This Day in History: Benjamin Davis, Sr., the first black man to become an Army general
At about this time in 1877, a hero is born. Or perhaps Benjamin O. Davis was actually born in May 1880? Davis potentially lied about his birthday so he could join the Army. Either way, Davis would go on to become the first black man to attain the rank of general in the United States Army.
Would Davis have mixed feelings about the tagline: “the first black man” to achieve a rank? During World War II, he wrote that “overmuch emphasis is being placed on color in our Army.” On the other hand, he worked tirelessly toward the integration of the Armed Forces during his lifetime and was surely proud of what he accomplished.
“My father was all Army, through and through,” his son would say. The elder Davis had wanted to be a soldier, right from the beginning. As a senior in high school, he joined the cadet program at Howard University. When war broke out against Spain in 1898, he joined a volunteer unit. He tried to get an appointment to West Point afterwards, but President William McKinley would not appoint a black man to the academy.
Davis decided to enlist as a private instead. He was stationed at Fort Duchesne, Utah, which turned out to be an important assignment. Major Charles Young, then the only black officer in the army, was stationed at Fort Duchesne as well. Young coached Davis on everything he would need to know to pass an officer’s examination.
Davis was eager to learn! He passed the examination and was commissioned as a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the Regular Army on February 2, 1901. He was one of the few black men to be in such a position at that time.
Davis slowly but surely worked his way through the ranks, but he kept running into the same problem: The Army was working hard not to put him in command of white men. Thus, Davis was either in command of black troops, working as a professor of military science, or serving as an attaché to Liberia.
By the time Davis was promoted to brigadier general in 1940, he was 63 years old. Unfortunately, his promotion was motivated, at least in part, by the 1940 presidential election campaign. Franklin D. Roosevelt was hoping to garner support from black voters. The promotion might have been motivated partly by politics, Davis’s son later acknowledged, but “my father had richly deserved it for many years.”
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Davis attained his new rank mere months before the mandatory retirement age of 64. But Davis had proven his worth. He retired, as required, but then he was brought back the very next day (still holding the rank of brigadier general). He would go on to serve his country during World War II, helping the Army to negotiate many issues related to black troops.
Davis didn’t achieve everything he wanted when it came to integration of black soldiers into the army. But, as one historian concludes, “his ability to work within the army system, his educational activities, and his persistence in reducing the worst aspects of military segregation laid the foundation for the fully-integrated U.S. Army that followed a few years after the end of World War II.”
Davis was undoubtedly proud of an event that followed not too long after his final retirement: His son became the first black man to obtain the rank of general in the Air Force.
“How lucky I was to have a father who, in spite of formidable obstacles, would fight for his beliefs and ambitions and win,” Benjamin Davis, Jr. wrote many years later.
Yes, indeed. And how lucky America is that such men have existed—and that we get to call them our own.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: American: An Autobiography (2000)
Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr. biography (U.S. Army Center of Military History website)
Catherine Reef, African Americans in the Military (rev. ed. 2010)
David T. Zabecki, World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia (2015)
Defending the Long Road to Freedom: Benjamin Oliver Davis (Army Heritage Center Foundation website)
Find A Grave website (reflecting the July 1, 1877 birthday that Davis reported to the Army)
James Gilbert Ryan & Leonard C Schlup, Historical Dictionary of the 1940s (2006)
Jonathan Sutherland, African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia (2004) (Vol. 1)
Marvin E. Fletcher, America’s First Black General: Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., 1880-1970 (1989)