West Point Names Barracks <br>For Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.,<br>Whom It Forged in Silence
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The decision to name the newest barracks at West Point for Benjamin O. Davis Jr. has received scant comment in the press. That strikes me as regrettable at a time when a polarized nation is hungering for unifying heroes.
Davis was the Air Force’s first African-American brigadier general. He was born in 1912. His father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., was the first African-American brigadier in the Army. His son went on to four-star rank by dint of strengths of character and commitment that are breathtaking.
No doubt some of this was instilled in his upbringing, which Davis recounted in a classic autobiography, “American.” When he came home from school with grades in the 90s, his stepmother, Sadie Overton Davis, would demand to know why they were not 100.
Davis’ family sent him to the University of Chicago because Oscar De Priest, a Republican who represented the Windy City as the only black member of Congress, had made it his business to nominate blacks to West Point. The move worked, and Davis joined the Long Gray Line in the class of 1936.
What a test followed. Throughout Davis’ entire four years at West Point, he was silenced — a now-obsolete punishment for violations of the honor code. Except that Davis was silenced for no other reason than his race.
Except when required in academic settings or exercises, Davis’ classmates refused to speak with him. He roomed alone in quarters with several bunks. He ate his meals alone amid a corps that otherwise took its meals together.
The academy’s brass at the time denied the silencing was happening. Davis himself later insisted, “They knew precisely how I was being treated.” He called the situation “ridiculous” but not “funny.”
“This cruel treatment,” Davis later wrote, “was designed to make me buckle, but I refused to buckle in any way. I maintained my self-respect.” He refused even to mention his troubles in letters home.
West Point now acknowledges the silencing of Benjamin Davis. I suspect that his classmates knew all along that they were wrong. The longer it went on, the more evident it became that he was besting his adversaries.
Davis was finally greeted with prolonged applause at his graduation. The Howitzer, the Point’s yearbook, acknowledged that Davis had “conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year” and had won “the sincere admiration of his classmates.”
Yet the silencing he suffered didn’t stop there. It continued at his first post and in the early years of his rise in an army that was still infected with bigotry. At Fort Benning, he was denied the use of the officers’ club.
The road to glory opened during World War II on a runway in Alabama, where Davis, by then a captain, took command of the unit that would soar into history as the Tuskegee Airmen. Davis commanded the airmen in combat.
Davis himself appeared in arms in, among other warplanes, the P-51 Mustang. He won the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Come peace, Davis helped write the Air Force plan to implement President Truman’s order to integrate the armed forces.
It was in 1965 that Davis gained the third star with which he was retired in 1970. In 1998, President Clinton promoted him from the retired list to the rank of a full general, entitled to wear four stars and to be saluted with 17 guns.
It would be inaccurate to conclude from Davis’ astounding life that the struggle against racism has been entirely won. We’re a long way from that. The Army and West Point, though, are now leaders. All the more important the lesson Davis taught — the value of perseverance and goals.
Davis wanted to fly from the time he was 13 and watched a small plane take to the air, and he never gave up. Now the Davis barracks will join quarters named for the most famous generals in American history.
These include Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, Robert E. Lee, Omar Bradley, Douglas MacArthur, William Tecumseh Sherman, Winfield Scott and John J. Pershing. West Point hasn’t yet announced when the dedication will take place, but it might be this fall.
What a day it is likely to be. Maybe there will be a moment of silence during which to reflect on the silencing of Davis. Maybe the stillness will be shattered by the “Red Tail” P-51 Mustang that was flown over Davis’ grave when he was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
This column first appeared in the New York Post.
Correction: The Air Force was the department of which General William O. Davis Jr. was the first African American brigadier and brigadier general was the rank to which he was the first African American to hold in the Air Force. These points were inaccurately stated in an earlier edition.