The U.S. Military Academy (West Point, the Academy), is naming a building after a cadet who, with knowledge and consent of Academy administrators, was ostracized by fellow cadets but who endured the indignity and became the fourth black cadet to be graduated from the Academy and also one the Academy’s most distinguished graduates: General Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., Class of 1936.
The first black cadet was graduated from West Point in 1877, but Davis was the first black cadet to graduate from West Point in the twentieth century. When he entered the academy in 1932 he was the only black cadet. Largely unwelcome, Davis was shunned during his four years there – he ate alone, he roomed alone, no one befriended him and no one spoke to him except in an official capacity. He persevered, however, and graduated 35th in his 276 member class.
Rejected by the Army Air Corp because it was segregated, Davis served in other capacities until 1941 when he was accepted as one of the first Tuskegee Airmen. He commanded the legendary “Red Tails”, an all-black fighter group during WWII. They were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces. When the U.S. Air Force was established in 1947, Davis transferred to this service and in 1954 became the first black Air Force General. His leadership helped speed desegregation of the Air Force. When he retired in 1970 Davis was a three-star general. In 1998, President Clinton awarded him a fourth star, saying Davis had earned it a long time ago, and called Davis “a hero in war, a leader in peace, a pioneer for freedom, opportunity, and basic human dignity.” In 1995 the Academy’s Association of Graduates awarded Davis its Distinguished Graduate Award.
In 1987, the Visitors Center at West Point displayed an exhibit titled “The Great Train of Tradition” that featured photographs of outstanding cadets from 1819 to 1950. The class of 1936 was represented by photos of two graduates: One was Gen. William Westmoreland, Commander of American Forces in Vietnam and former Superintendent of West Point; the second was General Davis. Written under the photo of Davis was the caption: “World War Hero, Helped Integrate Air Force”. Davis died in 2002 at the age of 89.
The new $186 million building, Davis Barracks, is scheduled to open in January, 2017. It will be six stories tall and have an exterior of granite to match the Cadet Chapel. Housing 650 cadets, the additional space will both alleviate crowding and enable West Point to move cadets around as the other eight barracks are modernized. Other West Point graduates who share the high honor of having a building at West Point named after them are President Dwight Eisenhower and five-star General Douglas MacArthur.
Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen said the honor of naming the building for Davis will “pay tribute to his demonstrated acts of perseverance, courage, and humility throughout a lifetime of selfless service to the nation.” Other officials at West Point say the choice of Davis also gives the Academy a chance to belatedly make amends to him. Col. Ty Seidule, head of West Point’s history department and head of the naming committee, called Davis one of the Academy’s “greatest graduates” and said Davis was an obvious choice because of his character, his inspirational story, and his impressive career. He added, “This is a chance for West Point to recognize one of its finest.”