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FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [Gen. Benjamin O. Davis]

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  • Amos J Wright
    Fyi... ajwright@uab.edu ... From: biod-request@anb.org [mailto:biod-request@anb.org] Sent: Monday, October 17, 2005 1:50 AM To: ANB bioday mailing list
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: biod-request@... [mailto:biod-request@...]
      Sent: Monday, October 17, 2005 1:50 AM
      To: ANB bioday mailing list
      Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day

      Special Announcement: OUP is pleased to announce that ANB Online is now
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      American National Biography Online
      [ 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.
      Access Date:
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