Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr. was the first African American General Officer in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Armed Forces. His military career spanned half a century, four continents and three major wars. He was a warrior, a leader and a teacher but perhaps is best known for the major role he played in helping change the military’s policy on desegregation and equal opportunity. Benjamin O. Davis was born in Washington DC on July 1, 1877.
His parents were descendents from slaves and were firm believers that education was the key to advancement in an age where forced illiteracy of blacks had been a major weapon of oppression. Davis excelled in school but it was his fascination with Soldiers’ tales of the Civil War that led him to becoming an enthusiastic cadet in high school and then later went on to form a company of volunteers to participate in the Spanish-American War. In 1899, Davis enlisted as a private in the regular Army’s Ninth Calvary. He was sent to the Island of Samar in the Philippines and rose to the rank of Sergeant Major, the highest level an enlisted man could obtain. Determined to rise higher, he set his sights on an officer’s commission and in 1901, became a Second Lieutenant to the Tenth Calvary.
History of General Ben Davis
General Davis truly helped change the face of America’s military and opened doors that now allow men and women of any race, color, religion or national origin unparalleled access to education and training.
His next tour of duty took him to Fort Washakie, Wyoming where he rose to the post of Quartermaster. From there, Davis was sent to Ohio’s Wilberforce University, an all-black institution, where he taught military science for four years.
Davis then served a tour of duty on the Mexican border, achieved the rank of Captain and then was sent back to Wilberforce University, which had been without a military instructor for several years.
The following year, Davis returned to active duty and was posted in the Philippines, where he spent the duration of World War I as commanding officer of a supply troop. Upon his return in 1919, Davis was assigned a teaching post at The Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.
In 1929, Davis was promoted to Colonel. Then in 1937, he was appointed commander of the all-black, 369th Calvary New York National Guard. Two years later, he persuaded 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.
In 1940, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted Davis to the rank of Brigadier General. General Davis went on to tour the country, guiding the troops and improving morale among black Soldiers and doing everything he could to help improve race relations. In 1944, he made recommendations that black troops be allowed to volunteer for the previously all-white combat replacement program and that Soldiers should be assigned to units on the basis of need, without reference to color.
After 50 years of military service, President Harry S. Truman presented Davis with a scroll recognizing his many efforts on behalf of desegregation and equal opportunity in the military.
General Davis truly helped change the face of America’s military and opened doors that now allow men and women of any race, color, religion or national origin unparalleled access to education and training. Today’s Army is a place where there is no limit on success, where individuals can find an unmatched breadth of opportunities. Though General Davis died of Leukemia in 1970, his son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. carried on his legacy by becoming the first black Lieutenant General in the U.S. Air Force. Clearly, General Davis’s love of liberty was passed on from father to son. And may his many accomplishments as a Soldier, leader, teacher, husband and father help inspire us all.