Written By: Dr. J. Holmes Armstead

General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. lived a life of excitement and adventure. He was a decorated military aviator, a successful diplomat, and a leader in the use of air power during three wars. His was also a life of firsts: first African American commanding officer of a Fighter Squadron in combat, first African American commander of a Fighter Group in combat, first African American commander of an Air Wing, and the first African American US Air Force general officer. But these accomplishments did not come easily. General Davis often faced bigotry, discrimination, and racial prejudice.

He began his career at the US Military Academy at West Point, reporting for duty as a cadet in 1932. Davis roomed alone for 4 years and was only addressed by his peers on matters of official business. He had no social interaction with his fellow future Army officers and was “silenced” by the Corps of Cadets, the most severe treatment meted out by the student body and reserved for only those who commit the most severe violations of the Honor Code.

Young Cadet Davis had not committed any such violations of the revered Honor Code, nor had he been charged with any derogation in the performance of his duty. His only perceived violation was that he was Black and, in the opinion of the other students, should not be there. This did not deter Davis though, and despite the professional isolation, he graduated 35th out of a class of 247.

This class ranking would have allowed other graduates their choice of branch assignment, but when Davis applied for the Army Air Corps, he was told there were no such assignments available for Black officers and he should apply for something else. He let the Army know that if his choice was denied, he would let the Army make the branch choice for him. He was subsequently assigned to the Infantry and reported to Ft. Benning Georgia, where he joined the 24th Infantry Regiment, one of four all-Black regular Army regiments.

His service, by all accounts, was excellent. Davis was selected as a company commander and was promoted to First Lieutenant early. He then proceeded ahead to the Infantry Career Officers Course with a subsequent assignment to Tuskegee University as a Professor of Military Science. Though his career was progressing, it was clear that there was a limit to how far he could rise because the Army would only let him serve in assignments traditionally reserved for its few Black officers. But Davis had no lack of resolve; he was a soldier and he had decided to serve, wherever his future lay in the US Army. Davis was not deterred by the bleak prospects proffered by a tradition of rigid segregation. It was clear from the start that his was not going to be a career made easy by happenstance and serendipity.