FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [Gen. Benjamin O. Davis]
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Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day
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[ illustration ]
Benjamin O. Davis. Left, with Secretary
of War Henry Lewis Stimson and General Carl Spaatz in background.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114285).
Davis, Benjamin Oliver, Sr. (28 May 1880-26 Nov. 1970), U.S.
Army general, was born in Washington, D.C., the son of Louis
Patrick Henry Davis, an Internal Revenue Service messenger, and
Henrietta Stewart. Growing up in a middle-class section of Washington,
D.C., Davis maintained that he was not conscious of the racial
barriers around him. He first experienced racial segregation
when he attended the M Street High School, one of Washington's
segregated high schools; during his last year of high school
he attended classes part time at Howard University. He also first
became involved in the military while in high school, rising
to the rank of captain in the High School Cadets. His record
prompted his commission as a second lieutenant in the First Separate
battalion, District of Columbia National Guard, a post he left in April
In 1898 Congress created ten new regiments, including four units
for black Americans. In July 1898 Davis signed up and was made
a first lieutenant in the Eighth U.S. Infantry Regiment, stationed
in Chickamauga, Georgia. A year later the all-black unit was
disbanded, and Davis was discharged from the army.
Following Davis's discharge, his father attempted to gain his
son an appointment to West Point, but in the depth of the Jim
Crow era, President William McKinley was unwilling to appoint
a black man. Davis was disappointed but still desired a military
career, so in June 1899 he reenlisted in the army. Assigned to
Troop I, Ninth Cavalry, he was promoted to corporal and, in May
1901, to second lieutenant. His first posting was as a lieutenant
in the Philippines, where he helped put down the Filipino insurgency.
In 1902 Davis married Elnora Dickerson, a lifelong friend. They
had three children. Davis spent the next three years at Fort
Washakie, Wyoming, where he was promoted to first lieutenant.
In 1905 he was transferred from his combat unit to Wilberforce
University, where he was a professor of military science and
tactics. This assignment, which he held until 1909, irritated
Davis because it appeared that the army did not want black American
officers in a position of authority over white troops.
In 1909 Davis became the military attache to Liberia, where
he stayed until November 1911, when his poor health prompted
him to request a transfer. He was given command of a machine
gun platoon with the Ninth Cavalry, stationed in Wyoming. In
1915 Davis was again transferred to Wilberforce and was promoted
to captain. The next year his wife died in childbirth. In 1919
Davis married Sadie Overton, a fellow Wilberforce teacher.
In 1917 Davis returned to the Philippines, where he remained
until 1920, when he was transferred to the Tuskegee Institute
in Alabama, a school for black students founded by Booker T.
Washington in 1881, and promoted to lieutenant colonel. In 1924
he was attached to a battalion of the Ohio National Guard, in
1929 he was sent back to Wilberforce, and in 1930 he was promoted
to full colonel, the highest rank received by a black American
to that date. Assigned as a grave-side escort to widows and mothers
of servicemen who died in Europe during World War I, Davis performed
this task admirably for two years, winning praise from the bereaved.
Davis spent more time at Tuskegee and Wilberforce, but in 1938
he became commander of the 369th New York National Guard. On
25 October 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted Davis
to brigadier general, the nation's first black general. This
promotion came only days before the presidential election and
was probably made to help sway the black vote. In January 1941
Davis received a command position over the Fourth Brigade, Second
Cavalry Division, in Fort Riley, Kansas.
In June 1941 Davis, who had retired but was recalled to active
duty shortly thereafter, began work in the inspector general's
office as an adviser for matters pertaining to black soldiers.
To improve morale he suggested desegregation of the front lines
by placing black soldiers in infantry positions as they were
needed, but he did not openly criticize segregation. He attributed
much of the morale problem among black soldiers to white officers
not winning the confidence of their men. In reports to the General
Staff Davis stated that the black soldiers resented the segregation
Over the course of the next two years (1942-1943) Davis was
sent to several locations in Europe and the United States to
study and report on racial problems. He made many suggestions,
but most were ignored by the military. General Davis did win
a few victories, including the assignment of black troops into
combat, and he was a voice in the fight to desegregate Red Cross blood.
Davis retired from the army on 20 July 1948 in a public ceremony
attended by President Harry S. Truman. Remaining active in his
retirement, he joined several committees, including the American
Battle Monuments Commission. Davis died in Great Lakes Naval
Hospital in Chicago and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
A pioneer, he broke through the army's color line and rose to
the highest military rank then achieved by an African American.
Davis's papers are in the possession of Mrs. James McLendon,
Chicago, Ill. The best assessment of his life is Marvin Fletcher,
America's First Black General (1989). Sources on Davis's military
career include Fletcher, The Black Soldier and Officer in the
United States Army (1974), and Jack D. Foner, Blacks and the
Military in American History (1974). Davis is briefly mentioned
in Richard M. Dalfiume, Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces
(1969). Personal history and general information is in Ben Albert
Richardson, Great Black Americans, 2d rev. ed. (1976); and Benjamin
O. Davis, Jr., Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography
(1991), by Davis's son. An obituary is in the New York Times, 27 Nov.
Craig J. Repko
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Craig J. Repko. "Davis, Benjamin Oliver, Sr.";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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