On Oct. 25, 1940, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first African American to hold star rank in the U.S. Army and in the armed forces. He was promoted to 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. Born in Washington in 1877, he first entered the military as a temporary first lieutenant on July 13, 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 attache to Liberia, were designed to avoid putting Davis in command of white troops or officers.
Because these were not high profile jobs, Davis rose slowly through the ranks, earning his colonel's eagle only in 1930. In 1938, he received his first independent command, the 369th National Guard Infantry Regiment. When Davis was promoted to brigadier, some saw it as a political action from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
However, as advisor on race relations in the European theater during World War II, Davis, as his Distinguished Service Medal citation relates, showed "initiative, intelligence and sympathetic understanding" while conducting investigations, bringing about "a fair and equitable solution to ... problems which have since become the basis of far-reaching War Department policy."
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.