Brigadier General Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr. (July 1, 1877 - November 26, 1970) was an American general and the father of Benjamin O. Davis Jr. He was the first African-American general officer in the United States Army.
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., was born in Washington, D.C., on July 1, 1877. His biographer Marvin Fletcher (author of America's First Black General, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., 1880-1970) has presented evidence of his birth records indicating that he was born in May 1880 and later lied about his age so that he could enlist in the Army without the permission of his parents. It is the earlier date that appears on his grave at Arlington National Cemetery, however. He was a student at Howard University when as a result of the start of the War with Spain he entered the military service on July 13, 1898 as a temporary first lieutenant of the 8th United States Volunteer Infantry. He was mustered out on March 6, 1899, and on June 18, 1899, he enlisted as a private in Troop I, U.S. 9th Cavalry Regiment (one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments), of the Regular Army. He then served as corporal and squadron sergeant major, and on February 2, 1901, he was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the Regular Army.
Military serviceBenjamin Oliver Davis, Sr. was born in Washington, D.C. on July 1, 1877 to Louis P. H. and Henrietta Davis. He attended M Street High School in Washington where he participated in the school's cadet program. During the Spanish-American War, Davis briefly served in Company D, 1st Separate Battalion of the Washington D.C. National Guard. On 10 July 1898, Davis joined the 8th U.S. Volunteer Infantry Regiment as a first lieutenant of Company G. The 8th United States Volunteer Infantry was stationed at Chickamauga Park, Georgia, from October 1898 until the unit was disbanded in March 1899.
On 14 June 1899, Davis enlisted in the Regular Army. He was assigned to Troop I, 3rd Squadron, 9th Cavalry at Ft. Duchesne, Utah, first as the troop's clerk and then as squadron sergeant major. In the spring of 1901, Troop I was assigned to the Philippines. In August 1901, he was assigned to Troop F, 10th Cavalry, where Davis assumed the duties of a second lieutenant after passing an officers' qualification test. Troop F returned to the United States in August 1902. Davis was then stationed at Fort Washakie, Wyoming, where he also served for several months with Troop M. In September 1905, he was assigned to Wilberforce University in Ohio as Professor of Military Science and Tactics, a post that he filled for four years.
In November 1909, shortly after being ordered to Regimental Headquarters, 9th Cavalry, Davis was reassigned for duty to Liberia. He left the United States for Liberia in April 1910, and served as a military attache reporting on Liberia's military forces until October 1911. He returned to the United States in November 1911. In January 1912, Davis was assigned to Troop I, 9th Cavalry, stationed at Fort D. A. Russell, Wyoming. In 1913, the 9th Cavalry was assigned to patrol the Mexican-United States border.
In February 1915, Davis was again assigned to Wilberforce University as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. From 1917 to 1920, Davis was assigned to the 9th Cavalry at Camp Stotsenburg, Philippine Islands, as supply officer, commander of 3rd Squadron, and then of 1st Squadron. He reached the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel, but returned to the United States in March 1920 with the rank of captain.
Davis was assigned to the Tuskegee University, Alabama, as the Professor of Military Science and Tactics from 1920 to 1924. He then served for five years as an instructor with 2nd Battalion, 372nd Regiment, Ohio National Guard, in Cleveland, Ohio. In September 1929, Davis returned to Wilberforce University as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. He was assigned to the Tuskegee Institute in the early part of 1931, and remained there for six years as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. During the summer months of 1930 to 1933, Davis escorted pilgrimages of World War I Gold Star Mothers and Widows to the burial places of their loved ones in Europe.
In August 1937, Davis returned to Wilberforce University as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. Davis was assigned to the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard, during the summer of 1938, and took command of the regiment a short time later. Davis was promoted to Brigadier General on 25 October 1940, becoming the first African-American general in the United States Army.
Davis became Commanding General of 4th Brigade, 2nd Cavalry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, in January 1941. About six months later, he was assigned to Washington, D.C. as an assistant in the Office of the Inspector General. While serving in the Office of the Inspector General, Davis also served on the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Problems. From 1941 to 1944, Davis conducted inspection tours of African-American soldiers in the United States Army. From September to November 1942 and again from July to November 1944, Davis made inspection tours of African-American soldiers stationed in Europe.
On 10 November 1944, Davis was reassigned to work under Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee as Special Assistant to the Commanding General, Communications Zone, European Theater of Operations. He served with the General Inspectorate Section, European Theater of Operation (later the Office of the Inspector General on Europe) from January through May 1945. While serving in the European Theater of Operations, Davis was influential in the proposed policy of integration using replacement units.
After serving in the European Theater of Operations for more than a year, Davis returned to Washington, D.C. as Assistant to the Inspector General. In 1947 he was assigned as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. In this capacity, he was sent to Liberia in July 1947 as a representative of the United States for the African country's centennial celebration. On 20 July 1948, after fifty years of military service, Davis retired in a public ceremony with President Harry S. Truman presiding.
From July 1953 through June 1961, he served as a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Davis died on 26 November 1970 at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
PromotionsHe was promoted to first lieutenant on March 30, 1905; to captain on December 24, 1915; to major (temporary) on August 5, 1917; and to lieutenant colonel (temporary) on May 1, 1918. He reverted to his permanent rank of captain on October 14, 1919, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel on July 1, 1920; to colonel on February 18, 1930; to brigadier general (temporary) on October 25, 1940. He was retired on July 31, 1941, and recalled to active duty with the rank of brigadier general the following day.
Decorations and honors
General Davis' U.S. military decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) and Bronze Star. His DSM medal, awarded by General Order 10, dated February 22, 1945, stated that Benjamin O. Davis was awarded the DSM "for exceptionally meritorious service to the Government in a duty of great responsibility from June 1941 to November 1944." The War Department release issued about General Davis' DSM on February 11, 1945, included the following citation:
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 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.
Additionally, Davis was awarded an Honorary Degree of LL.D. from Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia. His foreign awards and honors include of the Croix de Guerre with Palm from France and the Grade of Commander of the Order of the Star of Africa from Liberia.
Photograph Hand Oil Tinted by Artist Margaret A. Rogers