Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr.
December 18, 1912 – July 4, 2002
Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. the son of Elenora Dickinson and Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. Unfortunately, Davis’ mother died when he was about four years old. But the presence of his father, two sisters, and extended family provided a loving and supportive environment. A few years later his father remarried.
Davis, Sr. was a career military man who upon reaching the rank of brigadier general (one star) became the first Black general in the US Army. Due to his father’s career, Davis moved frequently during his childhood. For a time they lived in Tuskegee, Alabama while his father taught at the Tuskegee Institute. Living in the Jim Crow South exposed them to the degradation of segregation. Davis admired that his father did not hide in fear but instead stood in clear view wearing his dress uniform when the Ku Klux Klan rode by.
Davis, Sr.’s rise through the army’s ranks had come about through will and determination. This was during a time when Black people across America faced openly hostile institutional and social racism. As an officer in the segregated military, Davis, Sr. also endured discrimination and career limitations due to his race. Rather than hiding these realities from his son, Davis, Sr. pointed out the unfairness of segregation. But he also encouraged his son to fight back against racism by being steadfast in his drive to succeed and refusing to be limited by others.
During a trip to D.C. Davis attended an air show which sparked his passion for airplanes. His father arranged for him to fly with one of the pilots and he began to dream of becoming one. The family later moved to Cleveland, Ohio where Davis attended Central High School, a predominantly White high school, from which he graduated at the top of the class.
Following graduation, Davis spent some time at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University and the University of Chicago. At the age of 20, he enrolled at West Point. This was after passing the entrance exam on his second try and receiving the required Congressional recommendation from Representative Oscar S. DePriest. With his arrival, Davis became only the fourth Black cadet to attend the famed military academy and the first since Reconstruction. The environment would not be welcoming.
For starters, unlike most other cadets Davis did not have a roommate. This was because administrators would not ask and none of the White cadets volunteered to share a room with him. Also, the other cadets only spoke to Davis in the line of duty. Thus for the four years that Davis attended West Point he lived, ate meals, studied, and otherwise spent his time alone. An advisor also told Davis that his dreams of becoming a pilot were unrealistic due to his race. This social isolation and negativity were intended to discourage Davis. Instead, he persevered and graduated 35th in a class of 276.
Two weeks after graduation, Davis married Agatha Scott, a teacher he’d met at a New Year’s Eve dance. Davis was unable to secure an assignment to the Army Air Corps as there were no Black flying units. Instead, he reported to Georgia’s Fort Benning with his new wife where they remained for two years while he completed infantry school. While there the couple experienced more of the segregation and social isolation that Davis had likely come to expect.
Under pressure from Black voters and organizations, President Franklin Roosevelt began to open up opportunities for Black people in the military. It was at this point that Davis, Sr. was promoted to brigadier general. He helped to guide the formation of a Black flying unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
Davis was selected as commander of the 99th and ordered to report to his new assignment. Finally, Davis received his wings and accomplished his goal of becoming a pilot. This was after years of Davis and others enduring limited assignments due to prejudiced beliefs about the capabilities of Black people. The group better known as the Tuskegee Airmen would emerge from this segregated Army Air Field and distinguish themselves in Italy, Germany, and North Africa.
Davis continued his military career serving in various posts at home and abroad. He served at the Pentagon and commanded flying units during both the Korean War and Vietnam War. During his 38-year military career, Davis received several medals and rose to the rank of three-star general. Even after his retirement in 1971, Davis continued to work in various public service roles. On December 9, 1998, Davis was awarded the rank of four-star general by President Bill Clinton.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. died on July 4, 2002, at the age of 89 of Alzheimer’s disease at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with his wife of 63 years who had predeceased him on March 10, 2002.
- “Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.” 2014. Black Heritage Commemorative Society. May 31, 2014.https://blackhistorynow.com/benjamin-davis-jr/.
- “Davis, Benjamin O.,Jr.” 2022. Encyclopedia.com. ELITE CAFEMEDIA. October 28, 2022.https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/educational-magazines/davis-benjamin-ojr.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2022. “Benjamin O. Davis, Jr..” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. June 30, 2022.https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benjamin-O-Davis-Jr.
- Eley, Anthony. n.d. “Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.” National Museum of the United States Army. Accessed November 8, 2022.https://www.thenmusa.org/biographies/benjamin-o-davis-jr/.
- Patrick, Bethanne Kelly. 2022. “Cadet Who Was Shunned at West Point Led the Legendary Tuskegee Airmen.” Military.com. Military Advantage. June 23, 2022.https://www.military.com/history/gen-benjamin-o-davis-jr.html.
- Searles, Michael N. 2022. “Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (1912-2002).” Blackpast.org. August 6, 2022.https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/davis-jr-benjamin-o-1918-2002/.
- Tuskegee Black History Sites
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- The Tuskegee Airmen [Movie Review]
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