Benjamin 0. Davis, Jr.
Born in Washington, D.C., Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was the son of a military officer who, in 1940, became the first African- American to achieve the rank of general.
Davis, Jr., attended the University of Chicago before going to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Because he suffered the “silent treatment” there, none of his class¬ mates roomed or ate with him, and he was never spoken to unless it was an order. Davis graduated 35 out of a class of 276 in 1936. His high placement allowed him to select the service of his choice, and he chose the air force. However, he was told that African- Americans could not serve as fighter pilots.
Commissioned in the infantry, Davis taught military science at the Tuskegee Institute. He endured segregation in the bases he was assigned to: Fort Benning, Georgia and Fort Riley, Kansas. In 1941, Davis was a member of the first group of African- Americans admitted to the U.S. Army Air Corps and pilot training.
Davis organized the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron in 1942 and flew missions over North Africa, Sicily and Italy. They became known as the “Tuskegee Airmen.”Davis went on to organize the 332nd Fighter Group in 1943, composed of four black squadrons. Promoted to full colonel, Davis flew missions over Germany.
Davis followed his distinguished World War II service by commanding fighter fields in the United States. The desegregation of the Armed Forces removed his last stumbling block, and he surged ahead, graduating from the Air War College in 1950. As chief of the fighter branch, he commanded the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing in Korea (1953-1954). Raised to brigadier general in 1954, and to major general in 1959, Davis served for two years in Europe before return¬ ing to the United States for a tour of duty in Washington, D.C. (1961-1965).
Davis became the first African-American promoted to lieutenant general (1965), and he served as chief of staff of the U.S. forces in Korea from 1965 to 1968. At the time of his retirement from the service in 1970, he was the senior African-American officer in the U.S. armed forces.
He later served as assistant secretary of transportation (1971—1975), where he argued passionately for the 55 mile- per-hour speed limit on interstate highways to save both lives and fuel.Davis was a remarkable individual who chose to ignore the prejudice and insults directed against him. He strongly objected to being classified as “African-American” since he believed that “we are all simply American.”