FORT LEE, Va. – There is a well-known World War II photo of Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., an African-American who was well into his 60s at the time.
The senior officer is bespectacled and is shown wearing an M1 helmet and Eisenhower-style jacket with stars on the epaulets. A few Soldiers in combat gear surround him as he authoritatively peers into the distance.
Davis at the time, however, was neither a combatant nor commander. His calm, focused and steely expression – akin to the “vintage dignity” of his counterparts – suggested he was capable, belying the fact he was merely a mighty token in the nation’s long, arduous journey toward racial justice and equality.
Indeed, Davis is a conspicuous figure in the August 1944 photo. Here was a black general – the first in the U.S. Armed Forces, and the only one many would likely see – being escorted in a theater of operations during a time of war; a rare sight indeed for a segregated Army. Some whites reportedly refused to render a salute upon his approach and some blacks likely saw him as a laughable hoax.
Davis, however, was worthy of honorable salutation. He was a former Buffalo Soldier who spent years in remote western outposts as well as a few months overseas during the Philippine-American War.
His assignments to black units almost always meant he was subjected to some level of discrimination. Over the course of his career, Davis had scraped his knuckles for troop leadership opportunities only to be relegated to staff positions and shuffled around like a lost duffel bag because it was taboo for African-Americans to command whites.
Despite the indignities and insults, Davis trudged along – in hindsight of the broken dreams and doused ambitions of those coming before him – toward a shifting horizon of uneasy prospects for which he prepared most of his life.
In 1940, after 41 years of service, Davis was finally promoted to brigadier general, perhaps in a Roosevelt administration move to court black votes. He retired eight years later, a little before President Harry F. Truman’s landmark decision to integrate the military.
Although Davis’ career is in many ways a disheartening tale full of toil, sacrifice and frustration, it’s also a triumphant, powerful legacy that would influence hopes and dreams for generations to come.
The seeds of that legacy sprouted to life in his own household long before Davis hung up his uniform. His son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., was launched into the fight for racial equality almost from the day he was born. In 1932, he became one of only a handful of African-Americans accepted into the U.S. Military Academy. There, he battled against a four-year campaign of unsparing ostracism and isolationism that included rooming and dining alone and only speaking to classmates when necessary.
The younger Davis eventually finished 35th out of a class of 276. He was the fourth African-American to graduate from the academy over its 130-plus years. Considering Davis’ academic and social achievement, his diploma should have been emblazoned with words describing his audacity, strength and resilience.
In contrast to his father, Davis Jr.’s career literally soared. He was selected in 1941 to attend pilot school in the Army Air Corps, and became the first black to fly an Air Corps plane solo.
One year later, Lt. Col. Davis was named commander, 99th Pursuit Squadron. In 1943, he commanded the 332nd Fighter Group as a colonel.
Members of both units were known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the black aviators who carried to war the hopes and aspirations of an entire race. Those airmen performed as well as other units, earning Davis a Silver Star and the nation’s gratitude.
Like his father, Airman Davis was a ground-breaker, becoming in 1960 the first black general in the Air Force. He earned his fourth star in 1988, presented to him by President Bill Clinton 18 years after retirement.