Davis, Benjamin O., Sr

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Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.

Born May 28, 1877
Washington, D.C.
Died November 26, 1970

Chicago, Illinois
The first African American general
in the United States Army

For most of Benjamin Davis's military career, which spanned more than fifty years, the United States armed forces (including the army, navy, marines, and air force) were segregated. Even though African Americans had taken part in every military conflict in American history, it was thought that black and white soldiers should not fight side by side—that, in fact, black soldiers should not fight at all but should perform such jobs as cleaning and cooking meals. In addition, there was little opportunity for African Americans to advance in their military careers. Despite this discrimination, Davis rose slowly through the ranks to become a general. During World War II, he advised military leaders on ways to integrate the forces, and he worked to resolve racial conflicts. Thus he helped to lay a foundation for the changes that would later come, when blacks finally achieved equal status with whites in the military.

A hard-working family

Davis was born into a family whose ancestors were freed blacks (former slaves who had either earned or been granted their freedom). His parents, Louis and Henrietta Davis, were hardworking people and respected members of the African American community in Washington, D.C. Louis worked as a government messenger, and Henrietta was a nurse. They taught their children that a good education was the best way to advance in life.

Benjamin attended a grammar school named for abolitionist (someone who fought to abolish slavery) Lucretia Mott. It was an integrated school and he had both black and white friends; later, he said that he did not encounter racial discrimination until later in his life.

Interested in history, Davis saw the famous Native American leader Sitting Bull when he visited Washington. He also learned about the role of African American cavalry soldiers in America and the exploits of black soldiers during the Civil War. Despite his father's desire that he make a government career his goal and his mother's wish that he someday become a Baptist minister, Davis wished for a career in the military.

Eager to join the military

When he was a high school student, Davis joined the Cadet Corps, a group that practiced military drills and learned about weapons. Although he took some courses at Howard University (a predominantly black school in Washington, D.C.) during his last year of high school, Davis chose to pursue a military career after graduation rather than attend college.

In 1898, war broke out in Cuba when revolutionary soldiers fought Spanish forces to win Cuba's independence from Spain. The United States entered the conflict—called the Spanish-American War—on the side of the Cuban revolutionaries. Many young American men, both black and white, were eager to join the fighting, and Davis was no exception. He became a member of a volunteer company and was given the temporary rank of lieutenant.

Davis spent his first months as a soldier in various training camps. He visited the southern United States for the first time in his life when he was posted to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, and Chickamauga Park, Georgia. There he was shocked by the rigid separation between blacks and whites and the poor way in which African Americans were treated.

Rising ambitions

When the Spanish-American War ended, Davis entered the regular army as a private in the 9th Cavalry. His ability to write well, take dictation, and type as well as his obvious dedication to the military and enthusiasm for military life made him popular with superior officers and helped him to advance through the lower ranks. He was assigned to serve at Samar, an island in the Philippines, where he became a sergeant major—the highest rank available for an enlisted man.

Ultimately, Davis wanted to become an army officer. This meant that he would have to take special examinations testing his knowledge of military history and other subjects. Davis's black colleagues told him that even if he passed the exams, which seemed unlikely, other obstacles would surely be put in his way to prevent him from moving ahead. Nevertheless, Davis took the exams and passed, becoming a second lieutenant in the 10th Cavalry.

In October 1902 Davis married Elnora Dickerson, and she accompanied him to his new post, Fort Washakie, Wyoming. There they were the only African American people on the base, and they felt socially isolated.

Unhappy with his assignment

In 1905, Davis was assigned to teach military history at Wilberforce University, an all-black, Christian school in Ohio. He was not happy about the assignment, because he was not a particularly religious person and felt his military background set him apart from the other staff and students. He got into disputes with Wilberforce's president over discipline, which he did not think was strict enough. Most important, it seemed to Davis that the army could have put his skills and training to better use elsewhere.

Davis was released from his unhappy term at Wilber-force when he was named military attaché (a technical expert who serves on an ambassador's diplomatic staff) to Liberia, a West African country that had been settled in the nineteenth century by former slaves from the United States. Davis moved his growing family (he now had a five-year-old daughter, Olive) to Liberia's capital city, Monrovia, and spent the next two years reporting back to the U.S. government on Liberia's military activities. He found that the Liberian army was very poorly trained and inefficient, and he came up with many ideas on how to reorganize and strengthen it. Davis volunteered to stay in Liberia as a military advisor, but U.S. law required that he complete his term of service and then return home, which he did in 1911.

Next Davis served a tour of duty on Arizona's border with Mexico. In 1915, he was made a captain, but instead of assigning this ambitious and accomplished officer to a responsible and challenging position, the U.S. Army sent him to Wilberforce University again. Tragedy struck the Davis family the next year when Elnora died after giving birth to her third child, also named Elnora (Benjamin, Jr. had been born three years earlier). For the next few years Davis relied on his parents and his deceased wife's parents for help in raising his children.

World War I and beyond

During World War I (1914-1918; a war that started as a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and escalated into a global war involving thirty-two nations), Davis was posted to the Philippines, where he served as commanding officer of a supply troop. His successful tour was stymied in 1920 when a high-ranking officer who disapproved of black officers interacting with white officers and soldiers demanded that Davis be replaced.

In 1919, Davis married Sadie Overton, a family friend who had impressed him and his children through her kindness at the time of Elnora's death. Davis was now assigned to teach at Tuskegee Institute, the famous all-black school established by Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Alabama. Although he enjoyed this position, Davis felt that it was not equivalent to his rank, especially after he was made a lieutenant colonel. Living in the South again, he encountered racism. He once protested a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rally (the Klan is an organization promoting white supremacy and segregation, often through violent means) by standing on his front porch, attired in his white dress uniform and with his family seated behind him while Klan members marched by.

Davis became an instructor to the Ohio National Guard, based in Cleveland, in 1924. After he was made a colonel in 1929, the army again assigned him—against his own wishes—to Tuskegee Institute. This also outraged much of the African American community. The black newspapers lamented that an army officer with so many years of experience and dedication was being pushed to the sidelines.

Reaching the highest ranks

It had long been the desire of many African Americans that black officers be assigned to command black soldiers. In 1938 this hope was fulfilled when Davis was made commander of the 369th Cavalry New York National Guard (known as the "Harlem Regiment"). At this time Davis was also involved in the Gold Star Mothers' Pilgrimage program, which gave the mothers of slain servicemen the opportunity to visit the World War I battlefields and gravesites where their sons had fought and were buried. Davis and his wife accompanied several groups of African American mothers on tours to Europe.

By 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945; see entry) was under pressure to do something about discrimination against blacks in the armed forces. After all, African American voters had played an important role in his election victory in 1936. Yet there were still restrictions on the number of blacks who could enlist, the navy accepted blacks only for mess (kitchen) duty, and African Americans were routinely denied promotions.

In a gesture that acknowledged Davis's long and distinguished career in the military, Roosevelt overrode a military law limiting promotions to those age fifty-eight or younger (Davis was now sixty-three), and made Davis a brigadier general. He was given command of the Fourth Cavalry Brigade at Fort Riley, Kansas. Davis retired from the army in the summer of 1941, but then World War II came along and changed his future.

Called back to aid the war effort

After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Davis was called back from retirement and assigned to work in Washington, D.C., helping the army's inspector general coordinate the induction of about 100,000 African American soldiers into the army. His job involved inspecting black units around the country and helping to solve the racial problems that were cropping up as black soldiers intermingled both with white soldiers and with segregated communities near their bases. He also helped to produce a film called The Negro Soldier designed to educate white soldiers about their black counterparts.

Many racial conflicts were caused by the segregation that was built into the U.S. Army, which required, for example, that black and white soldiers eat, see movies, and have their hair cut at separate facilities on the same base. But other problems developed when white officers used derogatory and belittling terms when speaking to black soldiers, or when white townspeople harassed them. Davis's approach to resolving these problems quiet and evenhanded. Some civil rights advocates at the time were urging a quick end to segregation; Davis advocated patience.

As World War II progressed and troops spread outaround the world to fight in the various theaters (areas of action), more racial conflicts erupted overseas. For example, in England some white officers and soldiers from the United States resented the way that the British seemed to make a pointof interacting socially with blacks. In 1944, Davis toured the European war zone in an effort to ease this racial tension. Heasserted that "[if] the people of the U.S. cannot evolve somekind of platform so that various groups can get along in harmony, they cannot make a world peace."

Advice for General Eisenhower

In addition, Davis made several strong recommendations to General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1970; seeentry), the commander of all U.S. troops in Europe. He said that in view of the profound shortage of infantrymen (especially after the bloody Battle of the Bulge in late 1944), African American soldiers—many of whom were weary of endless training and eager to get into combat—should be allowed to volunteer for the normally all-white combat replacement program. Davis's plan called for black soldiers to be assigned to any units that needed them, rather than to all-black units.

But it seemed that the U.S. Army was still not ready for such a change. Eisenhower did, however, modify Davis's idea by allowing black platoons (a subdivision of a company, usually made up of two squadrons) to be fitted into white companies (infantry units with two or more platoons, usually commanded by a captain) as needed.

Major change comes after the war

Discrimination and segregation in the armed forces existed throughout World War II, but the experiences and contributions of both black and white soldiers during the war—as well as the input of Davis and other advisors—opened up many eyes to the injustice in the American military. Six days after Davis's July 20, 1948, retirement from the army (which was marked by a special ceremony in the White House Rose Garden), President Truman issued Executive Order 9981. 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."

Davis lived for another twenty years after his retirement. In 1951 he returned to Liberia to represent the United States at that country's centennial celebration. He made many other public appearances until 1960, when his health began to decline. Davis died of leukemia on November 26, 1970, at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois.

Where to Learn More


Astor, Gerald. The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998.

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

Greene, Robert Ewell. Black Defenders of America, 1775-1973. Chicago:Johnson Publishing Company, 1974.

Web sites

"New Roles: Gen. Benjamin O. Davis." National Archives and Record Administration: A People at War. [Online] Available http://www.archives.gov (November 16, 1998).

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. took part in early efforts to desegregate the armed forces and served as an advisor and mediator on racial issues during World War II.

Pearl Harbor Hero: Dorie Miller

Through his heroic actions during the bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, a sailor named Dorie Miller showed the world how much talent and courage were being wasted by the military's discrimination against African Americans.

Like so many other black men who would have preferred to serve their country as frontline fighters, Miller's opportunity had been limited to serving as a U.S. Navy mess (kitchen) attendant aboard the USS West Virginia. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the West Virginia was anchored in the peaceful bay at Pearl Harbor when, totally unexpectedly, Japanese fighter planes filled the sky and began raining down bombs on the ships and men below.

When the attack began, Miller had been gathering laundry below decks. He ran up on deck and was first assigned to carry wounded men to safety. Later he took over an anti-aircraft machine gun whose operator had been killed, shooting down at least one Japanese plane before the battle was over. Miller had not been trained in the use of the gun, but later said, "It wasn't hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns."

News of Miller's heroism soon reached the African American community. He was celebrated as a symbol of black patriotism (loyalty to one's country) and pride, and his admirers asked President Roosevelt to admit him to the Naval Academy. Miller never did attend the Naval Academy, but he was decorated for his bravery. On May 27, 1942, Miller received the Navy Cross from Admiral Chester Nimitz, who noted that this was the first time the medal had been given to an African American; he added, "I'm sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts."

Miller continued to serve in the navy until he was killed in the South Pacific when his ship, the USS Liscome Bay, was attacked and sunk by a Japanese submarine on November 24, 1943.

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