By Michelle Eberhart
WEST POINT – The entire Corps of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point gathered together in Washington Hall to commemorate the life of Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American graduate of West Point, during the Flipper Dinner.
This year the guest speakers were Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, and 2010 USMA graduate, Army Ranger and Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive tackle, Alejandro Villanueva.
Just eight short years after the end of the Civil War, Henry O. Flipper was appointed and admitted to West Point. Throughout his four years at the Academy, nobody spoke to him except in performance of official duties. He experienced racial slurs, violence and silence regularly, but persevered with his aspiration to graduate and serve his nation as an Army officer. In 1877, Flipper became the first African-American graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, and upon receiving his diploma, he was applauded by his classmates for his remarkable determination.
Flipper has since become a symbol of perseverance in the face of significant difficulties.
“All who attend West Point face many trials, but Henry Flipper faced many more,” Pence said at his first official military instillation visit since becoming Vice President. “We all understand by virtue of his willingness to challenge the status quo, challenge the injustices of his day, he persevered through four years, making history as the first African-American ever to graduate from the United States Military Academy.”
Pence went on to discuss the sacrifices made by historical African-American military heroes like the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen and more.
“They are the best of us,” he began. “During this month, African-American History Month, and not only this month, we remember them, and we thank them for what they did, their names and their sacrifices will never be forgotten, they understood the promise of America, the timeless ideas that bind us together as a people and give us purpose as a nation.”
Pence expressed his gratitude to the Corps of Cadets for also understanding that promise and for serving.
“You are all already true leaders and you are all already patriots. President Trump and I thank you. We thank you for answering the call to serve your country, to put America first,” he started, referencing the President’s speech earlier in the week. “He promised, in his words, to give you ‘the tools, the equipment, the resources, the training and the supplies you need to get the job done.’ And he promised to ‘honor our sacred bond to those who serve.’”
Pence’s words were welcomed with a roaring applause from an audience of over 4000 cadets.
Upon concluding, Pence noted that the future looks bright.
“Looking out at your shining faces, seeing your dedication to America, we’re more confident than ever that the best days for America are yet to come,” he concluded.
Following his remarks, Pence was presented a cadet bust from Cadet Christian Nattiel, the first USMA African-American Rhodes Scholar and retired Major Pat Locke, the first female African-American USMA graduate.
After dinner, Villanueva took the podium and also paid respect to the legacy of Henry O. Flipper, saying that he was humbled.
“The annual Henry O. Flipper dinner (is) a time to reflect on the challenges and hardships that our graduates have individually faced in order to contribute to the Long Gray Line,” he said. “Not only did he pave the way for thousands of African-American graduates, but also inspired all West Point graduates in their personal challenges.”
Villanueva remarked that he cannot compare himself to someone who has persevered as Flipper had. However, he says, he has developed tremendous respect for graduates like Flipper, the first female graduates, and everyone else who has overcome incredible odds to be where they are.
Villanueva went on to tell the Corps that when they become Army officers, they will grow to cherish the “magic” of West Point and what it has taught them.
“You’re finally in charge of a group of men and women who are trusting you to lead them, you realize that the most valuable resource of our nation is being trusted to you in order to serve the people of the United States,” he started. “Because at that moment you realize that you’re apart of something way bigger than yourself. And it will be right at that time that the values of this Academy will be as clear in your head as it is to say your own name.”
Upon completing his remarks, Villanueva thanked the Corps for beating Navy. The cadets, in turn, responded with an overwhelming round of applause. Villanueva also received a gift on behalf of the Corps of Cadets.
The Flipper Dinner has been ongoing since 1977, the centennial anniversary of Flipper’s graduation from the Academy. In addition, the Flipper Award is given annually to a senior cadet who has demonstrated the highest qualities of leadership, self-discipline and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties.
This year’s recipient of the Flipper Award is Cadet Christopher “Lars” Lofgren. Lofgren was injured during a military summer training activity in 2015 and has since been in a wheelchair. This past summer, Lofgren competed in the 2016 Department of Defense Warrior Games and received six silver medals and one bronze medal.
The family of Henry O. Flipper presented Lofgren the notable award.
“I have always seen the Flipper Award as an amazing opportunity to show everyone how resilient and strong people can be,” Lofgren said. “I know so many people who have and continue to go through greater hardship here. My fellow cadets have lost friends, family and so much more. While my condition is more obvious and in the open, it also means I don’t go through any of my challenges alone. I work hard, but I’ve gotten a lot of help to be where I am. Friends, family and the whole Long Gray Line have been at my back and supporting me all the way.”