The prestigious grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point, better known simply as West Point, recently honored one of its most accomplished, if controversial, graduates by naming a cadet barracks after him.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was the school’s first Black cadet in the 20th Century, and though he faced a variety of hardships at the school, he eventually became the first Black general of the United States Air Force.
Davis, born December 18, 1912, followed in the trailblazing tradition of his father, the first Black general in the U.S. Army. A Washington, D.C. native, Davis fell in love of the skies as a teenager and never lost his passion for flying. In 1932, after he attended the University of Chicago, Davis entered West Point via a recommendation by Chicago Congressman Oscar DePriest, who at the time was the lone Black person in Congress.
Davis’ time at West Point wasn’t easy. He was ignored by his fellow cadets and faced daunting amounts of racial discrimination including eating and living alone while at the school as no one would befriend him. But the mistreatment he dealt with did little to break his spirit. In fact, Davis used the situation to motivate himself. In 1936, he became the Academy’s fourth Black graduate. Davis made many attempts to apply his new found military knowledge, but was passed over because of his race.
Davis was eventually assigned to teach military tactics at Tuskegee University as his father did before him. But in 1941, Davis’ fortunes changed when then-President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the creation of an all-Black fighting unit. In 1942, Davis became the first of five Black officers to earn his wings at Tuskegee Army Air Field, home of the Tuskegee Airmen.
That summer, Davis took command of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first of the Tuskegee Airmen flying units. In 1943, David commanded the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group, better known as the “Red Tails” because of the painted tail section of their planes. Under Davis’ command during the war, the Red Tails downed over 100 planes and damaged nearly 300 more.
Davis joined the U.S. Air Force in 1947, and the following year President Harry Truman ordered racial integration of the military. Davis led the effort in integrating the Air Force and rose in rank in position each following year. By the time of his retirement in 1970, Davis was a three-star general. He earned a fourth star in 1998, which was awarded by President Bill Clinton.
Davis died in 2002 at the age of 89.
The $186 million Davis Barracks will open January 2017 and will house 650 cadets. West Point officials chose to honor Davis based on his character, and also because of his inspirational rise to glory.