Petition to Rename Fort Benning in honor of Lieut. Henry Flipper

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Fort Benning honors the Confederate politician and General, Henry Lewis Benning, who devoted himself to the premise that 'coloreds' were not human and could never be trusted with full citizenship. Benning was one of the Confederate's most forceful advocates of secession to protect States' right to own slaves. Benning warned that the abolition of slavery would one day lead to the horror of "black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything." Abolition, he said, would place white womanhood at the mercy of negros, with the same rights as white people. "We will be completely exterminated…and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks, and then it will go back into a wilderness."

Every year, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point honors a cadet who succeeds in the face of great hardship. The award is named for Lieut. Henry O. Flipper, the first African American graduate of the Academy, as well as the first black to become an officer in the U.S. Army. Lieut. Flipper represents the strength, values, and diversity of African American military heroes and uniquely, is the only former slave being considered for the honor.

As a soldier, Lt. Flipper was a trailblazer who, despite the overwhelming resistance he faced, cleared the path for others who, until then, had been barred from fully serving in the military. He was born a slave in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1856. He was the fifth African-American to enter West Point, and in 1877, became the first to graduate. He endured unremitting racial ostracism from his fellow cadets during his West Point years.

He went on to become the first African-American officer to command units of the U.S. Calvary -- the legendary "Buffalo Soldiers," who served in the Western territories. He was tested in battle. As an Army engineer, he designed and constructed "Flipper's Ditch," a system that drained the malarial swamps around Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, and saved many lives. No other Army engineer assigned to this task had been able to accomplish it. Lt. Flipper's work is still in use today -- over 100 years after its construction. In 1975, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated "Flipper's Ditch," a National Historic Landmark.

Flipper was dismissed from the Army in 1882 after a court-martial, for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. His court-martial and dismissal have long been seen as a grave miscarriage of justice. Indeed, some military historians describe Lt. Flipper's treatment as having left an " ugly scar " on the military justice system.

Henry Flipper went on to distinguish himself in a variety of governmental and private engineering positions. Flipper became a recognized expert regarding Spanish and Mexican land mining laws. He was frequently consulted as an expert on these subjects, and he became an interpreter of Mexican law and Spanish translator for a Senate subcommittee studying the impact of the Mexican Revolution on American economic interests. He was frequently consulted as an expert on these subjects, including in cases involving him appearing in front of the United States Supreme Court. Flipper spent time in Mexico, at times consulting the Mexican government, and on returning to the United States, he served as an adviser to Senator Albert Fall on Mexican politics. When Senator Fall became Secretary of the Interior in 1921, he brought Flipper with him to Washington, D.C., to serve as his special assistant. From 1893 to 1901, he worked for the U. S. Department of Justice as a special agent for the Court of Private Land Claims.

His post-military accomplishments would be considered amazing over-achievements, even for a Caucasian who did not have to contend with the bigotry and racism that Flipper experienced. 

Throughout the balance of his life, Henry Flipper maintained that he was innocent of the charges that that warranted his dismissal from the Army (although, he admitted to the deceit). Flipper made numerous attempts to have his conviction reversed and to be reinstated to his commission as an officer. He made frequent trips to Washington DC in that quest. Friends and fellow officers testified in supported his efforts, and congressmen spoke on his behalf, all to no avail. His Congressional supporters in The House of Representatives introduced legislation, in a failed attempt to reinstate his commission.

Lieut. Henry O. Flipper eventually retired in 1934, during the Great Depression, after his unsuccessful attempts to find civilian or government employment that valued his unique expertise. Flipper did not possess any savings, so he moved in with Atlanta relatives, where he lived the last years of his life in a mostly solitary existence. Flipper died as a pauper at age 84 with the stain of his Court-Marshal and remaining on his reputation. On May 5, 1940, Flipper was found dead of a heart attack in his bedroom and was buried in a segregated cemetery in an unmarked grave.

After Flipper was granted a posthumous honorable discharge, his body was exhumed and reburied in the Old Magnolia Cemetery in Thomasville. Flipper’s body was carried to his new gravesite in a mule-drawn wagon with a riderless horse, attended by a crowd estimated to be around 500, with family members and dignitaries from the U.S. Army, West Point, and the Georgia government who followed an honor guard from Fort Benning and which featured a 21-gun salute.

President William Jefferson Clinton pardoned Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper in a White House ceremony attended by Flipper’s descendants and military dignitaries. In pardoning Flipper, the President recognized an error in his treatment and acknowledged his lifetime accomplishments. The event came 59 years after his death and 117 years after the young lieutenant had been dismissed from the United States Army.

Lieut. Flipper represents the strength, values, and diversity of African American military heroes and uniquely, is the only former slave being considered for the honor of having Fort Benning renamed for him.