• Davis served briefly at Fort Leavenworth

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  • Quentin Schillare | Special to the Fort Leavenworth Lamp
    Many famous soldiers are recognized for service at Fort Leavenworth. Army Regulation 1-33, “The Army Memorial Program,” suggests that those honored have some connection to the locality where they are memorialized. Some do not.
    Those without service at Fort Leavenworth, including Gen./President Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of War Elihu Root, were famous enough to waive the on-post service requirement.
    Some just squeak in. One of these is Fort Leavenworth Hall of Fame member Brig. Gen. Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr. He served at Fort Leavenworth for two weeks.
    Among the reforms enacted while Root was secretary of war (1899-1904) was the appointment of second lieutenants through competitive examination. Each year, after graduates of West Point were commissioned and assigned, the remaining officer vacancies in the Army were filled by enlisted men or civilians following successful completion of a competitive examination. Davis, then serving as a squadron sergeant major in the 9th Cavalry at Fort Duchense, Utah, travelled to Fort Leavenworth in January 1901 for the officer candidate exam.
    He placed high enough on the resulting order of merit list — third of 12 candidates — that he was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the Regular Army Feb. 2, 1901, and assigned to his old regiment. At the time, the only other officer of African-American descent on active duty was Capt. Charles Young, who had been Davis’ company commander at Fort Duchesne and had tutored Davis for the examination.
    Earlier, as a 22-year-old high school graduate, Davis served from July 1898 to March 1899 during the war with Spain stateside as a temporary first lieutenant in a “colored” volunteer infantry regiment. After mustering out, he enlisted as a private in Company I, 9th Cavalry.
    His career as an officer was first impeded and later accelerated by his race. The segregated Army would not assign a black officer to command white troops. There were a limited number of slots for officers in the four black regiments.
    Davis served in both the 9th and 10th Cavalry in the Philippines. Stateside assignments were with those regiments or as a professor of military science at Wilberforce University, Ohio, or Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Davis was stationed at Wilberforce four times and Tuskegee twice. Another option was as military attaché in Liberia or on detached duty with the War Department.
    On Aug. 27, 1938, in the slow American run up to World War II, Col. Davis was assigned as senior instructor and commander of the 369th Infantry, New York National Guard. On Aug. 25, 1940, Davis was promoted to brigadier general (temporary) and assumed command of the newly reorganized and redesignated 369th Coast Artillery Regiment (Antiaircraft)(Colored). He was the first African-American Regular Army officer promoted to that rank and command at that level. He served as regimental commander for two months until reassigned.
    Page 2 of 2 - It would be almost 28 years to the day until another black officer took the next major step in the progression to equality of command with white peers: command as a general officer in combat. On Sept. 1, 1968, Col. Frederic E. Davison was promoted in the Regular Army to brigadier general and received the colors of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in the Republic of Vietnam.
    As the Army consolidated cavalry units at Fort Riley, Davis received his next command, the 4th Brigade (Colored) of the 2nd Cavalry Division. He was only there from February to June 1941 when assigned to the War Department as assistant to the Inspector General. As the senior black officer in the Army, Davis would spend the rest of his service with various job titles at senior levels as a special adviser working on minority issues. He retired on July 14, 1948, 12 days before President Harry Truman signed executive order 9981 abolishing racial discrimination in the armed forces.
    In an interview later in life, Davis said his career goal had always been to be known as a consummate Army professional, not a racial pioneer. In the eyes of some today this is a blemish on his Army service, yet, he was a pioneer. Benjamin O. Davis served his country in peace and war for more than 47 years as an officer in the Regular Army, and it all started at Fort Leavenworth.
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