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Davis, Benjamin O. Sr. 1877–1970

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. 18771970

U.S. Army General

At a Glance

Rose Through the Ranks

Military Discrimination Became National Issue

Served as Adviser

Retired After Five Decades of Service

Sources

Benjamin O. Davis was the first black general in the U.S. Army and a major force in the desegregation of the American armed services. During a career that spanned fifty yearsfrom the Spanish-American War through World War IIDavis rose through the ranks despite rampant discrimination to become a respected leader and governmental adviser. Widely traveled, multilingual, and a diplomatic negotiator, Davis served as a mentor to the troops during World War II, visited regiments overseas to solve racial problems, advised General Dwight D. Eisenhower on integration, and trained black soldiers for their newly available combat duties. He also created films, brochures, and other educational tools on race relations for military and civilian use.

The euphoria over slaverys end had ebbed by the time Benjamin Davis was born in Washington, D.C., in 1877. In its place came an ugly form of discrimination that stemmed from white reluctance to share power and was fostered by the forced illiteracy of blacks that had been a major weapon of oppression. Neither problem was swiftly solved. Education was hindered by the desperate poverty of black students, who took menial jobs to support themselves rather than attend school. The pace of integration was equally sluggish; discrimination began to crystallize into legal segregation in public places, including the job market. An unofficially segregated school system developed, causing resentment in the black population.

Although Daviss father and mother were descended from slaves, both were literate and therefore able to fill posts as a government messenger and a nurse, respectively. They were also adamant that their three children use education as a key to the middle class, expecting them to attend college and become professionals. Young Benjamin felt otherwise. Captivated by soldiers tales of the Civil War, he became an enthusiastic cadet in high school and later helped form a company of volunteers to participate in the Spanish-American War. At twenty-one years of age Davis gladly accepted a temporary position at the rank of lieutenant, rejoicing in the opportunity it gave him to spend a year in various army training camps.

In 1899 Davis enlisted as a private in the regular armys Ninth Cavalry. Sent to the Island of Samar in the Philippines, he rose to the rank of sergeant-major, the highest level an enlisted man could attain. Determined to rise higher, he set his sights on an officers commission. Other

At a Glance

Born Benjamin Oliver Davis in 1877 in Washington, DC; died of complications of leukemia, November 26, 1970; son of Louis (a messenger in government offices) and Henrietta (a nurse; maiden name, Stewart) Davis; married Elnora Dickerson, 1902 (died, 1916); married Sadie Overton, 1919 (died, 1966); children: Olive; Benjamin Oliver, Jr.; Elnora. Education: Attended Howard University.

Career military officer in the U.S. Army. Temporary lieutenant, volunteer cadets, Spanish-American War, 1898-99; private, Ninth Cavalry, Regular Army, Samar, Philippines, 1899-1901; second lieutenant, Tenth Cavalry, Philippines and Fort Washakie, Wyoming, 1901-05; became first lieutenant, 1905; Wilberforce University, Ohio, teacher of military science, 1905-09; military attaché, Monrovia, Liberia, 1909-11; tour of duty along Mexican border with Arizona, 1912-15; became captain and returned to Wilberforce University, 1915-17; became major, stationed in the Philippines, 1917-20; taught at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, 1920-24, and became lieutenant colonel; instructor, Second Battalion, 372nd Regiment, Ohio National Guard, 1924-29; became colonel and escorted black Gold Star Mothers to Europe, 1929-30; returned to Tuskegee Institute, 1930-37; commanding officer, 369th Cavalry (Harlem Regiment) New York National Guard, 1937-40; promoted to brigadier general, 1940; assistant to inspector general, Washington, DC, 1940-41; commander, Fourth Cavalry Brigade, 1941; first retirement, 1941; inspector to black brigades and public relations, 1941-48; temporary ambassador to Liberia, 1947; second retirement, 1948. Creator of educational films and brochures on race relations.

Awards: Distinguished Service Medal, 1944; named Commander of the Order of the Star of Africa, 1944; Bronze Star, 1945; LL.D. from Atlanta University; French Croix de Guerre with Palm.

black soldierswhose own ambition had been dimmed by lifelong discriminationpredicted failure, certain that the officer examinations were not meant for blacks. Undeterred by their pessimism, Davis passed the tests in 1901 and became a second lieutenant to the Tenth Cavalry. His next tour of duty took him to Fort Washakie in Wyoming. There, rising to the duties of post quartermaster, he earned reports describing him as efficient and zealous; at the same time, he and his new wife Elnora tasted the bitter social isolation of being the only black couple on the base.

Rose Through the Ranks

In 1905 Davis was sent to Ohios Wilberforce University, an all-black institution, to teach military science. He was unhappy with his new position for a variety of reasons. Wilberforce was a Christian school, and Davis was not religious. He was also dissatisfied with the meager three hours per week allocated to his course, and with what he saw as the students lack of discipline and the principals lack of support. Friction developed between Davis and the school authorities and remained throughout the four years he spent there.

In 1909 Davis left Wilberforce without regret, bound for Monrovia, Liberia, as a military attaché. His responsibilities included providing Washington with information on military events, bringing back estimates on Liberian troop strength, and gauging the efficiency of the army. Davis reported that the Liberian forces were poorly trained and disorganized; he suggested a complete reorganization, with five American officers as administrators. Although Davis volunteered to remain in Liberia and personally take part in the reshuffling, American law prohibited soldiers from serving in the armed forces of any other nation. Discouraged about the prospects for creating an effective force in Liberia, in 1911 he asked to be relieved of his assignment.

By 1915 Davis had completed a tour of duty on the Mexican border with Arizona and achieved the rank of captain. He was sent back to Wilberforce University, which had had no military instructor for some years. In 1916 Elnora died of an embolism after the birth of their third child. The following year Davis was returned to active service at his own request and was posted in the Philippines, where he spent the duration of World War I as commanding officer of a supply troop. While Davis felt that he enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with his superiors in the Philippines, Colonel John Heard, his regimental commander, did not agree. Noting that he opposed racial mixing among his officers, Heard requested in 1920 that Davis be replaced.

Davis had suspected for some time that discrimination was hindering his career. Upon returning to the United States he learned that in 1920 alone more than 70 black soldiers returning from European battle zones had been lynched by the recently revived Ku Klux Klan and others. The attackers were undeterred by the fact that the victims had honorably served their country, maintaining on the contrary that they were justified in ridding America of blacks probably corrupted by their years overseas.

Davis married his second wife, a Wilberforce teacher named Sadie Overton, in 1919 and was assigned a teaching post at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, the next year. He found his work at Tuskegee pleasant, and he enjoyed the promotion to lieutenant colonel that came through while he was there. At the same time, the level of responsibility in his new assignment was not commensurate with Daviss new rank, and he and his family were offended by the rampant racism they encountered in the South. He was glad to accept a new post as instructor to the Ohio National Guard in 1924.

In 1929 Davis was promoted to colonel and offered a much-desired opportunity to accompany two groups of black World War I widows and bereaved mothers to the war cemeteries of Europe. While Davis agreed with the black press and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that the segregation of this project was distasteful, he had become convinced that his best chance of success in the fight against discrimination lay in working within the boundaries available to him. He therefore made the best of the opportunity, performing the assignment with conscientiousness and grace that earned him respect. Nevertheless, he was returned to the Tuskegee Institute in segregated Alabama in 1930, despite his own feelings and those of the black press that a colonel with thirty-five years of service should have more senior responsibilities.

Seven years later, in 1937, Davis was finally appointed commander of the 369th Cavalry New York National Guard, fulfilling the black communitys wish to have its regiment commanded by black officers. Two years later he succeeded in persuading Chief of Staff George Marshall to convert this regiment from service roles to anti-aircraft units, thus demonstrating that black soldiers were equal to any military task.

Military Discrimination Became National Issue

In 1940, with German dictator Adolf Hitlers territorial ambitions becoming clear in Europe, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt was campaigning for a third term in office. The black communitys disgruntlement over discrimination in the armed forces was an important issue in the election; resentment was swelling about restriction of black army enlistees and even more about the navys policy of accepting blacks only for mess duties. The Selective Services Act, formulated in 1937 and presented to the public in September of 1940, listed the following conditions: the proportion of blacks in the army would equal the African American population, black units would be established in both combat and noncombat posts, and there would be no mingling of races within the same regimental organizations, as this might be destructive to morale. Public dissatisfaction at this state of affairs mounted, buttressed by evidence that black soldiers were being stereotyped as inferior and were being unfairly denied promotions.

Roosevelt tried to placate his former supporters. Hastily he authorized the 63-year-old Daviss promotion as the armys first black brigadier general, overriding the military prohibition against promotions after the age of fifty-eight. Davis reached the official retirement age of sixty-four just a few months after his promotion but was immediately reactivated when the U.S. entered World War II. He was assigned to help the Washington-based inspector general coordinate the introduction of about 100,000 blacks into an army that had included only 3,640 black soldiers just two years earlier.

Served as Adviser

General Davis traveled around the United States guiding the troops, improving morale among black soldiers, settling disturbances, and learning all he could to improve race relations. Complaints from soldiers were funneled back to Washington, alerting Daviss superiors to such problems as the assignment of inferior officers to black units, segregation of blood plasma from black and white donors, and humiliating discrimination in officers clubs, stores, and barber shops on army bases. Davis became a familiar figure in the black press, which followed his progress with interest. In addition to his other responsibilities, Davis became involved in producing an educational film about black soldiers called The Negro Soldier. Initially designed as a race relations tool for incoming white soldiers, the movie was eventually distributed through Hollywood, receiving such a favorable public reception that a sequel called Teamwork appeared in 1946.

In 1944 Davis was sent to the European war zone to help calm the rising tension of black soldiers, who objected to the obvious hypocrisy of the U.S. government in battling Hitlers racism toward Jews in Nazi Germany while condoning discrimination in its own fighting forces. Davis discovered an opportunity to benefit both troops and administrators when army sources informed him that only 79,000 black soldiers were fighting in the 504,000-strong overseas units, despite an alarming shortage of soldiers. Worse news was that these much-needed troops were serving in support roles, rather than in desperately needed combat positions. Davis suggested to General Eisenhower that these troops be allowed to volunteer for the previously all-white combat replacement program. He also recommended that the men be assigned to units on the basis of need, without reference to color. Although Eisenhower agreed to the essence of Daviss proposal, he preferred to follow existing segregation policy and directed that black units be grouped together into platoons and placed into white companies to fill combat needs.

Retired After Five Decades of Service

After fifty years of military service, General Benjamin O. Davis was honored in a special retirement ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on July 20, 1948. President Harry S Truman presented Davis with a leather-bound scroll in honor of his service to the country and efforts on behalf of desegregation and equal opportunity in the militaryTruman noted that as of 1948 there were more than 1,000 African American officers in the army, in contrast to the mere five that had been present during Daviss first year of service. (General Davis also had the honor of seeing his son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., follow his example to become the first black lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force.) Shortly after the ceremony the White House issued an executive order that represented a monu-mental achievement. As quoted by Richard M. Dalfiume in his book Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces, the order stated: There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.

Retirement did not mean idleness for the general. In 1951 he was sent to Liberia to represent the United States at the countrys centennial celebrations, and later he served as a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission. His public life came to an end in 1960 as the result of poor eyesight and other health problems. Davis died of leukemia in 1970 at the age of 93.

Sources

Books

Dalfiume, Richard M., Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces, University of Missouri Press, 1969.

Davis, Benjamin O., Jr., Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Fletcher, Marvin E., Americas First Black General: Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., 1880-1970, University Press of Kansas, 1989.

Spiller, Roger J., editor, Dictionary of American Military Biography, Greenwood Press, 1984.

Periodicals

Armed Forces, July 24, 1948.

New York Times, October 14, 1942; July 15, 1948; July 21, 1948.

Pentagram News, January 7, 1971.

Washington Post, November 27, 1970.

Gillian Wolf

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Davis, Benjamin O., Jr. 1912–2002

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. 19122002

Lieutenant general of the U.S. Air Force

Endured Racism Early

Commanded First Black Fighter Pilots

Helped Integrate U.S. Armed Forces

Selected writings

Sources

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., fought and won both military and civil rights battles. As a World War II fighter pilot he engaged Axis forces across the European theater. At the same time, he helped defeat segregationist policies in his own country by proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that black soldiers were in every way as competent as their white counterparts, and deserving of equal standing. In 1948 the United States Military became one of the first American institutions to adopt a policy of complete integrationin part because of the stellar performance of Davis and his men.

Davis was born on December 18, 1912, in Washington, D.C. His father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., was a career military man who rose from the rank of private to that of brigadier general in charge of an all-black cavalry unit. In Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography, his son noted that his last promotion, made on the eve of World War II, was motivated primarily by the hope of winning black votes in the 1940 election but my father had richly deserved it for many years. According to Washington Post Book World contributor Joseph Glattharr, Daviss parents gave their son a simple set of values by which to live: Treat others as you wish them to treat you. Feel sorry not for yourself, but for those whose blinding prejudice bars them from getting to know your wonderful qualities. And work hard at everything you do.

Endured Racism Early

Davis was taught to face squarely even the most virulent forms of racism. In the early 1920s, while the elder Davis was stationed at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the Ku Klux Klan organized a march in support of a policy requiring an all-white medical staff at a nearby black veterans hospital. Black residents were advised to stay indoors with their lights out during the demonstration, in order to avoid any eruption of violence. But Daviss father had his own notion of how to properly deal with the Klan; donning his white dress uniform, he seated his entire family under a bright porch light and stood defiantly as the Klansmenhooded and carrying flaming torchespassed within inches of him.

Memories of his fathers courage undoubtedly helped Benjamin Davis, Jr., endure the trials he faced upon entering the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1932. His entrance qualifications were impeccable,

At a Glance

Born Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., on December 18, 1912, in Washington, DC; died on July 4, 2002, in Washington, DC; son of Benjamin Oliver (an officer in the U.S. Army) and Sadie (Overton) Davis; married Agatha Scott, June 20, 1936. Education: United States Military Academy, West Point, BS, 1936. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Protestant.

Career: U.S. Air Force, lieutenant, 1936-42, commander of 99th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, 477th Bombardment Group, and 332nd Fighter Wing, 1942-49, Air War College professor, 1949-50, fighter branch chief, U.S. Air Force headquarters, 1950-53, commander, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, Suwon, Korea, 1954-54, director of operations and training, Far East Air Forces headquarters, 1954-55, promoted to brigadier general, 1954, commander, Air Task Force 13, Taiwan, 1955-57, deputy chief of staff, operations headquarters, U.S. Air Force, Europe, 1957-61, promoted to major general, 1957, director of manpower and organization, U.S. Air Force headquarters, 196165, promoted to lieutenant general, 1965, chief of staff, United Nations Command and United States Forces, Korea, 1965-67, commander, 13th Air Force, Philippines, 1967-68, deputy comrnander-in-chief, U.S. Strike Command, MacDill Air Force Base, 1969-70; Cleveland city government, director of public safety, 1970; U.S. Department of Transportation, director of civil aviation security, assistant secretary of environment, safety, and consumer affairs, 19711975.

Selected awards: Three Distinguished Service Medals with two Oak Leaf Clusters; Croix de Guerre with Palm; Star of Africa; Army and Air Force Silver Star; Distinguished Flying Cross; three Legions of Merit; Air Medal with five Oak Leaf Clusters; made a 4-Star General by President Clinton, 1998; numerous honorary degrees.

but the prestigious academys tacit racist practices were designed to force his resignation. Daviss fellow cadetsencouraged by their superiorssubjected him to a variety of mental cruelties they called silencing. For four years, no one roomed with him, ate with him, acknowledged his presenceeven if he asked a direct questionor spoke to him, except to issue an order. Davis stood firm against their mute, solid front and graduated 35th in a class of 276, becoming the first black in the twentieth century to complete four years at West Point, and only the fourth black ever to have graduated from the Military Academy.

His high standing in his class entitled Davis to choose which branch of service he would enter. Flying had been a lifelong dream, and accordingly, he selected the Air Force. Officials curtly informed Davis that blacks, no matter what their standing at West Point, were not eligible to become part of the flying elite. Instead, the young lieutenant was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia. There he and his wife, Agatha, endured another silencing ordeal. Davis wrote that his exclusion by the Fort Benning Officers Club was the most deeply insulting of all the racist behavior that dogged his career. After a transfer to Fort Riley, Kansas, the couple found themselves in slightly better circumstances; but they were still barred from the Officers Club and had to attend a segregated movie theater on the base.

Commanded First Black Fighter Pilots

Just as they had for his father, election-year politics finally gave Davis the break he deserved. President Franklin Roosevelts need for the black vote led him in 1941 to approve what was billed as a bold military experimentgiving black men the chance to serve as fighter pilots. Only the best and the brightest were chosen for the 99th Pursuit Squadron; Davis was selected to command them. The Air Forces attitude toward the 99th paralleled West Points treatment of Davis: officially they were accepted, but off the record, they were encouraged to fail. According to veteran pilot and Smithsonian contributor Edward Park, the squadron was given inferior equipment and sketchy training. Usually, when new units arrived at a World War II base, they got a thorough briefing and a flight or two with an old hand during their initial combat missions. Not the 99th. With the squadron formed and Davis in command, the black Tuskegee pilots arrived at a dirt airstrip in North Africa and simply started flying missions. [The] attitude was: let em sink or swim. Davis told Park, Fortunately, before our unit was deployed, three old pilots gave us a hand. They showed us some of the tricks and how to survive. Park concluded: Ben Davis had two wars to fightone against Hitlers Luftwaffe, the other against the prejudice of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

During their first months in action, the 99ths performance was comparable to any new squadrons. Still, white air corps officers sent an unfavorable report back to the Pentagon stating that the Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot. Herbert Mitgang pointed out in the New York Times that this language matched the theories of racial inferiority espoused by the Klan and by Hitler. As General Davis told Jet magazine years later, All the Blacks in the segregated forces operated like they had to prove they could fly an airplane when everyone believed they were too stupid.

Davis, fearing that the 99th would be assigned to routine coastal patrols, went to Washington to personally defend his squadrons right to remain in combat. When he returned to the war zone, it was to command four black squadrons known as the 332nd Fighter Group. The 332nd saw action throughout Europe; in two days during January of 1944, they shot down 12 German fighters over the Anzio beachhead in Italy. By July of 1944 Davis was a full colonel, and a highly-classified study by the Air Force had acknowledged that the 332nds record was equal to that of any other unit in the Mediterranean. According to Jet the 332nd Fighter Group was said to have never lost any plane that relied on them for support.

Helped Integrate U.S. Armed Forces

In 1948, due at least in part to the wartime accomplishments of Davis and his men, the U.S. Armed Forces became one of the first institutions in America to adopt an official policy of full integration, thus becoming the first workplace in which black Americans could hope for equal opportunity. Davis played a key role in the integration process, and later went on to command the integrated 51st Fighter Wing in Korea and the 13th Air Force in Vietnam. By 1965 he had reached the rank of Lieutenant General.

In 1970 Davis retired from the Armed Forces. The first charge he was given after his military duties were finished was the federal sky marshal program, which he was put in charge of to stop airline hijackings. The following year he was named assistant secretary of the Department of Transportation, where Davis was a leader in the development of airport and aviation security and an advocate of the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit designed to save fuel and lives.

Throughout his career Davis overcame prejudice because he refused to acknowledge race distinctions, wrote a reporter for Jet. He demonstrated the strength of his convictions when in February of 1991 a press conference announcing the publication of his autobiography was billed as the opening event of Black History Month. As recounted by Jet, Davis issued a statement saying that his military career was not a Black History Month feature and that his accomplishments were but a footnote in American history to the hundreds of Black airmen who stood shoulder to shoulder with their White counterparts. In Daviss autobiographywhich Glattharr called in Washington Post Book World must reading for anyone interested in race relations or American military historyDavis further detailed his belief that focusing on color divisions only served to perpetuate them. He wrote: I do not find it complimentary to me or to the nation to be called the first Black West Point graduate in this century. He also took issue with black leader Jesse Jacksons suggestion that black Americans identify themselves as African Americans, for in his opinion, We are all simply American.

Davis, who left the military as a Lieutenant General with three starsthe senior black officer in the armed forces at the timewas awarded a fourth star in 1998 by President Clinton. While awarding Davis the star, Clinton stated, according to Jet, magazine that General Davis is here today as living proof that a person can overcome adversity and discrimination, achieve great things, turn skeptics into believers and through example and perseverance, one person can bring truly extraordinary change.

On July 4, 2002, Davis died at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was 89-years-old. Davis left an extraordinary legacy behind him. As President Clinton said, To all of us General Davis [was] the very embodiment of the principal that with firm diversity we can build stronger unity. If we follow [his] example we will always be a leader for democracy, opportunity, and peace. I am very, very proud of [his] service.

Selected writings

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Sources

Books

Davis, Benjamin O., Jr., Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Periodicals

Air and Space Power Journal, Spring, 2003, p. 16.

American History Illustrated, July/August 1991.

American Visions, April 1991.

Chicago Tribune, January 27, 1991.

Foreign Affairs, Summer 1991.

Insight, March 4, 1991.

Jet, February 11, 1991; September 5, 1994, p. 52; December 28, 1998, p. 24; July 22, 2002, p. 14.

New York Times, February 20, 1991.

Publishers Weekly, January 4, 1991.

Smithsonian, March 1991.

Washington Post, February 4, 1991.

Washington Post Book World, March 17, 1991.

Joan Goldsworthy and Catherine V. Donaldson

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Davis, Benjamin O. Jr. 1912–

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. 1912

Retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Air Force

At a Glance

Commanded First Black Fighter Pilots

Helped Integrate U.S. Armed Forces

Selected writings

Sources

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. has fought and won both military and civil rights battles. As a World War II fighter pilot he engaged Axis forces across the European theater. At the same time, he helped defeat segregationist policies in his own country by proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that black soldiers were in every way as competent as their white counterparts and deserving of equal standing. In 1948 the United States Military became one of the first American institutions to adopt a policy of complete integrationin part because of the stellar performance of Davis and his men.

Davis had a fine role model in his father. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., was a career military man who rose from the rank of private to that of brigadier general in charge of an all-black cavalry unit. In Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography, Davis noted that his fathers last promotion, made on the eve of World War II, was motivated primarily by the hope of winning black votes in the 1940 election [although he] had richly deserved it for many years. According to Washington Post Book World contributor Joseph Glattharr, Daviss parents gave their son a simple set of values by which to live: Treat others as you wish them to treat you. Feel sorry not for yourself, but for those whose blinding prejudice bars them from getting to know your wonderful qualities. And work hard at everything you do.

Davis was taught to face squarely even the most virulent forms of racism. In the early 1920s, while the elder Davis was stationed at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the Ku Klux Klan organized a march in support of a policy requiring an all-white medical staff at a nearby black veterans hospital. Black residents were advised to stay indoors with their lights out during the demonstration, in order to avoid any eruption of violence. But Daviss father had his own notion of how to properly deal with the Klan; donning his white dress uniform, he seated his entire family under a bright porch light and stood defiantly as the Klansmenhooded and carrying flaming torchespassed within inches of him.

Memories of his fathers courage undoubtedly helped Benjamin Davis, Jr., endure the trials he faced upon entering the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1932. His entrance qualifications were impeccable, but the prestigious academys tacit racist practices were designed to force his resignation. Daviss fellow

At a Glance

Born Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., December 18, 1912, in Washington, D.C.; son of Benjamin Oliver (an officer in the U.S. Army) and Sadie (Overton) Davis; married Agatha Scott, June 20, 1936. Education: United States Military Academy, West Point, NY, B.S., 1936. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Protestant.

Entered U.S. Air Force as lieutenant, 1936; commander of 99th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, 477th Bombardment Group, and 332nd Fighter Wing, 1942-49; Air War College, 1949-50; fighter branch chief, U.S. Air Force headquarters, 1950-53; commander, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, Suwon, Korea; director of operations and training, Far East Air Forces headquarters, 1954-55; promoted to brigadier general, 1954; commander, Air Task Force 13, Taiwan, 1955-57; deputy chief of staff, operations headquarters, U.S. Air Force, Europe, 1957-61; promoted to major general, 1957; director of manpower and organization, U.S. Air Force headquarters, 1961-65; promoted to lieutenant general, 1965; chief of staff, United Nations Command and United States Forces, Korea, 1965-67; commander, 13th Air Force, Philippines, 1967-68; deputy commander-in-chief, U.S. Strike Command, MacDill Air Force Base, 1969-70; retired, 1970. Director of public safety, City of Cleveland, Ohio, 1970; director of civil aviation security, assistant secretary of environment, safety, and consumer affairs, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1971-1975.

Awards: Numerous military decorations, including three Distinguished Service Medals, Army and Air Force Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Legions of Merit, and Air Medal with five Oak Leaf Clusters.

Addresses: Home 1001 Wilson Blvd., No. 906, Arlington, VA 20560.

cadetsencouraged by their superiorssubjected him to a variety of mental cruelty they called silencing. For four years, no one roomed with him, ate with him, acknowledged his presenceeven if he asked a direct questionor spoke to him, except to issue an order. Davis stood firm against their mute, solid front and graduated 35th in a class of 276, becoming the first black in the twentieth century to complete four years at West Point.

His high standing in his class entitled Davis to choose which branch of service he would enter. Flying had been a lifelong dream, and accordingly, he selected the Air Force. Officials curtly informed Davis that blacks, no matter what their standing at West Point, were not eligible to become part of the flying elite. Instead, the young lieutenant was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia. There he and his wife, Agatha, endured another silencing ordeal. Davis wrote that his exclusion by the Fort Benning officers club was the most deeply insulting of all the racist behavior that dogged his career. After a transfer to Fort Riley, Kansas, the couple found themselves in slightly better circumstances; but they were still barred from the officers club and had to attend a segregated movie theater on the base.

Commanded First Black Fighter Pilots

Just as they had for his father, election-year politics finally gave Davis the break he deserved. President Franklin Roosevelts need for the black vote led him in 1941 to approve what was billed as a bold military experimentgiving black men the chance to serve as fighter pilots. Only the best and the brightest were chosen for the 99th Pursuit Squadron; Davis was selected to command them. The Air Forces attitude toward the 99th paralleled West Points treatment of Davis: Officially they were accepted, but off the record, they were encouraged to fail. According to veteran pilot and Smithsonian contributor Edward Park, the squadron was given inferior equipment and sketchy training. Usually, when new units arrived at a World War II base, they got a thorough briefing and a flight or two with an old hand during their initial combat missions. Not the 99th. With the squadron formed and Davis in command, the black Tuskegee pilots arrived at a dirt airstrip in North Africa and simply started flying missions. [The] attitude was: let em sink or swim. Davis told Park, Fortunately, before our unit was deployed, three old pilots gave us a hand. They showed us some of the tricks and how to survive. Park concluded: Ben Davis had two wars to fightone against Hitlers Luftwaffe, the other against the prejudice of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

During their first months in action, the 99ths performance was comparable to any new squadrons. Still, white air corps officers sent an unfavorable report back to the Pentagon stating that the Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot. Herbert Mitgang pointed out in the New York Times that this language matched the theories of racial inferiority espoused by the Klan and by Hitler. Davis, fearing that the 99th would be assigned to routine coastal patrols, went to Washington to personally defend his squadrons right to remain in combat. When he returned to the war zone, it was to command four black squadrons known as the 332nd Fighter Group. The 332nd saw action throughout Europe; in two days during January of 1944, they shot down 12 German fighters over the Anzio beachhead in Italy. By July of 1944 Davis was a full colonel, and a highly classified study by the Air Force had acknowledged that the 332nds record was equal to that of any other unit in the Mediterranean.

Helped Integrate U.S. Armed Forces

Due at least in part to the wartime accomplishments of Davis and his men, in 1948 the U.S. Armed Forces became one of the first institutions in America to adopt an official policy of full integration, thus becoming the first workplace in which black Americans could hope for equal opportunity. Davis played a key role in the integration process and later went on to command the integrated 51st Fighter Wing in Korea and the 13th Air Force in Vietnam. By 1965 he had reached the rank of lieutenant general. Five years later he retired from the Air Force to tackle a series of civilian posts. Among the most notable was that of assistant secretary of the Department of Transportation, where Davis was a leader in the development of airport and aviation security and an advocate of the 55-mile-per-hour automobile speed limit designed to save fuel and lives.

Throughout his career Davis overcame prejudice because he refused to acknowledge race distinctions, wrote a reporter for Jet. He demonstrated the strength of his convictions when in February of 1991 a press conference announcing the publication of his autobiography was billed as the opening event of Black History Month. As recounted by Jet, Davis issued a statement saying that his military career was not a Black History Month feature and that his accomplishments were but a footnote in American history to the hundreds of Black airmen who stood shoulder to shoulder with their White counterparts. In Daviss autobiographywhich Glattharr called in Washington Post Book World must reading for anyone interested in race relations or American military historyDavis further detailed his belief that focusing on color divisions only serves to perpetuate them. He wrote: I do not find it complimentary to me or to the nation to be called the first Black West Point graduate in this century. He also took issue with black leader Jesse Jacksons suggestion that black Americans identify themselves as African Americans, for in his opinion, We are all simply American.

Selected writings

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Sources

Books

Davis, Benjamin O., Jr., Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Periodicals

American History Illustrated, July/August 1991.

American Visions, April 1991.

Chicago Tribune, January 27, 1991.

Foreign Affairs, Summer 1991.

Insight, March 4, 1991.

Jet, February 11, 1991.

New York Times, February 20, 1991.

Publishers Weekly, January 4, 1991.

Smithsonian, March 1991.

Washington Post, February 4, 1991.

Washington Post Book World, March 17, 1991.

Joan Goldsworthy

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Davis, Benjamin O., Jr.

Davis, Benjamin O., Jr. (1912–2002), first black lieutenant general.Born in Washington, D.C., the son of a black army officer, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., young Benjamin Davis attended school in Tuskegee, Alabama, and Cleveland, Ohio, and the University of Chicago, before entering the all‐white U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where the last African American had graduated in the 1880s. Davis graduated in 1936 (35th in a class of 276). His request for assignment to the Army Air Corps was refused because there were no black aviation units; instead, he was assigned to an all‐black infantry regiment and then to Tuskegee Institute as an instructor. In 1941, the War Department finally allowed blacks into the Air Corps, although in segregated units. Davis established a flight program at Tuskegee, and as a lieutenant colonel took command of the 99th Pursuit Squadron (the “Black Eagles”), the first black air unit.

In 1943, during World War II, he led the unit to North Africa. Subsequently, he commanded the 332nd Fighter Group, a larger all‐black flying unit, and as a colonel, flew sixty combat missions in the Italian theater. In 1948, following President Harry S. Truman's desegregation order, Davis designed the implementation program for the U.S. Air Force. In 1954, he was promoted to brigadier general, in 1959 to major general, and in 1965, he became America's first black lieutenant general, serving with the air force in Germany and the Philippines during the Vietnam War before his retirement in 1970. Afterward, he served in the early 1970s in the U.S. Department of Transportation on issues involving air hijacking and aviation safety.
[See also African Americans in the Military.]

Bibliography

Bernard C. Nalty , Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military, 1986.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. , American: An Autobiography, 1991.

Clement Alexander Price

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