From the American Revolution to the Spanish-American War

Who was Benjamin O. Davis Sr.?

Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr. (1877–1970) was the first black American general in the U.S. Army and the highest-ranking black in the armed forces when he was promoted to brigadier general on October 25, 1940. Born and educated in Washington, D.C., he graduated from Howard University in 1898. He entered the army after graduation. Davis served as a temporary lieutenant in the 8th U.S. Volunteers Infantry (an all-black unit) from 1898 to 1899, fighting in the Spanish-American War. In 1899 he enlisted as a private in the Ninth Cavalry, a unit of the regular army, and soon rose to the highest rank held by any black soldier at the time: sergeant-major. Determined to become an officer, he passed the examinations in 1901 and was promoted to second lieutenant, assigned to the 10th Cavalry. Davis was sent to Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1905 to teach military science, where he remained for four years, after which he served as a military attaché in Liberia. He returned to active duty in the Philippines in 1917 after an assignment in Mexico and a repeat tour of duty at Wilberforce. He was by this time a captain. After a teaching assignment at the Tuskegee Institute (now University), during which he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, he became an instructor to the Ohio National Guard in 1924. Davis was given his own regiment to command, the 369th Cavalry New York National Guard, in 1937; he held the rank of colonel at the time. Throughout his army career, Davis was confronted by and fought against segregation and discrimination in the armed forces. His value to the country as a symbol of the army’s somewhat belated good intentions is perhaps indicated by the fact that he was past the official age for military promotions when he was elevated to brigadier general. He retired from the army in 1948, having served in the U.S. armed forces for half a century; his career dated from the Spanish-American War to World War II. Davis was a highly decorated soldier, including the French Croix de Guerre and the Bronze Star among his awards. He also served as a mentor to the troops during World War II, and was noted as a diplomatic negotiator on racial problems and an advisor to then-General Dwight Eisenhower (who did not fully accept Davis’ advice) on integration in the army. Davis continued to be active in public life until poor eyesight and other health problems forced him to cease much of his activity in 1960. He was in a hospital in North Chicago, Illinois, when he died of leukemia. His son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps and grew up to become the first black general in the U.S. Air Force. It is of note that Davis Sr. was denied admission to the U.S. Military Academy when he applied after graduating from high school.


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