America has several successful father and son duos. For example, John and John Quincy Adams, George H.W. and George W. Bush, Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr., Tug and Tim McGraw, Billy and Franklin Graham, and Kirk and Michael Douglas. In their respective fields, these men have achieved amazing accomplishments. As for the military, they have Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and Jr.
When the Spanish-American War started, 18-year-old Benjamin O. Davis wanted to join the army. Claiming his birthday as July 1, 1877, he lied so he could enlist without his parents’ permission.
Davis volunteered on July 13, 1898, for the all black 8th Volunteer Infantry unit. After it disbanded on March 6, 1899, Davis made an unsuccessful bid to West Point. Therefore, he enlisted in the regular Army on June 18. Private Davis entered the 9th Cavalry, an original Buffalo Soldiers regiment, commanded by the only black officer at the time, Lieutenant Charles Young.
Seeing potential in Davis, Young encouraged him to become an officer. He tutored Davis for the officer candidate test, which Davis passed. Afterwards, Davis received a commission for second lieutenant of Calvary.
Blacks made tremendous progress during the Reconstruction Era, though the army refrained from placing black men over white. However, when Democrats regained power in the 1890’s, they quickly began repealing most of that advancement. All progress retarded under Democrat President Woodrow Wilson, who re-segregated the military. Regardless, Davis still gained recognition and respect for his work.
Davis served in various roles from teacher to Supply Officer to Military Attaché across the world. Professor of Military Science and Tactics, he taught for years at two black schools, Wilberforce University in Ohio and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His hard work earned promotions from First Lieutenant in 1905, to Lieutenant Colonel, then to Colonel.
In October 1940, Davis became the first black to receive the rank of Brigadier General.
During his tenure, Davis gained appreciation as a well-respected advisor for blacks in the military. In 1942, he served as Advisory on Negro Problems while serving in Europe. Due to Davis’ efforts, the armed forces began undoing the damage Wilson’s re-segregation orders inflicted on the black soldier.
Davis earned several awards including the Bronze Star Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal. He received the DSM on February 22, 1945 for “exceptionally meritorious service to the Government in a duty of great responsibility from June, 1941, to November, 1944,…on matters pertaining to Negro troops…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.”
After 50 years of service, Davis retired on July 20, 1948. Six days later, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order abolishing racial discrimination in the military. This order began the journey to end segregation in the United States Armed Forces.
General Davis died on November 28, 1970. His body was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Davis and his first wife had three children before she passed away due to complications from childbirth. His second wife raised his two girls and middle boy as her own. However, Benjamin O. Davis Jr was definitely his father’s son.
Davis Jr was born on December 18, 1912, in Washington D.C. A military child, Davis Jr set his sights on flying for his country after a flight with a barnstorming pilot at age 13.
While attending the University of Chicago, Davis Jr had his father’s dream of attending West Point. But, he needed a sponsor. He contacted the only sitting black Congressman, Representative Oscar De Priest (R-Il), who helped Davis Jr obtain a spot at the military academy. Davis Jr experienced similar strained race relations as his father. White students tried to force Davis Jr out of the academy through ostracism. Instead, it strengthened his determination and drive. By graduation in 1936, their hearts and minds had changed. The yearbook stated:
“The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his singleminded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.” — The Howitzer
Davis Jr graduated 35th out of 278 and was commissioned in the infantry as a second lieutenant. At the time, there was only one other black combat officer, named Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
Davis Jr’s high graduation ranking should have obtained him a spot at the Army Air Corps. However, it did not have a black squadron. Davis Jr received an assignment to the all black 24th Infantry Regiment in Fort Benning, Georgia. Soon after, he found himself teaching at Tuskegee Institute, just like his father.
The status and respect Davis Jr received as an instructor did not erase the fact he was still not flying. As the reality of World War II crept closer, Roosevelt surrendered to the pressure of allowing blacks more military latitude. Development of a black flying unit was approved. Davis earned the honor of training in the first class of pilots at the Tuskegee Army Air Field.
On March 7, 1942, the first five blacks completed their pilot training. Davis Jr was the first black officer to both perform a solo flight in an Army Air Corps plane and get his wings from Tuskegee. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, he was given the 99th Pursuit Squadron to command, otherwise known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Some senior officers started raising questions about the black fighter pilots’ abilities. Davis Jr adamantly defended his men, whose record revealed their equal efficiency to white fighter pilots. During a two-day battle in January 1944, the 99th shot down 12 German fighters. All questions of ability disappeared immediately.
Davis Jr led multiple missions and several groups, including the Red Tails, best known for refusing to abandon their bombers.
After the war, Davis Jr continued his father’s work of integrating blacks throughout the military. Working at the Pentagon and overseas, he began building a new Air Force in compliance with Truman’s 1948 order. A year later, Davis Jr became the first black to attend the Air War College, receiving a position with the United States Air Force Headwaters at the Pentagon after graduation.
Davis Jr’s assignments were numerous and prestigious. Like his father, the first black general officer in the Air Force continued up the ranks with Brigadier General (1960), Major General (1962) and Lieutenant General in April 1965. After 33 years of service in the military, he retired on February 1, 1970. Twenty-eight years later, President Bill Clinton promoted his rank to General, U.S. Air Force (Retired) on December 9, 1998.
Continuing to serve the country, Davis Jr worked in the Department of Transportation until 1975. He received multiple medals and honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross for a mission to Munich, Germany.
General Davis Jr died on July 4, 2002, within months of his wife. Like his father, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
“General Davis is here today as living proof that a person can overcome adversity and discrimination, achieve great things, turn skeptics into believers; and through example and perseverance, one person can bring truly extraordinary change” — President Bill Clinton during Davis’ funeral
These two men were instrumental in breaking down the barriers the United States military imposed on blacks. They proved by their integrity and their actions that even though “all men are created equal,” they don’t have to end up that way. Those with determination lead extraordinary lives no matter what the obstacles.
But that’s just my 2 cents.