Benjamin Davis first entered the military service after high school, in response to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. In 1899, he enlisted as a private in the Regular Army, in a unit commanded by Lieutenant Charles Young, the only African-American officer serving in the U.S. military at that time. Young encouraged Davis’s ambition to become an officer, and helped tutor him for the test, which Davis passed in early 1901. On February 2, 1901, Davis was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the Regular Army, and was sent overseas to serve in the Philippine–American War.
In September 1905, Davis was assigned to Wilberforce University in Ohio as Professor of Military Science and Tactics, a post that he filled for four years then, and again in later years, along with instructing national guard members. In the ensuing years he also served in Liberia, along the Mexican-U.S. border, and back in the Philippines.
Military.com, the largest military and veteran membership organization, reports:
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 attache to Liberia, were designed to avoid putting Davis in command of white troops or officers.”
Davis was assigned to the New York National Guard during the summer of 1938, and took command of the regiment a short time later. He was promoted to Brigadier General on this day in history, becoming the first African-American general in the United States Army.
Davis became Commanding General of 4th Brigade, 2nd Cavalry Division in January 1941. Six months later, he was assigned to Washington, D.C. as an assistant in the Office of the Inspector General and on the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. From 1941 to 1944, Davis conducted inspection tours of African-American soldiers in the United States Army.
On November 10, 1944, Davis was appointed Special Assistant to the Commanding General, Communications Zone, European Theater of Operations. He was influential in the proposed policy of integration using replacement units.
On July 20, 1948, after fifty years of military service, Davis retired in a public ceremony with President Harry S. Truman presiding. He died on November 26, 1970, at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
As military.com suggests:
Davis’s slow, steady, and determined rise in the Army paved the way for countless minority men and women — including his son Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate who in 1954 became only the second African-American general in the U.S. military and the first in the Air Force.”