December 1, 2009
Henry Ossian Flipper
HENRY OSSIAN FLIPPER (b. 1856, d. 1940)
At the heart of Museo Urbano 2010 is the idea of bringing the historical past to life on the streets of the City of El Paso. Historic buildings and the surrounding Segundo Barrio neighborhood will set the stage for a rich and theatrical retellingof the story of the Mexican Revolution in El Paso. Central to the story is a diverse cast of characters, of which Henry Ossian Flipper is one of the most interesting and controversial. Son of a freed slave, Flipper was the first black graduate of West Point, and was an officer in the United States Army from 1887-1881. He was trained as an engineer and worked in this capacity while serving as asecond lieutenant in the U.S. army. A relatively unremarkable ditch bears his name in Fort Sill, Oklahoma where he was briefly stationed. While stationed at Fort Davis Texas, Flipper was dishonorably discharged under what many historians believed to have been trumped up charges of embezzlement, possibly related to his relationship to Molly Dwyer, a white woman who was the sister-in-law of hiscommanding officer, Captain Nicolas M. Noland. In the court martial that followed, also at Fort Davis, Flipper was cleared of the embezzlement, but convicted of conduct not becoming an officer and dismissed from the Army. He spent much of his life trying to clear his name. His story came to national attention during the Clinton administration, when he was officially pardoned by the president morethan 100 years after the court martial and more than 50 years after his death.
Much less is known about Flipper’s life after his time in the army, but he continued to be a central figure in the Southwest and in relations between Mexico and the United States. Flipper, who was fluent in Spanish and who translated and studied Spanish-language land laws in the region, played a major role in courtcases that dispossessed Mexican-Americans of their land throughout New Mexico and Arizona. Gerald Horne notes that, ” Ironically, as Flipper was dispossessing Chicanos, he in the process was dispossessed, for his handiwork… was published under the name of Matthew G. Reynolds, U.S. Attorney for Private Claims . This pattern of unrecognized achievement would plague Flipper for much of his life.Flipper spent time in Venezuela on multiple occaisions between the 1900-1920, primarily working for for William F. Buckley Sr.,as engineering and legal consultant for his Pantamec Petroleum Company in Venezuela, and he spent a significant amount of time in Mexico as well, working for a variety of United States commercial interests in the region, as an engineer, a legal advisor, a translator andinterpreter. Census records and historic city directories show that he lived in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio off and on from as early as 1881 through at least 1920, including living at the 500 S. Oregon site (also home to Teresita Urrea). It was during his time in El Paso that he becomes an important figure in our telling of the story of the Revolution.
Flipper, despite his ongoing battleagainst his discharge from the army, remained a loyal supporter of the United States and its governmental processes (as evidenced by his central role in the land cases against Mexican American families. He drew the attention of Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico, a local El Pasoan who kept a home in Sunset Heights, and is most famous for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal (add brief footnote here).Because Flipper traveled back and forth to Mexico frequently, he was unusually comfortable with the people, customs and language of the northern part of the country. He was in an ideal position to spy for the United States, and, though many of the details are unclear to this day, it appears that that is what he did.
Flipper clearly had conflicted views about the Mexican revolution, and in a...