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Respect and Esteem

A look back at Henry O. Flipper, a Tucsonan and West Point's first African-American graduate

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Seeking to marry his beloved, but prevented by Arizona law from doing so, Henry O. Flipper did the next best thing: He entered into a legal contract with his partner.

This was in the Arizona of 1891, and Flipper couldn't marry Luisa Montoya because of his race. From its inception almost two decades earlier, territorial law stated: "All marriages of white persons with negroes, mulattos, Indians or Mongolians are declared illegal and void."

Thus, even though Flipper was a West Point graduate and a respected Southern Arizona businessman, his black skin meant it wasn't legally possible for him to wed a white woman.

Despite that, local historian and Flipper's biographer, Jane Eppinga, observes: "They agreed to live together as husband and wife, and the contract was notarized."

The union quickly dissolved, but Eppinga believes Flipper didn't hold the marriage ban against the people of Arizona. "He was treated pretty well in Tucson and Nogales," she says. "He had a home in Nogales and felt he was treated better out here than back east as far as racial discrimination."

Born a slave in Georgia on March 21, 1856, Flipper went to West Point 17 years later. Exhibiting excellence in engineering, law and Spanish, within four years, Flipper became the Academy's first African-American graduate.

After serving as a surveyor and construction supervisor with the 10th Cavalry at posts in Oklahoma and Texas, 2nd Lt. Flipper was assigned to Fort Davis in Texas. While there, he was accused of embezzling funds and conducting himself in a fashion unbecoming an officer.

Flipper was exonerated on the first charge. But after a trial labeled as "shrouded in prejudice" and based on charges which were later called "a bare technicality without credibility," he was found guilty of misconduct and dismissed from the Army in 1882.

Several years later, Flipper was working as a surveyor in Southern Arizona, at time when few African-Americans called Tucson home. The census for 1900 shows less than 100 black citizens out of a total population of 7,500.

During the early 1890s, Flipper played a major role in preventing Nogales and the surrounding area from being swallowed up by land speculators. Paid $10 a day plus expenses, he was employed by the U.S. Court of Private Land Claims on a case concerning the disputed ownership of 700,000 acres of land along the Mexican border.

Investors alleged the land belonged to them, but after extensive research, Flipper disagreed. The attorney he was working with praised Flipper for his honesty, integrity and reliability, while stating: "This is borne out by the general respect and esteem accorded him in the community where he lives."

The court in Tucson sided with Flipper's argument, and the people of Nogales were jubilant. "The town went wild with joy," Eppinga writes of the Dec. 14, 1893, decision. "Despite drizzling rain, the band came out and firecrackers exploded in the damp air. Christmas had arrived early."

A banquet was held to celebrate the legal victory, but a Nogales physician declared he wouldn't eat at the same table as a black man. In response, Flipper later successfully worked to defeat the doctor's bid for a seat on the school board.

Flipper also had an unpleasant dining experience in Tucson. In his memoirs, he recalls visiting the restaurant at the San Xavier Hotel, which was located next to the Southern Pacific train station on Toole Avenue in downtown Tucson.

"Lieut. R.D. Read of the 10th Cavalry and a classmate of mine," Flipper writes of the incident, "was then at a table. As soon as I sat down, he got up and went out without his dinner." Whether this snub was because of his race, his military dismissal or because he had graduated higher in the West Point class of 1877 than Read, Flipper doesn't speculate.

John Slaughter was also rumored to have refused to dine with Flipper at his ranch house in Southeastern Arizona. The Texan, according to Eppinga, "would never have broken bread with a black man."

Until 1901, Flipper translated Mexican documents, surveyed disputed property and testified as an expert witness in several cases for the Court of Private Land Claims. During this period, he also edited the Nogales Sunday Herald for a short time, and he also checked that community's town boundaries through a survey.

Flipper eventually went to work for a Mexican mining firm, but returned to Tucson in 1912 to promote the African Land and Irrigation Company. Several years later, the life-long Republican was appointed a special assistant to the secretary of the interior during the Harding administration.

The author of three books, Flipper died in 1941. Throughout his life, he maintained his innocence of the military charges brought against him in Texas.

In 1976, the United States Army reviewed the case and, based on the evidence, awarded the lieutenant an honorable discharge. In 1999, President Bill Clinton fully pardoned Flipper while also recognizing his many notable achievements.

For centuries, black soldiers have played an important role in Southern Arizona history. From the four men of color who helped establish the Tucson presidio to the famous Buffalo soldiers to many of today's military men and women, they have contributed greatly to the region. Henry O. Flipper's name is prominent on that list.

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