Flipper Dinner honors academy's first African-American graduate
Story and photos by Kathy Eastwood
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Feb. 14, 2013) — West Point and the Corps of Cadets conducted the 2013 Henry Ossian Flipper Dinner Feb. 7 at the Cadet Mess Hall where the Henry O. Flipper Award was presented to Class of 2013 Cadet William Alfonsi, Company C-1 commander.
The Flipper Dinner has been a tradition since 1977 to honor Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy in 1877—just 12 years after the end of the Civil War when resentment toward African-Americans was still held by many.
The award presented to Alfonsi is annually given to a graduating cadet who demonstrates the highest qualities of leadership, self-discipline and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties.
According to a statement by Maj. William Richardson, Alfonsi's tactical officer, "Cadet Alfonsi originates from humble beginnings and was not afforded many of the advantages and support that most college-bound students enjoy.
"He was the first of his family to attend college and cared for his mother while attending high school. The family struggles of his early life have given him a perspective on hard work, ethics and life that few cadets possess. Cadet Alfonsi continued to effectively lead the company and excel in the classroom when his mother unexpectedly passed away this semester."
Alfonsi took this in stride as he said the thought of leaving or quitting never entered his mind.
"Well, it's never really a choice whether or not you continue," he said. "My family had no option but to continue moving forward. We supported each other, and that is what got us all through. I didn't go through adversity in a bubble. The people around me—my family, my friends—were the reason I got through. I never doubted their kindness and love."
Col. Irving Smith, Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership instructor and a 1987 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, was the guest speaker at this year's dinner.
In his remarks, Smith presented a list of derogatory names often heard directed toward African-Americans during the time Flipper was at West Point.
"I know some of you are shocked, some are appalled, and others are offended," Smith said. "I want you to feel uncomfortable for a moment. I want you to understand what Henry O. Flipper must have felt every single day.
"My guess is that with people these categories fall to, it is not the first time they have heard those words," Smith said. "We should never use those words. My feeling during my time as a cadet, as I sat at these very same events in this very same mess hall and I would ask myself, "Why do we keep dwelling on the past?" After all, we have come so far."
Smith said Flipper underwent racial slurs and physical punishment but rather then dwell on these transgressions, he developed a way to overcome those transgressions.
When Flipper reported to Fort Sill, Okla., as the post's engineer he was ordered to drain a number of ponds responsible for spreading malaria. The Corps of Engineers had tried twice before, but did not succeed. Flipper was the only one who was successful in his duty. It is called Flipper's Ditch and in 1977, the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Richard Clarke presents Class of 2013 Cadet William Alfonsi with the Henry O. Flipper Award Feb. 7 at the Cadet Mess. The annual award is given to a senior who has demonstrated exceptional qualities of leadership, self-discipline and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties while a cadet.
Col. Irving Smith, Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership instructor, was the guest speaker at the annual Henry O. Flipper Dinner Feb. 7 at the Cadet Mess Hall. He spoke to attendees about the trials and tribulations of Henry O. Flipper who persevered to become the first African-American graduate at the U.S. Military Academy.
Class of 2013 Cadet William Alfonsi greets the members of the Henry O. Flipper family after receiving the Flipper Award Feb. 7 at the Cadet Mess.