Trailblazer and inspirational role model hardly capture the impact Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. had on America and the countless black men and women who followed him in service to the country. Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., was born in Washington, DC on December 18, 1912. His father was a U.S. Army Officer who initially enlisted as a private during the Spanish-American War. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. would be a pioneer himself when, in 1940, he became the first black general in the history of the United States military.
Davis, Jr. spent some time at the University of Chicago before he was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1932. It was an honor denied his father decades earlier. Davis was the first black cadet to attend West Point in the 20th Century. He was only the fourth black cadet to graduate when he accepted his commission as a second lieutenant four long years later. Davis ranked number 35 in a class of 276. His success came at an extraordinarily high price. When he matriculated into the Long Gray Line, Davis encountered a juggernaut of institutional prejudice. During his four years as a cadet, he was never assigned a roommate and frequently shunned at required social events. Even worse, he endured the entire experience with no one speaking to him outside of the line of duty. Davis patiently endured countless daily depravations and degradations and kept his eye on the prize. Remarkably, he was to note later of his ill treatment: “It was designed to make me buckle, but I refused to buckle. They didn’t understand that I was going to stay there. That I was going to graduate.” When he did graduate and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1936, the Army had only two black line officers, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
Such was Davis’ grace and character, he would say of his time at West Point: ”Living as a prisoner in solitary confinement for four years had not destroyed my personality, nor poisoned my attitude toward other people.” Yet, in spite of, or rather, because of the hardships he endured, Davis had already made an impact on his future fellow officers. In the 1936 issue of The Howitzer, West Point’s yearbook, it was said of him:
The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.
His challenges hardly ended with his graduation. Nurturing a dream of being an aviator he held since childhood, Davis applied to be a member of Army Air Corps but was rejected because it did not accept blacks. Instead, his first assignment was with an all-black infantry unit at Fort Benning, Ga. There, in the Jim Crow south, the disparagements continued. Davis was not even allowed to visit the base’s officer’s club. Nonetheless, he persevered and excelled in the face of significant personal and organizational obstructions. As World War II engulfed the United States, then Captain Davis was assigned to teach tactics at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. Fortune intervened and Davis found himself assigned as the leader of the Tuskegee Experiment and eventually graduated the segregated flight-training program as one of its first five pilots. From there, his courage and skill led him to command several highly successful all-black aviation units, to include the 332nd Fighter Group: the famed Red Tails. By the war’s end, Davis was a highly decorated colonel. Throughout the war, Davis was cognizant of the fact that in addition to fighting the Axis powers, he and his men were also fighting against racism and their rightful place in the Army and in society. He was to observe: “We would go through any ordeal that came our way, be it in garrison existence or combat, to prove our worth.”
Davis’ conspicuous leadership excellence in the nation’s all-black aviation units in World War II was undeniable. Consequently, when President Harry Truman was preparing to issue the executive order that in 1948 integrated the American military, Davis was chosen to be a central figure in developing the plan that integrated the now independent U.S. Air Force. In 1954, Davis became the U.S. Air Force’s first black brigadier general. Continuing to break down barriers in the military, he eventually earned three stars and retired as a lieutenant general in 1970. After more than 33 years of military service, Davis was not finished serving his country and took on the role of assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation where he continued to make significant contributions to the nation for another four years.
Always a patriot in spite of his substantial hardships, Davis titled his 1991 memoir: Benjamin O. Davis: American. In his memoir, he asserted, “The privileges of being an American belong to those brave enough to fight for them.” Davis received much belated recognition of his extraordinary achievements and determination in advancing civil rights in December 1998 when President Bill Clinton presented him with his fourth star and promoted him to his final rank of full general of the U.S. Air Force.
General Davis’ personal military journey began at West Point in 1936. In his three decades plus of service to America, Davis was a witness to, and individually responsible for, a sea change of progress in the fight for civil rights within the armed forces. It is very fitting that his alma mater has since recognized his remarkable life of fortitude and faithfulness. In 1987, Davis returned to West Point to do research for his memoir. While there, he observed an exhibit entitled The Great Train of Tradition that displayed photographs of stellar graduates from 1819 to 1950. For the class of 1936, only two graduates were highlighted: General William O. Westmoreland and Davis. Under General Davis’ photo were the simple, yet profound phrases: “World War Hero, Helped Integrate Air Force.” More recently, in 2017, West Point dedicated the newly constructed, six-story Davis Barracks. This significant tribute to General Davis will remind generations of cadets to come what it truly means to live a life of “Duty, Honor, Country.”
General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. passed away at the age of 89 on July 4, 2002.