Lloyd Austin is from Thomasville. So is Henry Flipper, the first African American graduate of West Point.

Thomasville — In a tree-shaded cemetery dating back to the 19th century here, history buffs can visit the final resting place of one of this South Georgia city’s most revered sons.

Henry Flipper — born a slave in Thomasville in 1856 — became the first Black man to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and to lead the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. He distinguished himself in combat on the American frontier, later working as a surveyor and engineer and becoming an author and special assistant to the U.S. interior secretary.

The cemetery is named after him. So is the park across the street along with the local post office. The public library here features a bust of Flipper in uniform.

Henry O. Flipper, from Thomasville, became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877. (Courtesy of the Jack Hadley Black History Museum)
Henry O. Flipper, from Thomasville, became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877. (Courtesy of the Jack Hadley Black History Museum)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

More than 80 years after Flipper’s death, this Spanish moss-draped city of 18,000 residents is celebrating another one of its favorite sons, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III. Last month, the U.S. Senate voted 93-2 to confirm the fellow West Point graduate as defense secretary, making him the first Black man to lead the Pentagon.

ExploreSenate confirms Lloyd Austin as nation’s first Black defense secretary

“I am honored and humbled,” Austin, 67, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview about his new role, adding he would keep his focus on the men and women he leads. “As I reflect on the challenges and the responsibilities of this office, it is clearly apparent to me that it is not about Lloyd Austin. This is about them: The men and women who wear the uniform, the DoD civilians who support them, the families that make sacrifices every day, the veterans that have sacrificed significantly.”

Henry O. Flipper's grave lies in a cemetery named after him in Thomasville. Born a slave, Flipper became the first African-American to graduate from West Point and the first Black officer to lead Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Henry O. Flipper's grave lies in a cemetery named after him in Thomasville. Born a slave, Flipper became the first African-American to graduate from West Point and the first Black officer to lead Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Thomasville’s City Council presented a proclamation in honor of Austin’s achievement.

“Thomasville is overjoyed with what has happened,” said Jack Hadley, a U.S. Air Force veteran who operates Thomasville’s Jack Hadley Black History Museum, a former school building that is jam-packed with Austin’s military uniforms, photos of Flipper and other memorabilia. “What he has accomplished gives hope to our young kids to know that if he can make it, there are no excuses why we can’t make it today.”

‘No matter what the sacrifice’

The son of a postal worker and a homemaker, Austin was born in Mobile, Alabama. His family moved to Thomasville when he was in third grade and schools were still segregated. Austin graduated from the newly integrated Thomasville High School in 1971.

Jim Hughes, who coached Austin when he played defensive lineman for Thomasville High School, remembered nicknaming the skinny teenager “Blade” because he cut up the turf whenever he fell. Austin, Hughes added, maintained a “mature presence” in school.

In January, the U.S. Senate voted 93-2 to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, of Thomasville, as defense secretary, making him the first Black man to lead the Pentagon. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via The New York Times)
In January, the U.S. Senate voted 93-2 to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, of Thomasville, as defense secretary, making him the first Black man to lead the Pentagon. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via The New York Times)

Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo

Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo

“I can’t think of anyone who would be better prepared based on his capabilities and based on the experiences he has put together,” said Hughes, a longtime friend. “I am very optimistic that he will be a great asset for the country.”

Two years after graduating from high school, Austin told the Thomasville Times-Enterprise he left for West Point because he “wanted to do something that would make my mother proud of the son she has sacrificed so much for.”

“Many of my friends in Thomasville didn’t understand my decision to come here, especially since my father wasn’t a military man,” he told the newspaper in a 1973 interview. “But there comes a time in a man’s life when he must make decisions for himself, and I feel that I have made the right decision for my life.”

He added: “This is the goal I have set for myself and I have to attain that goal, no matter what the sacrifice, no matter what the price.”

Lloyd Austin's family moved to Thomasville when he was in third grade. He graduated from the newly integrated Thomasville High School in 1971. This yearbook is part of the collection at the at Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville. Hadley, a U.S. Air Force veteran, has preserved 4,669 pieces of African American artifacts with emphasis on Thomasville's first Black achievers. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Lloyd Austin's family moved to Thomasville when he was in third grade. He graduated from the newly integrated Thomasville High School in 1971. This yearbook is part of the collection at the at Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville. Hadley, a U.S. Air Force veteran, has preserved 4,669 pieces of African American artifacts with emphasis on Thomasville's first Black achievers. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in 1975, Austin rose through the ranks during his 41 years in the Army to command troops at the corps, division, battalion and brigade levels. He served as the Army’s vice chief of staff and led U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. He received the Silver Star for his leadership of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Austin retired from the military in 2016 before serving on the board for Raytheon Technologies, a major defense industry company.

Austin credits his parents for believing in him and his siblings and for encouraging them to work hard.

“They told us that we could always be anything that we wanted to be and that we had the talent to compete in almost anything,” said Austin, who is married with two stepsons. “I guess the story here is, parents, be careful about what you tell your kids. They will actually wind up believing you. I certainly believed my mother and my father.”

Taking on extremism

During his confirmation hearing, Austin identified several particularly thorny challenges he wants to tackle: Helping distribute COVID-19 vaccines, stamping out sexual assault among troops and ridding “our ranks of racists and extremists and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity.”

During his Army career, Austin encouraged other Black servicemembers, including Joe Wells of Acworth, who became the first Black brigadier general in the Georgia National Guard.

Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Lloyd Austin III as secretary of defense Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Austin has said that ridding the military of racists and extremists will be a top priority. (Lawrence Jackson / White House)
Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Lloyd Austin III as secretary of defense Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Austin has said that ridding the military of racists and extremists will be a top priority. (Lawrence Jackson / White House)

Credit: lawrence jackson

Credit: lawrence jackson

“He was my beacon,” said Wells, who retired as a two-star general from the Guard and now works as a commercial airline pilot. Wells added about Austin’s confirmation as defense secretary: “He is the right person at the right time.”

Wells mentored Maj. Gen. Reginald Neal, who became the first Black man to lead the Georgia National Guard’s storied 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. Neal called Austin a “common-sense leader.”

“He always wanted to get back to the field and get back to leading soldiers,” said Neal, who is now the deputy commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific. “The perspective of understanding what is going on at the ground level across the services is going to be very important.”

Henry O. Flipper, center left, stands with other West Point graduates in 1877 in this photo from the Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville. Despite a distinguished military, Flipper was dismissed from the Army over a charge of conduct unbecoming of an officer. His dismissal was changed to an honorable discharge in 1976 and he was pardoned by President Clinton in 1996. (Courtesy of Jack Hadley Black History Museum)
Henry O. Flipper, center left, stands with other West Point graduates in 1877 in this photo from the Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville. Despite a distinguished military, Flipper was dismissed from the Army over a charge of conduct unbecoming of an officer. His dismissal was changed to an honorable discharge in 1976 and he was pardoned by President Clinton in 1996. (Courtesy of Jack Hadley Black History Museum)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Flipper’ vindication

The fifth Black man to receive an appointment to West Point, Flipper endured isolation and hostility among white cadets at the military academy before graduating in 1877 and being commissioned as a second lieutenant assigned to the 10th Calvary. At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he designed a drainage system — Flipper’s Ditch — that protected U.S. troops from malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

In 1881, Flipper’s commanding officer accused him of embezzlement. He was acquitted of that charge but was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and dismissed from the Army. Flipper maintained his innocence and repeatedly sought to get his conviction reversed. Meanwhile, he wrote an autobiography, worked as an engineer and translator and served as a special agent at the U.S. Justice Department and as an aide to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

In 1976, Flipper’s supporters appealed to the military, which ultimately changed his dismissal to an honorable discharge. More than two decades later, President Bill Clinton pardoned Flipper, calling him an “extraordinary American” who “did all his country asked him to do.”

Austin admires Flipper’s resilience.

“His story is one of courage, of perseverance and of commitment and of values,” Austin said. “I have always been proud to say I am from the same town as Henry Flipper.”

ABOUT LLOYD AUSTIN III

Age: 67

Born: Mobile, Alabama

Early life: Austin grew up in Thomasville, where he graduated from high school in 1971.

Education: U.S. Military Academy, Auburn University and Webster University

Career: Austin rose to become a four-star general in the Army and retired in 2016 as the chief of U.S. Central Command, a role from which he oversaw U.S. military operations across the Middle East.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Throughout February, we’ll spotlight different African American pioneers ― through new stories and our archive collection ― in our Living and Metro sections Monday through Sunday. Go to AJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African American pioneers featured here each day

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