Sunday, February 25, 2007

African-American Military History: America's First Black General: Benjamin O. Davis

Left: Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., U.S. Army (U.S. Army photo)

Right: Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., U.S. Air Force (U.S. Air Force photo)

There were two great American military men who bore the name Benjamin O. Davis. They were father and son. The younger Davis is well-recalled as "the leader of the Tuskegee Airmen." That story, briefly, is that after public controversy and mush internal debate, the government decided to begin training African-Americans to be combat pilots. The essential part of this training would take place at Moton Field, near Tuskegee, Alabama. Tuskegee was the home of Tuskegee Institute , founded by Booker T. Washington for the education of blacks. Nearly all of the recruits came with no military background. The Army desired to have an experienced officer, preferably a West Point graduate, command the first black fliers to bring military credibility to the effort. The natural selection was then-Major Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. He had gone to West Point with the express desire to fly with the Air Corps. Instead, upon graduation, he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he trained for the infantry. After that, he was sent to Tuskegee to teach in the ROTC program. So in 1941, Davis, Jr. finally saw his dream to fly come true. By 1942, he had earned his wings and was assigned as the commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first black flying unit. The story of the great combat success of the Tuskegee Airmen is told elsewhere in detail; suffice it to say here that the blacks trained at Tuskegee performed so far beyond expectations and wrote themselves into world aviation history.

Davis, Jr. went on to further distinction in the United States Air Force, becoming that service's first black general in 1954. He retired in 1970, wearing the three stars of a lieutenant general. In 1998, President Clinton nominated him for a fourth star, and upon Senate confirmation, he was promoted to full general, the Air Force's highest grade. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., died in Washington, D.C. (where he had been born) on July 4, 2002, at the age of 89.

If it seems we've given short shrift to Gen. Davis, Jr., no disrespect is meant. But we want to tell the story of Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., a story that has faded in our common history over time and, ironically, in the bright light of his son's accomplishments.

Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr., was born in Washington, D.C. His official Army records show his birth date as 1 July 1877, but there is substantial evidence that he was actually born in May, 1880. [Marvin Fletcher, author of the biography, America's First Black General, obtained birth records that seem to show the 1880 date. The 1880 census of the District of Columbia shows one black Benjamin Davis, born to Lewis and Henrietta Davis in May, 1880.) The theory is that Davis lied about his age to get into the Army during the Spanish-American War. He served from July 1898 until March 1899. In June, 1899, he enlisted in the 9th U.S. Cavalry.

An officer in the 9th Cavalry was then-Lt. Charles Denton Young, who apparently gave advice and guidance to Davis. In 1901, then-Sgt. Maj. Davis was commissioned a second lieutenant of cavalry.

Davis had a career remarkably similar to that of Young's. He went to the Philippines, to Wilberforce University, and to the Mexican border campaign. He also followed Young as military attache to Liberia. After Young, he became the second black officer to achieve the rank of Colonel in the U.S. Army.

During the First World War, Davis was assigned to the Philippines again, far from the real action. Between the wars, Davis was at Tuskegee and Wilberforce several times and commanded a New York National Guard regiment. The repetitiveness of these assignments may have due to the fact the Army had no other places assign high-ranking black officers, since they did not want them commanding mainstream units.

But in 1940, Davis received the recognition that had eluded his mentor, Young. He was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the first black general officer in the American armed forces. There is no doubt that Davis deserved the promotion and was capable of the tasks that went with it--just as Young had deserved it and was certainly capable. Some, however, have said that Davis was promoted because Franklin D. Roosevelt was trying to shore up his support in the black community in advance of the 1940 election. And it is certainly true that the black community lobbied hard for Davis to be promoted, having been very disappointed at the treatment afforded Col. Young.

After his promotion, Brig. Gen. Davis went to Fort Riley, Kansas, as a brigade commander in the 2nd Cavalry Division. He was retired as a brigadier general while in that position on July 31, 1941. On August 1, 1941, he was recalled to active duty in the rank of brigadier general. (This was not uncommon for various reasons related to Army personnel management at that time).

Davis went to Europe as "Special Advisor on Negro Problems" in 1942. The war was the first war in which blacks were fielded in such absolute numbers. And there was pressure at home to integrate military units. Davis returned to Washington as Assistant to the Inspector General of the Army. In 1944, he was sent to Europe again as a staff officer stationed in Paris. He returned to the War Department in Washington in 1945.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., retired from the Army with 50 years of service on July 14, 1948. Less than two weeks later, on July 26, 1948, President Harry S Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which stated:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., had made that order possible and thus gave meaning to the legacy of Colonel Charles Young. Davis died on November 26, 1970, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Next: Making History Every Day: Brig. Gen. M.J. Kight

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