Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the first black general in the American military. He served for 50 years, including appointment as a temporary first lieutenant at an all-black unit during the Spanish American War. Throughout his service, Davis was as a professor of military science at Tuskegee and Wilberforce University, a commander of the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard, and special assistant to the Secretary of the Army. When he retired in 1948, President Harry Truman oversaw the public ceremony. Davis is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
For most of Davis’s career, the US military was segregated. Although African Americans had participated in every military conflict in American history, the dominant cultural perspective of the time was that black and white soldiers should not fight side by side and that black troops should not fight at all, but be limited to duties such as cleaning and cooking meals. Clearly, in this environment, there was little opportunity for advancement for people of color. Despite the many barriers, Davis rose slowly through the ranks. He advised military leaders during World War I on integrating forces and he helped resolve racial conflicts, setting the stage for blacks to eventually achieve integration and access to equal status in the armed forces. As Davis, Sr. spent the years during World War II advising the U.S. government on race-related matters, his son, Davis, Jr., was leading the Tuskegee Airmen as they showed what black servicemen could achieve in combat.
Davis’s ancestors were freed blacks who had either earned or been granted their autonomy. His integrated elementary school was named for abolitionist Lucretia Mott. He had both black and white friends in childhood and stated he did not encounter racism until later in his life experience. For this period of American history, his uncommon experience with racially mixed education in his youth reinforced his belief in equality, in himself, and in the benefits of integration to the military and beyond.