#PHNBlackHistoryMonth: Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

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Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr., the first African-American general for the U.S. Army, battled segregation by developing and implementing plans for the limited desegregation of U.S. combat forces in Europe during World War II.

Davis, who was born in Chicago in 1877 and Howard University-educated, began his military career in the trenches of the Spanish-American War as a volunteer grunt. He liked the military’s discipline and order, so when he was discharged as a volunteer, he enlisted after deciding he wanted a military career.

In the throes of segregation for four decades, he commanded troops in Liberia and the Philippines, where his unit was the famed Buffalo Soldiers. He was three times assigned as a professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University in Ohio and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

His duty assignments were designed to avoid him being put in command of white troops or officers. He rose slowly through the ranks, becoming the first black colonel in the army in 1930. All of his appointments were considered temporary, a move designed to limit his exposure to white troops.

During World War II, he headed a special unit charged with safeguarding the status and morale of black soldiers in the army, and he served in the European theater as a special adviser on race relations. In 1940, he was promoted to brigadier general by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a move some thought was only because Roosevelt needed black votes in the presidential election. Davis retired in 1948 after 50 years of service.

Following many years of service, he became an adviser for the military on racial discrimination, pushing for full integration of the armed forces. He earned a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Medal.

Davis’ determined and disciplined rise in the Army paved the way for black men and women — including his son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate who in 1954 became the second African-American general in the U.S. military and the first in the Air Force.

Davis Jr. led the Tuskegee Airmen and continued the fight against the establishment and tradition to advance the cause of blacks in the military.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the end of discriminatory practices in the armed forces, relying on the foundation built by Davis. After his death in 1970, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

In January 1997, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Black Heritage Stamp to honor his service and contributions. – John X. Miller

Source: The Undefeated