February 22, 2017
From the time the black man won his freedom after the Civil War, he had to fight for equal opportunity in society. Blacks had made significant advances during the Reconstruction Era. (see ) However, they still had numerous barriers to break through. In 1885, Democrats gained control of the Presidency and both Houses of Congress for the first time since the Civil War. They were quickly repealing much of the Republicans post-war progress for blacks. Re-segregation of government agencies under progressive Democrat President Woodrow Wilson hindered the careers of the black soldier. (see )
However, two men made significant advances for African-Americans in the United States Armed Forces during the early 20th century. What makes this story so remarkable is that they were father and son.
According to census reports, Benjamin O. Davis was born in May of 1880. However, he lied to officials, claiming he was born July 1, 1877, so he could volunteer to fight in the Spanish-American War without his parents knowledge. (see and ) Davis enlisted on July 13, 1898, becoming part of the all black 8th United States Volunteer Infantry unit.
The 8th Volunteer Infantry disbanded in 1899, forcing Davis to be mustard out on March 6. He tried to get an appointment to West Point with no success. Therefore, Davis enlisted in the regular Army on June 18, 1899. He entered one of the original Buffalo Soldiers regiments, the 9th Cavalry Regiment, as a private. (see )
Davis’ commander, Lieutenant Charles Young, was the only black officer in the armed forces at the time. He saw potential in Davis and encouraged him to become an officer. Young tutored Davis for the officer candidate test, which Davis passed. As a result, Davis received a commission for second lieutenant of Cavalry.
Even though black men served, they were not yet considered equal. The army refrained from assigning black men over white. Regardless, Davis still gained recognition and respect through his work.
Davis was sent all over the county and world serving in various roles from teacher to Supply Officer to Military Attaché. He passed on his incredible work ethic during the many years teaching at both Wilberforce University in Ohio and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. (see ) Both are well known black schools.
Because of a strong integrity, he made his way up the ranks, earning promotions to First Lieutenant in 1905, on up to Lieutenant Colonel in 1920, then Colonel in 1930. In October 1940, Davis made history with his promotion to Brigadier General as the first black man to do so.
Davis made significant strides during his career as an advisor for black relations in the military. While serving in Europe during World War II, he was named Advisory on Negro Problems. Davis’ efforts contributed to repairing the damage done by Wilson’s racist agenda.
Over the years, Davis was awarded several commendations, including the Bronze Star Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal. He received the DSM on February 22, 1945, for:
"exceptionally meritorious service to the Government in a duty of great responsibility from June, 1941, to November, 1944, as an Inspector of troop units in the field, and as special War Department consultant on matters pertaining to Negro troops. The initiative, intelligence and sympathetic understanding displayed by him in conducting countless investigations concerning individual soldiers, troop units and other components of the War Department brought about a fair and equitable solution to many important problems which have since become the basis of far-reaching War Department policy. His wise advice and counsel have made a direct contribution to the maintenance of soldier morale and troop discipline and has been of material assistance to the War Department and to responsible commanders in the field of understanding personnel matters as they pertain to the individual soldier."
Davis retired on July 20, 1948, after 50 years of service. Six days later, President Harry S. Truman delivered the best gift Davis could have ever asked for. Truman signed an Executive Order abolishing racial discrimination in the military. This order was the first official step in ending segregation in the United States Armed Forces
General Davis died in Chicago on November 28, 1970. His body was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (see )
And then there was Junior.
Davis married Elnora Dickerson in 1902, who died in 1916, days after giving birth to their third child. Three years later, Davis married a teacher from Wilberforce University named Sarah "Sadie" Overton. She raised his two daughters and middle son as her own. However, Benjamin O. Davis Jr was definitely his father's son.
Born December 18, 1912, in Washington D.C., Davis Jr fell in love with flying at age 13. A barnstorming pilot took him for a ride and Davis Jr was hooked.
As a student at the University of Chicago, Davis Jr had his father’s dream of attending West Point. He needed help, though. At the time, the only sitting black U.S. Congressman was Rep. Oscar De Priest (R-Il). Davis Jr wrote Priest, who agreed to sponsor the young man for the military academy. Davis Jr experienced the same racial tensions his father faced. The white students tried to force him to leave by basically ignoring him. However, all it did was make him stronger and more determined.
In the end, they did not judge him by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character, as is evident by the statement under his 1936 graduation yearbook photo.
"The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his singleminded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him." — The Howitzer
Graduating 35th out of 278, Davis Jr should have easily earned a place in the Army Air Corps. Except, they did not have a black squadron. Instead, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry. At the time, there was only one other black combat officer. His name was Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
Davis Jr commanded the all black 24th Infantry Regiment. Though before long, he was transferred to Tuskegee Institution to teach, just like his father.
No matter how much respect and status he gained as an instructor, it still did not replace flying. With the prospect of war gaining momentum, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was under tremendous pressure to expand opportunities for blacks in the military. He finally succumbed, approving the formation of a black flying unit. Davis Jr was given the honor of participating in the first class of airmen at the Tuskegee Army Air Field.
The first five black pilots completed their training on March 7, 1942. That day, Davis Jr became the first black officer to both receive his wings from Tuskegee and to perform a solo flight in an Army Air Corp plane. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Davis Jr became commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. (see )
Some senior officers still convinced that blacks were not as capable as whites started questioning the new squadron’s abilities. Davis Jr fiercely came to their defense. An inquiry proved the black fighter pilots held the same efficiency numbers as whites. This quieted much of the uproar until the 99th shot down twelve German fighters during a two-day battle in January of 1944. This crushed the questions about their ability completely.
Davis Jr’s accomplishments include leading multiple WWII missions and units. After the war, he continued his father’s legacy of black integration in the military by building a new Air Force compliant with Truman’s 1948 order. A year later, Davis Jr became the first black to attend the Air War College, which earned him an assignment to the United States Air Force Headwaters at the Pentagon.
Numerous prestigious appointments inundate Davis Jr’s resume. Like his father, his work ethic took him up the ranks to Brigadier General (1960), Major General (1962) and Lieutenant General in April 1965. Also like his father, he was the first black to be promoted to Brigadier General, only this time in the Air Force.
After 33 years of service in the military, Davis Jr retired on February 1, 1970. However, he continued to serve the country in the Department of Transportation until 1975. President Bill Clinton advanced his rank to General, U.S. Air Force (Retired list), 28 years later on December 9, 1998.
Davis Jr received multiple medals and honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross for a mission to Munich, Germany.
General Davis Jr died a few months after his wife on July 4, 2002. Like his father, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. (see ) At his funeral, President Bill Clinton stated:
"General Davis is here today as living proof that a person can overcome adversity and discrimination, achieve great things, turn skeptics into believers; and through example and perseverance, one person can bring truly extraordinary change"
Liberty, today’s progressives demand that everyone be equal in salary, health care, and lifestyles. Davis Sr and Jr, two men who had every right to demand such equality, would have repudiated that type of thinking. They didn’t fight for forced social equality, as that would have hindered their liberty and freedom to progress as they chose. Instead, they fought for an equal chance to go as far as they possibly could.
This father and son duo broke down enormous barriers for blacks in the United States military. They proved by their integrity, their actions, and their work ethic that "all men are created equal.” However, no one says you have to end up that way. In fact, these two men achieved incredible feats, more than their white counterparts, all while fighting segregation and discrimination. Never let anyone tell you that you have to settle for mediocre to avoid offending others. You should never stop striving to prove yourself as you never know what doors you will open for those following behind, especially your own child.
That’s my 2 cents.