Defending the Long Road to Freedom: Benjamin Oliver Davis

Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr. circa 1901

Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. with Hollywood celebrities Rita Hayworth and Eddie Cantor [AHEC Photograph Archives RG590, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. Photograph Collection]
Born in 1877, the grandson of a slave, Benjamin O. Davis entered military service during the Spanish-American War as a temporary FirstLieutenant of volunteers. Mustered out after only a year, he immediately reenlisted in the Regular Army and was assigned to a cavalry unit. In the years that followed, he rose through the ranks as he served in various positions including several tours of duty in the Philippines and posting as a Professor of Military Science at Wilberforce University and the Tuskegee Institute. He patrolled the US-Mexico border with the 9th Cavalry; served as commander of the 369th Infantry, New York National Guard; and as a brigade commander with the 2nd Cavalry Division; and served as Assistant to the Inspector General in Washington, DC.

Davis also served detached duty with the Pilgrimage of War Mothers and Widows from 1930 to 1933, escorting family members to the graves of their loved ones in Europe.

Promoted to Brigadier General on October 25, 1940, the first African-American general in the US Army, General Davis retired on July 31, 1941 and was recalled to active duty the next day. During World War II he continued to serve in the Inspector General’s office, and, in 1942, was assigned to the European Theater of Operations for special duty as Advisor on Negro Problems.

Decorated with a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Medal, BG Davis’ 50 years of service came to an end on July 14, 1948 when he officially retired.  He died in 1970 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Note:  General Davis’ son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., became the fourth African-American to graduate from West Point.  He eventually rose in rank to Lieutenant General (three stars), becoming the second African-American general officer in the US and the first African-American general in the US Air Force.  In 1998 President Bill Clinton advanced his rank to that of General (four stars).  General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. died in 2002 and was buried near his father.

Copy of Benjamin Davis’ Bronze Star Citation

Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis , Sr. and his son, Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. c.1941 [AHEC Photograph Archives RG590, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. Photograph Collection]



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Primary Sources

The Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr. Collection is housed at the US Army Heritage and Education Center and is available to researchers and historians.  The collection spans the years 1893-1974.  The bulk of the material pertains to the period from 1941 to 1945. The collection documents Davis’ fifty years of military service from 1898 to 1948 and consists of seven series: Correspondence (Sub-series: Official, Personal, Retirement), Official Papers, Personal Papers, Speeches, Printed Materials, Photographs, and Oversize.  To view the catalog of the Benjamin O. Davis Collection click here.

Bill to Retain Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis on Active Duty

Letter from General Davis on the Combat Role of African-American Soldiers

Letter congratulating General Davis on his promotion

An excerpt from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 issued on June 25, 1941. This order protected African-Americans from workplace discrimination and opened the door for government and defense sector employment.

Army Talk article published by the War Department in May 1945 discussing the effects of prejudice on our nation and the war effort. It quotes Army Service Forces Manual M 5 stating, ‘The man who spreads rumors, particularly race rumors,…is doing Hitler’s and Tojo’s work.’ Japan and Nazi Germany attempted to sow racial discord in our country to affect the war effort.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981. This would become the basis for integrating the United States military. Clause 1 states, ‘that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.’

Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson needed the Army, Navy, and Air Force to review procedures in order to match the personnel polices laid out by the National Military Establishment.

The National Military Establishment lists the directives needing to be reviewed and instituted. It orders the branches to ‘examine…and determine what forward steps…should be made in the light of this policy and in view of Executive Order 9981.’

In Clause 3 the National Military Establishment’s Directive for Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services requested submissions for ‘implementation of the general policy’ required by May 1, 1949.

Page 1 of 2 of Memorandum dated September 30, 1949 to the Secretary of Defense from Secretary of the Army Gordon Gray. It specifies the new integration policy and procedures to be instituted by the Army.

On page 2 of the Secretary of the Army’s Memo to the Secretary of Defense, it informs the SECDEF that the Army remains involved with finding solutions in regards to the question of all black units.

President Harry Truman writes, in a letter dated July 6, 1950, to thank Committee Chairman Charles Fahy. It discusses his pleasure with the Committee’s report submitted on May 22, 1950. He extends thanks to the other Committee members and their work has ‘helped the Service take important steps toward the realization of our national ideals.’

Research Intern:

Zane Bachert


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