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PHOTO ESSAY

African Americans in World War II

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Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.

Courtesy of the National Archives

Brigadier General Benjamin O., Davis, Sr., the first African American to reach the rank of general in the United States Army, is shown here watching a Signal Corps crew erecting poles in France on 8 August 1944. Davis first enlisted in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, and graduated West Point in 1901. Despite his distinguished record and numerous promotions, he was often assigned to non-combat or teaching positions and was only granted his first high-profile assignment as a colonel, after lobbying to escort black mothers and widows of slain WWI soldiers to European cemeteries in the summers of 1930 through 1933. Promoted to brigadier general in 1940, Davis served as a military advisor on racial issues throughout WWII. His contributions included investigating reports of racial discrimination, agitating for integration of the armed services, and producing public relations and educational materials related to issues of race. The most significant of these materials was a film called The Negro Soldier (1944), produced by the U.S. Army film unit run by Frank Capra, which included references to the history of African American soldiers and prominent blacks and was shown to all incoming soldiers. Davis retired on 14 July 1948, after fifty years of service. Twelve days later, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, establishing "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

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