“It’s important to realize that we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” said Doug Melville in completing his speech during the West Point Black History Month Observance Feb. 25 at Eisenhower Hall Theatre.
Melville, the great nephew of USMA 1936 graduate and aviation great Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., served as one of the guest speakers for the Black History Month Observance, sponsored by the U.S. Military Academy’s Equal Opportunity Office. Wynton Marsalis, an internationally acclaimed professional jazz musician, also served as a virtual guest speaker and gave a musical performance. Along with Marsalis, USMA Band’s West Point Jazz Ensemble also gave musical performances featuring Class of 2021 Cadet Xavier Lampkin on the tenor saxophone.
The evening’s festivities kicked off with Lt. Col. Channing Greene, the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity’s program manager, briefly touching on post-Civil War Black History historical markers. His speech included the ratification of the 13th amendment to abolish slavery in 1865 and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that continued the growing awareness of black identity. He concluded by speaking about Negro History Week, started by Carter G. Woodson in 1926 that eventually evolved into Black History Month in 1976.
“President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the (American) public to seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area and endeavor throughout our history,” Greene said.
Greene then introduced the first guest speaker, Melville, who is a fifth-generation leader, the current vice president and chief diversity officer for Richemont, a leading global luxury goods company, and a three-time TEDx Talks speaker.
Melville’s speech centered around his great uncle, Davis Jr., but traced his lineage back to his great uncle’s grandfather, Lewis Davis. He spoke about his family’s journey beginning with Lewis Davis working as a house servant for Gen. Edward Lawrence Logan, who Boston’s Logan Airport is named after. He worked his way up from house servant to getting promoted to President Ulysses S. Grant’s oldest son’s babysitter. He became one of the first black’s to be allowed to work in and out of the White House freely, Melville said.
“Gen. Logan and Ulysses S. Grant were so happy with (Lewis) and welcomed his presence and company that they worked to get him a job with the Department of the Interior,” Melville said. “So, he had a government job and was working in that job when he had a son, Ben Davis Sr., in the late 1800s (1877).”
Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. did not want to work within the government like his dad as he felt his calling was as a Soldier. However, as Melville details, Davis Sr. filled out an application to attend West Point and received a signature from Gen. Logan. Still, President William McKinley denied his entry because, as he stated, “We don’t want to get into the habit of allowing blacks to get into West Point,” Melville said.
So angry and upset about being denied entrance to West Point, Davis Sr. set out west to join the Buffalo Soldiers and work under Charles Young, the third African-American West Point graduate.
“(Davis Sr.) heard about what (Young) was doing and heard he graduated from West Point and wanted to meet him,” Melville said. “He took a one-way train ticket to Wyoming where he worked underneath Charles Young while Young explained to him, ‘You can get your son into West Point, it can happen, we can be the change we want to see in this world.’”
Davis Sr., as Melville explains, wanted to raise his son to be the greatest general in American military history. However, along the way, Davis Sr.’s wife died during childbirth, so as one of two black officers in the military at the time and the struggles that came with that, he was a single dad of three children, including Davis Jr. Eventually, this led to the family moving to Chicago where the only black congressman in the United States, Oscar De Priest, lived with the hopes of getting his signature to allow his son, Davis Jr., to get into West Point.
“This was a generational struggle at the time,” Melville said. “The purpose of this was to say that you can do it if you have the determination.”
Davis Jr. arrived at West Point in 1932 on his way to graduating in 1936, but his cadet journey was one of the harshest, if not the toughest, in USMA annals. Once it was realized he was black, the institution set him up to drop out. On his second day, he found out that they had put in an unwritten rule that they were going to silence him until he drops out, Melville said.
“For four years, he had no human interaction except for official duty,” Melville said. “He ate alone. He went to the Army-Navy Game alone on his own bus. He was alone all day, every day in complete silence. He was not allowed to go to the library. He was not allowed to have a study partner.
“After four years, he got to graduation, and at the ceremony, he shook the hand of Gen. (John J.) Pershing, and he became (at the time) one of only two black officers in the U.S. military, him and his father,” Melville added.
As Melville discussed his family’s experience leading up to World War II when the war started, there were 335,000 individuals registered for the U.S. military. The only two black officers were Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
Davis Sr. was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt prior to World War II beginning, and FDR was looking to gain re-election and Davis Sr. offered advice to him to gain the black vote.
“Ben Davis Sr. said, ‘One way to ensure you get the black vote is to give equal opportunity to all black Americans who are in the military,’” Melville said. “Up until that point, blacks were not allowed to fly because aviation at that point was still in its infancy and it was considered the highest skilled job you could have in America.”
This, Melville added, was a way to show and prove that blacks were equal by funding a black fighter pilot squadron. Soon after, Davis Jr., became the first black pilot in United States Army history and from there, he led the Tuskegee Airmen, but not without its pitfalls.
“When the Tuskegee Airmen started, he was responsible for building, creating and assembling the entire infrastructure of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Melville said. “At the height of World War II, there were over 15,000 men (in the unit) because the Army was segregated, so everyone from mechanics to the cooks to the seamstresses to everyone on the entire base had to be color. Ben Davis Jr. took command of all those individuals, and at the time, he was a colonel.”
It took a year and a half before the Tuskegee Airmen were deployed to North Africa and Italy in 1944. At first, they were given the worst planes in the Army, but after the aircraft performed badly, but the pilots performed admirably, they were finally given the best planes at the time, the P-51, which was the fastest propeller plane in the Army, Melville said.
“Ben wanted everyone to know that the black pilots were just as good, if not better, but at least equal, to all the other pilots in the Army,” Melville said. “He then commanded them to go out and paint the tails red (of the P-51s) so they could have a significant mark that everyone would know — and that was the birth of the Red Tails.”
As Ben Jr. commanded the Red Tails, there was much controversy about if this experiment should go on with the black pilot squadron. However, he added a message to the nose of his plane, which nose art was very popular at the time on planes, as to what he thought about anyone’s discretions toward his unit.
“He took that canvas to write, ‘By, Request,’ as a subtle or not so subtle reminder that he was there by request of the bombers and by request of the President of the United States of America,” Melville said.
Ben Sr. during this time would earn his one-star becoming the first black general in the U.S. Army. After World War II ended, Ben Jr.’s star rose as he earned his one-star, then two-star while flying in the Korean War and then the Vietnam War.
“(Ben Jr.) was really part of aviation’s evolution and paved the way for so many thousands of other pilots behind him working day and night to ensure that people of color had equal opportunity in what was now called the United States Air Force,” Melville said as the Army Air Corps transformed into its own service after World War II.
Due to politics, Ben Jr. while promised, did not receive his fourth star by Lyndon B. Johnson following the passing of the Civil Rights Act, even though he was more than qualified to be promoted, Melville said, Ben Jr. decided to retire in 1970 as a three-star general.
After his military retirement, Davis Jr. would go on “to help create policies and practices that would make America safer for everyone and all Americans,” Melville said.
Davis Jr. helped create the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), airport security, while being the brainchild behind the creation of locked doors on commercial aircraft. He also led the creation of the unified 55-mph speed limit on America’s highways while also originating the U.S. Air Force Flying Thunderbirds.
During those years, Davis Jr. raised Melville’s father from the age of six onward as his father eventually became one of the first black judges in Connecticut. Also, while at Howard University, his dad, as a law student, would work with Thurgood Marshall, who was already on the Supreme Court at the time.
Melville said he would spend his summers growing up in Arlington, Virginia, with his great uncle learning the many stories he currently tells. Davis Jr. bought him his first car, taught him how to golf and paid for his college at Syracuse University.
“During the summer months I was there, I always had to wear red in honor of the Red Tails, which is why I wear it tonight,” Melville said of the red sweater he wore during the event.
In 1998, making good on a promise made but not presented to Davis years before, Senator John McCain passed a resolution to elevate Davis to four-star status. At the ceremony, President Bill Clinton elevated him to four-star general while retroactively making him the first black four-star general in the history of the United States military. Four years later, on July 4, 2002, Davis Jr. died and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery next to his father.
“He never really wanted to be a black American, he always wanted to be an American,” Melville said. “He hated when people said he was the first … he just wanted to go do the duty and do the work. With all the headwind that was put up against him, he was never negative, always positive.
“I bring this up because we live in a polarizing time where people always want to call something the first, but the reality is (he was) the best,” Melville said. “He didn’t have to be the first, just to be the best and that was really something that he wanted to ensure and talk about.”
Years after Davis Jr.’s death, Melville helped as an advisor on the movie, “Red Tails.” Three years later, in 2015, Melville came to West Point and worked with the many people involved with the building of the academy’s latest barracks, the Davis Barracks.
“It was perfect and reflected the elegance and the stature of a man who gave his entire life to the United States of America to create more opportunities for others,” Melville said. “He wanted nothing else but to live the pledge Duty, Honor, Country that West Point and the U.S. military talks so highly about.”
When the barracks opened in 2017, Melville stood next to someone who thought the barracks was named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States during the Civil War and a USMA 1828 graduate, but that was not the case.
“I really want people to know that the Davis name represents excellence and know the journey our family went through in order to get to West Point because it is the pinnacle of success and opportunity,” Melville said of his family who worked under 10 presidential administrations in many capacities. “No matter how hard the headwinds were, we were committed, we were positive and optimistic, and as a fifth generation (Davis), I speak to you all today with a point to say it may be hard sometimes, and maybe you struggle, but hearing the stories he went through and realize what he did, there is no comparison.”
The second guest speaker, Marsalis, spoke briefly about the deep-rooted history of jazz music in America, rooted through military bands.
“The discipline and teamwork of military bands formed all American music of the 19th century,” Marsalis said. “The greatest clarinet players, trumpet and sax players … they all came from military bands and military tradition and that carried well into the 20th century and now into the 21st century.”
Marsalis talked about the “Pershing’s Own” Band in the Army when he conversed about the roots of Gen. Pershing leading the black troops of the 10th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers” during the Spanish-American War and the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba.
“The white roughrider Frank Knox said, ‘I’ve never saw braver men anywhere,’ and Pershing wrote, ‘They fought their way into the hearts of the American people,’” Marsalis said.
Then Marsalis spoke about the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who were assigned to the 16th Division of the French Army and spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit in World War I.
“In France, the 369th became known for their bravery and their courage in battle,” Marsalis said. “However, they become famous for the band (369th Regimental Band), which was led by Lt. James Reese Europe. They played a mixture of ragtime and jazz … even today, the French have a love affair with jazz, and the preponderance of jazz’ essence can be tracked back to those times in the 1910s when they first heard the spirit of the music (from the 369th).”
Marsalis went more in depth within his speech and the question-and-answer session with the cadets and staff and faculty who attended the event. He continued to elaborate on the history of jazz and guys he knew, including Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane, who both served in the military during World War II while plying their music craft.
He ended his speech by giving props to the five-member West Point Jazz Ensemble and Cadet Lampkin for their performance on the evening and the cross-culture of race that is now cemented in the jazz world.
“If you look at the band tonight, look at how fantastic the West Point Jazz Ensemble is,” Marsalis said. “Americans from all over, of all colors, playing together … I’m honored to be here. I’m honored to be a part of this fantastic tradition.”
Lampkin had the honor to play with the Jazz Ensemble during the evening. The West Point Jazz Ensemble played on the Eisenhower Hall Theatre stage and Marsalis played virtually as each performed three songs during the cultural awareness celebration.
Lampkin, who plays the tenor saxophone, learned to play the saxophone in 2010 on the alto saxophone. For him, it was an exciting experience to play before the crowd during the Black History Month performance.
“I have not been able to play jazz as frequently as I had in previous years,” Lampkin said. “Being on stage with such great musicians was exhilarating and brought back many nostalgic feelings. It was especially impactful that I was able to play during the Black History Month celebration and could showcase a piece of African-American history.”
Lampkin has played with the Cadet Jazz Forum since his plebe year and said that West Point Jazz Ensemble tenor saxophone player Sgt. 1st Class Geoffrey Vidal has helped him and others find opportunities to perform, typically two performances per semester before the pandemic, Lampkin said.
What Lampkin enjoyed the most, outside of playing, was hearing Marsalis speak about jazz history during the event.
“I grew up listening to him and seeing him on television,” Lampkin said. “He is one of the most knowledgeable individuals in the world regarding music and jazz history, so it was truly a treat to hear him speak.”
Lampkin said his biggest influences in jazz growing up were Charlie Parker and David Sanborn.
“Both had to overcome their own respective challenges in their careers, but were able to develop distinct and beautiful sounds,” Lampkin said.
Lampkin gave thanks to the USMA Band and Vidal for the opportunity to play the event as he said, “(They) all are true professionals and were helpful so that I could be at my best.”
Bringing the night full circle, Melville, during the question-and-answer session, brought it back to how everyone today can be their ancestors’ wildest dreams if focused on a goal at hand, no matter race, color, gender or all the factors on the periphery.
“Everything is an amalgamation of America. You can’t take any ethnicity, any race, any gender out of America because it’s all blended together,” Melville said. “How much further would the world be if we just allowed everybody the freedom to do (what they are capable of doing).”
Melville mentioned Warren Buffet’s sister from a documentary he watched on HBO as the genesis of that thought because she wanted to be a stock trader but wasn’t allowed to at the time because she was a woman. So how do we get to a place where anyone’s wildest dreams come true?
“I think some people based on circumstance didn’t have the options to (achieve their best),” Melville said. “I think if we open up our aperture a bit, we just have to be open to differences. People are typically risk-averse, so safety is in saneness, but brilliance is in difference.
“My one piece of advice would be giving difference the benefit of the doubt,” he concluded, relating to things his family went through over the past five generations. “Just put yourself in that spot to give difference the benefit of the doubt because that’s the only way attitudes are going to change, society grows and individuals flourish.”