“Over hill, over dale, as we hit the dusty trail…” or rather as we stroll along S street, you will pass by the former home of the first African American to be named a general in the Army and in the U.S. armed forces, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. (1877-1970). Davis was born in Washington, D.C., attended the city’s former M Street High School, and during his senior year, took classes at Howard University. Davis claimed to have been born in 1877, but some believe his birth date may have been in 1880 and that he lied about his age to enlist in the Army without the permission of his parents (his father was a messenger for the Interior Department and his mother was a nurse).
On October 25, 1940, he was promoted to his highest rank brigadier general, temporary--a situation with which he was all too familiar, as his promotions to major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel had all originally been "temporary." Such was the situation for black officers in Davis's day--all two or three of them.
Fortunately for today's 10,000-plus African-American Army officers, Davis was a patient man. He first entered the military as a temporary first lieutenant in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Mustered out in 1899, he enlisted as a private just six months later. Within two years, he had been commissioned a second lieutenant of cavalry in the regular Army.
Davis's service as an officer with the famed "Buffalo Soldiers" regiment in the Philippines and on the Mexican border was exemplary, yet his subsequent assignments as a college ROTC instructor and as a National Guard advisor were far from the front lines. All of his postings, including duty as the military attaché to Liberia, were designed to avoid putting Davis in command of white troops or officers.
During WWII, General Davis served as an inspector of troop units in the field and as a special War Department consultant on matters pertaining to African American troops. His investigation of discrimination and racial disturbances brought to light the problems of a racially closed military. After 50 years of military service, Davis retired and moved his family to the house at 1721 S St NW in 1948; ironically, the same year that President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 barring segregation in the armed forces.
Proving the old saying that ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, Davis and his wife, Elnora, raised a son who followed in his father's footsteps. Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (1912-2002), born in Washington, D.C., became the nation's second and the U.S. Air Force's first African American general officer. Lt. Gen. Davis was the first commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen. During WWII, the Tuskegee Airman shot down more than 100 German planes and flew over 15,000 missions.
He would go on to serve in several commands, in Europe and the United States, before the end of the war. In 1947, Davis transferred to the newly created Air Force and was tapped by President Harry S. Truman to help draft the service's desegregation plan.
January 1997, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in their Black
Heritage Stamp series to honor the service and contributions of
Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
Over 20 years later in November 2019, the U.S. Air Force Academy, located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, named its airfield in honor of Air Force Gen, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. At the naming ceremony, then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein stated that Davis' life served as an example of the power of perseverance, courage, character, and extraordinary competence and that “some have had to bear a heavier burden than others to teach us all what right looks like.”
Closing with a Song
This short story about two American heroes closes with the lyrics of the U.S. Air Force Song. Lyrics to the song were updated earlier this year to better represent the valor and heritage of the 73-year-old service while also recognizing the diversity and contributions of today’s Total Force. (www.af.mil)
Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun;
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,
At ‘em now, Give 'em the gun!
Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,
Off with one helluva roar!
We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey!
Nothing'll stop the U.S. Air Force!