Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. on December 18, 1912, the second of three children born to Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and Elnora Dickerson Davis. His father was a U.S. Army officer, stationed in Wyoming serving as a lieutenant with an all-white cavalry unit. His father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. served 41 years before he was promoted to brigadier general in October 1940. Elnora Davis died from complications after giving birth to their third child (Elnora) in 1916.
At the age of 13, in the summer of 1926, the younger Davis went for a flight with a barnstorming pilot at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. The experience led to his determination to become a pilot himself.
Beginning a Military career
After attending the University of Chicago , he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1932. He was sponsored by Representative Oscar De Priest (R-IL) of Chicago , at the time, the only black member of Congress . During the four years of his Academy term, Davis was racially isolated by his White classmates, few of whom spoke to him outside the line of duty. He never had a roommate. He ate by himself. His classmates hoped that this would drive him out of the Academy. The “silent treatment” had the opposite effect. It made Davis more determined to graduate.
At the start of his junior year at West Point, Davis had applied for the Army Air Corps but was rejected because it did not accept blacks. He was instead assigned to the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment (one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments) at Fort Benning, Georgia . He was not allowed inside the base officers’ club.
Nevertheless, he earned the respect of his classmates, as evidenced by the biographical note beneath his picture in the 1936 yearbook, the Howitzer: He graduated in 1936, in the top 3rd of his class.
When Davis joined the Army Air Forces, he was the only black officer and when the service integrated in 1949, there were only 375 black officers in the service (about 0.6 percent of the total number of officers). Today, there are about 4,000 black officers in the Air Force, almost six percent of the total. Davis can claim the largest portion of the credit for opening the doors to black men and women. He eventually became a Tuskegee Airman and the Air Force’s first black general, but when he was just a cadet in 1932 at the United States Military Academy, no one wanted to be his roommate, let alone be his friend, or even speak to him unless absolutely necessary.
None of his achievements meant as much to him as his role in bringing about the integration of the US Air Force. Col. Alan L. Gropman, USAF (Ret.), a department chairman at National Defense University, has published widely on the topic of the Tuskegee Airmen and other subjects. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Tuskegee Airmen,” appeared in the March 1996 issue.
However, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., like his father, also rose to the rank of Air Force Brigadier General, and was the commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The Tuskegee airmen were referred to as Benjamin O. Davis Jr’s boys.
Decorations and honors
Throughout his military career, Carnall Davis was decorated with three stars. He received his fourth star after his retirement. At the time of Davis’s retirement, he held the rank of lieutenant general , but on December 9, 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him a fourth star, raising him to the rank of full general. He is a 1992 recipient of the Langley Gold Medal from the Smithsonian Institution.
He was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum in 1996.
In 2015, Westpoint honoured the cadet who once called himself the ‘invisible man’, by naming its newly constructed barracks after him.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Davis on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans Benjamin O. Davis Jr Aerospace Technical High School Detroit, Michigan, and Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Middle School in Compton, California, as well as the former Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Aviation High School in Cleveland, Ohio, are all named in his honor.
The Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Award is presented to senior members of the Civil Air Patrol United States Air Force Auxiliary who successfully complete the second level of professional development, complete the technical training required for the Leadership Award, and attend Squadron Leadership School, designed “to enhance a senior member’s performance at the squadron level and to increase understanding of the basic function of a squadron and how to improve squadron operations.”
On 1 November 2019, the airfield at the United States Air Force Academy , in Colorado Springs, Colorado was re-named Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Airfield.
Davis, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, died at age 89 on July 4, 2002 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was interred with Agatha, his wife, who died on March 10, 2002, on July 17, at Arlington National Cemetery.