In celebration of Black History Month, I’ve committed to learning about those heroes we probably didn’t learn about in school in school. Once a week, I’ll be sharing what I learned about these incredible humans with you.
This week, we will chitchat about Benjamin Owen Davis. Does this name not ring a bell? I’m not surprised. We may not have learned about him in school, but we definitely SHOULD learn about this amazing man. Davis was the first Black American to be named a general in the American military.
Benjamin Davis claimed to have been born in 1877 but census documents state his birth year as 1880. It’s believed he lied about his age in order to enlist in the Army. He was third child to Louis P.H. Davis and Henrietta Stewart Davis and lived in Washington D.C. Davis’s dad was a messenger for the Interior Department and his mom was a nurse. He attended M Street High School and participated in the their cadet program. During his senior year, Davis took classes at Howard University. How incredibly rare for a Black family to have the opportunity and means to put education first. Also… how sad that this was and in many cases – rare.
the army beckons
Mr. and Mrs. Davis put a huge emphasis on education, but despite the military’s segregation policies, Davis had a love for the military since childhood and that’s where he was headed. After he graduated from high school, the Spanish-American War started and Davis went for it. Fudging his birth year to 1877 rather than 1880, he enlisted on July 13, 1898. He was temporary first lieutenant in the 8th United States Volunteer Infantry, an all Black unit. This regiment was stationed at Chickamauga Park, Georgia from October 1898 until its disbanding in March of 1899. During the war, he also served briefly in Company D, 1st Separate Battalion of the Washington D.C. National Guard.
In March 1899, Davis was discharged from service. In June of 1899, he re-enlisted as a private in Troop I. 9th Cavalry Regiment (one of the famous Buffalo Soldier regiments). While stationed in Ft. Duchesne, Utah, he was the troop’s clerk and then as squadron sergeant through 1900. During that time, Davis’ unit was commanded by Lieutenant Charles Young, who was the only Black officer serving in the US military at that time. Young was inspiration for Davis to pursue his goal of becoming an officer. He tutored Davis in his studies for the officer candidate test. Davis passed his test in 1901 at Ft. Leavenworth – one of only ten other soldiers and one other Black soldier. He was commissioned a second lieutenant of Calvary in the Regular Army on February 2, 1901.
That spring, Troop I was posted overseas during the Philippine-American War. In August, Davis was assigned to Troop F, 10th Cavalry. There, he assumed the duties of a second lieutenant. In September 1905, he was assigned as Professor of Military Science and Tactics to Wilberforce College (now University): the nation’s first private HBCU. Davis taught there for four years. I don’t know about you, but I think that is super amazing. This incredible man was blazing trails at a college that was also blazing trails. After being reassigned a few times, Davis returned to teaching at Wilberforce College. He taught there off and on between reassignments until 1940. In October of that year, he was promoted to brigadier general; the first Black general officer in the US Army.
world war II
After WWII began, Davis led the 4th Cavalry Brigade, 2nd Calvary Division as a commanding general. Around June of 1941, he was sent to Washington D.C. as assistant in the Office of the Inspector General. During this time, he also served on the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. Between the years 1941 to 1944, Davis conducted inspections of Black soldiers in the US Army. For several months in 1942 and again in 1944, he also made inspection tours of Black soldiers stationed in Europe.
In November of 1944, Davis was reassigned to work under Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee as special assignment to the commanding general, Communications Zone from January through May of 1945. Davis was incredibly influential in the proposed policy of integration using replacement units.
During all his barrier breaking, Davis still managed to have a flourishing personal life. In 1902, he married his neighbor and childhood sweetheart, Elnora Dickerson. Their first child, named Olive, was born in 1905. Benjamin Jr. was born in 1912. In 1916, Elnora gave birth to their third child and second child. It was a difficult birth and Elnora died from complications. Their daughter was named in her honor. In 1919, Davis remarried Sarah “Sadie” Overton, an English teacher at Wilberforce University. They were married 47 years. Sadie died in October of 1966.
After serving for more than a year in the European Theater of Operations, Davis returned to D.C. as an assistant to the Inspector General.
On July 20, 1948, after 50 years of military service and an incredible trajectory filled with prestige and promotions, Davis retired in a public ceremony with President Harry S. Truman presiding. Less than a week later on July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981: abolishing racial discrimination in the United States armed forces.
Upon retirement, Davis served as a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission from 1953-1961.
Davis passed away on November 26, 1970 in Chicago, Illinois and is buried with his wife Sadie at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1997, a 32 cent stamp honoring Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was issued by the USPS. In continuing his father’s groundbreaking military career, his son became the first Black General officer of the United States Air Force in October 1954.
What an incredible man and amazing trails he blazed!