Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was the first Black general of the United States Air Force, following in the similar footsteps to his father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who was the first Black general of the United States Army.
Davis was born on December 18, 1912, in Washington, D.C., the second of three children born to his parents. His father served 41 years prior to achieving the rank of general in 1940, and that dedication inspired the younger Davis to pursue his dreams. According to historian Alan Gropman, Davis’ path to greatness was forged early on.
As a teen, Davis’ father took him to a barnstorming pilot at the Bolling Air Field in Washington, inspiring the young boy’s dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot. General Davis graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1936, becoming the only the fourth African American to do so.
Davis endured heavy racism at the academy, and higher-ups only spoke to him as needed. The isolation didn’t break him, however, and he went on to earn his wings in 1942. The next year, he was sent to North Africa to fly with the 99th Fighter Squadron. He was also the first officer to receive his wings at the Tuskegee Army Air Field.
Davis went on to lead the 332d Fighter Group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen, facing barriers from White officers who didn’t feel the all-Black unit was fit for combat. Proving naysayers wrong when the squadron arrived in Italy in the thick of World War II, the “Red Tails” showed their worth and more. Later, Davis led the all-Black 477th Bombardment Group out of Kentucky.
Because of Davis’ prowess as a pilot and the success of the Black squadrons he led, then-President Harry Truman signed an executive order to fully integrate the armed forces. The Air Force was the first branch to fully embrace the order. After serving in several capacities at the highest levels of the Air Force, Davis would retire from the branch in 1970. He went on to supervise the federal air marshal program, which was instrumental in preventing airplane hijackings and went on to work for the Department of Transportation.
Then-president Bill Clinton awarded Davis with the rank of general on December 9, 1998. Davis passed away four years later on Independence Day in 2002 at the age of 89.
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