and houses a few residents and small businesses. Faded lettering on the side of the building advertises furnished rooms and beds available from twenty-five cents." 

Albert Fall's mansion was for many years endangered by neglect, but the City of El Paso saved it from demolition and is now leasing it to Texas Tech University where it houses the administration of their School of Nursing.  The mansion, at 1725 Arizona, was built in 1906.
Photo: Preservation Texas
 Preservation Texas' page on the Albert Fall mansion is here.  The Fall Mansion was on the 2004 list of Preservation Texas' Most Endangered Places.

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