Benjamin Davis, Sr., and Benjamin Davis, Jr. are clearly the most distinguished father-son tandem in African-American military history. Benjamin Davis, Sr., was born in Washington, DC in 1870. Well-educated at an integrated school, he enlisted in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and became one of three African-American lieutenants in the U.S. army. He served in the Phillipines from 1899-1902. His knowledge of Spanish was quite helpful to him in the Phillipines. In fact, Davis once spoke Spanish to a waiter in Las Vegas, NM who had refused to serve him. The waiter apologized and served Davis. (Astor 79) Davis then taught military science at Wilberforce University in Ohio. (Astor 76-77) Davis quietly fought against segregation and for racial equality from within the military. (Astor 167) He was “a good soldier” rather than a vocal militant like his colleague Lt. Col. Charles Young. During World War Two, Davis served as an ombudsman for black GI’s. On one trip to a base in Tampa, six hundred black GI’s lined up to speak with him. (Astor 174) It seems fair to say that Davis spent a considerable amount of time as a troubleshooter in military race relations. Davis spoke up more loudly against segregation after he retired from the military. His distinguished career helped to ensure more opportunities for future African-American members of the military.
One of the beneficiaries of Davis’ pioneering efforts was his own son Benjamin Davis, Jr. A 1936 graduate of West Point, Benjamin Davis, Jr. wanted to be a pilot. He became the leader of a group called the Tuskegee airmen. The U.S. Army Air Corps had systemically excluded blacks until the Selective Service Act of 1940 outlawed discrimination in selection, induction, and training of military personnel. (Lanning 190)
Although potential black pilots were trained in segregated facilities in Tuskegee, AL - a clear violation of the legislation- the 600 pilots who were trained at Tuskegee performed heroically when finally given the chance to fly in combat. Many died in action. Others had distinguished military careers both during and after World War Two.
Benjamin Davis became commander of the 99th squadron. Later several other black squadrons were placed under his command. He became a Brigadier General in 1959 and later was appointed Chief of Staff in Korea by President Lyndon Johnson. Benjamin Davis, Jr. was more outspoken than his father, but he too was always considered a good soldier by the military establishment. After retiring from the military, Davis began a career in security, first for the city of Cleveland and then for the Federal Aviation Administration. He now lives in Washington, DC. (Astor 514) General Davis was kind enough to send me a signed picture of himself for my classroom at Hillhouse H.S.