Benjamin O. Davis Sr.: The First Black General in the United States Army

Career military soldier, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., was about to make history. On the 25th October 1940, after 10 years as a Colonel, Mr. Davis was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Army, becoming the first Black man to do so. This historical moment was a defining in United States history, not just for Black Americans, but for the nation as a whole. After serving many years in the United States Army, General Davis was finally respected at a level that was deserved. His promotion and earned title made him an inspiration for young Americans across all races.

General Davis was born in Washington D.C. in May 1880 to Mr. Louis P.H. Davis and his wife Henrietta. After his high school graduation – despite his parents’ protest – he decided to begin a career in the military. He entered the Armed Forces on the 13th July 1898 as a First lieutenant in the 8th United States Voluntary Infantry, which was an all-Black unit. During this time, he volunteered to join the Spanish-American War. After his unit was disbanded, he temporarily joined Company D, 1st Separate Battalion of the National Guard in Washington, D.C.

A young Benjamin O. Davis Sr. in c. 1900.

After his short period with the National Guard, Davis returned to the Army and enlisted as a Private in Troop I in the 9th Calvary Regiment which was made up of all Black Americans due to the segregation laws that were in place. It was in this unit where General Davis was commanded by the only Black American military officer, Charles Young.

A photograph of Captain Charles Young in 1903.
A photograph of Charles Young, now a Colonel, in 1919.

Under Young’s command, General Davis was inspired to further his rank in the military. Benjamin O. Davis was aided with all his studies and training by Officer Charles Young in order to prepare him well enough to obtain promotion enabling a long and stellar career in the military

Officer Young helped Davis in certain activities that included, but were not limited to:

•   Physical training

•   Wellness

•   Educational courses such as Mathematics (something that Davis struggled with).

The hard work eventually paid off; on the 2nd February 1901, he was commissioned to the rank of Second Lieutenant of Troop F, 10th Cavalry. In spring of the same year, his position took him overseas to serve in the Philippine-American War.

A photograph of Benjamin O. Davis Sr. in military uniform in c. 1901.
A photograph of Benjamin O. Davis Sr. at the age of 21 in 1901 wearing formal attire.

In 1905, after proving his knowledge and sacrifice in service, General Davis was hired as a Professor of Military Science and Tactics at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in the state of Ohio. In 1910, after four years at Wilberforce, he was asked to serve in Liberia where he worked with their military forces. He served in Liberia for a year and returned to the United States in 1911.

Over the next few decades, his expertise in military training led him to become an instructor at Wilberforce. Following his tenure at Wilberforce, he was assigned to Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) in Alabama. From 1931 until 1937, he spent time teaching at Tuskegee as a professor of Military Science and Tactics. Though he enjoyed time in the classroom, his hands-on military work did not cease during his teaching years. In between semesters, the future Brigadier General would devote time during the summer months to assist the mothers and widows of soldiers that served in World War I, to visit their loved ones’ resting grounds in Europe.

Benjamin O. Davis Sr. talking to fellow soldiers somewhere in France in 1944.

In 1938, he was assigned to the 369th Regiment of the New York National Guard and took command of the regiment shortly thereafter. It was during this time that he was escalated to the position of Brigadier General on the 25th October 1940, making history as the first Black American to become a General of the United States Army.

Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. standing in a vehicle overseeing operations in France on the 8th August 1944

Over the next years, General Davis held numerous other positions, such as Commanding General and Assistant to the Office of the Inspector General. In 1948, he officially retired in a public ceremony presided by then-President Harry S. Truman. A few days later, President Truman, influenced by the service of General Davis, signed an Executive Order ending racial discrimination in the Armed Forces. General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. died on the 26th November 1970, in Chicago, Illinois, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

His legacy has continued to live on many years after his death. His son, General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., (1912-2002) was also a decorated General who served in the United States Air Force. As of March 2019, his daughters, Olive and Elnora are still alive at the age of 114 and 103 years respectively.

General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (left) posing for a photograph with, General Noel F. Parrish, and his son Benjamin O. Davis Jr. who went on to become a General in 1954 (temporarily) and 1960 (permanent).
Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (left) receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross from his father, Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. at Ramitelli Airfield. Italy in September 1944. ,

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