This weekend marks the 80th anniversary of Benjamin O. Davis Sr.'s promotion to brigadier general, which broke the color barrier in the United States Army and installed a Black officer to the upper echelon of the nation’s military for the first time.
Davis Sr.'s historic climb to the top of the American armed forces paved the way for future Black generals, including his son, Air Force Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., and others including Colin Powell who have continued to carry the torch of racial equality.
Davis’ appointment on Oct. 25, 1940, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was controversial not only because Davis was Black but also because the promotion occurred right before the election that year, according to Politico. The military was segregated at the time and would remain that way until President Harry S Truman ended the institution in 1948.
Notably, the man Truman handpicked to lead the effort to desegregate the military was Davis’ son, Davis Jr., also a man of integrity who became a legendary military commander in his own right.
Both men had to overcome the deep-seated racism that was fully woven in the culture of the nation’s military during that time.
Davis Jr., whose life and history are inextricably linked with that of his father’s, was a combat pilot and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Similar to his dad, Davis Jr. was the first Black military officer to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the United States Air Force.
Davis Jr. exceeded his father’s expectations and perhaps surpassed his legend in a storied military career.
Davis Sr. was an enduring example and laid the groundwork for his son from the beginning.
Both men’s names are easily spoken to this day, with the 66th anniversary of Davis Jr.'s promotion to general coming this Tuesday.
By all accounts, Davis Sr. was a swashbuckling soldier and commander who moved up fast through the ranks.
Twelve days after his 21st birthday in 1898, Davis entered military service as a foot soldier for the cavalry during the Spanish-American War. He served bravely in the Philippine Islands.
By 1901, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, according to his online Army biography, provided through the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Through the years, Davis Sr. continued a quiet rise through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant colonel, captain and a “full bird” colonel, denoted by the silver eagle insignia, all by 1930. He was promoted to brigadier general a decade later, the first Black man to achieve the rank in any of the armed services.
As a commanding officer and professor, Davis Sr. also served in many domestic assignments across the country. He was known for tours in Liberia and for additional diplomacy in Europe for which he received letters of commendation.
He was born in Washington, D.C., on July 1, 1877, and died on Nov. 26, 1970.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
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