DAVIS, BENJAMIN OLIVER JR. (18 December 1912 - 4 July 2002) was an AFRICAN AMERICAN pilot, Airforce General, and WW2 commander who temporarily served as Cleveland’s PUBLIC SAFETY Director under the MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF CARL B. STOKES

Davis Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. to a prominent Black-middle class family. His mother hailed from a relatively successful family with Virginian roots, and his father, Davis Sr., was an officer who served in the Spanish and Philippine-American wars as one of few Black commanders in the 10th Cavalry Regiment (‘Buffalo Soldiers’). Davis Jr. and his two sisters were thus from a minority of Black-Americans afforded the luxuries of quality education, financial comfort - and, perhaps most importantly, some shelter from the strife of Black life. Davis, Sr. was a strict enforcer of hierarchy, promptness, and physical discipline - reflections of his military background. Though he was not unaware of his status and struggles as a Black man, his racial outlook was individualistic and highly integrationist, marked by a desire to navigate ‘white’-dominated society without reference to race, and to see other Blacks do the same. Comparing himself to Charles Young, his mentor and the third Black West Point graduate, Davis Sr. said “[we] were opposites, [as Young] was very sensitive of his color. I was an officer and… expected to be treated as such.”

When Davis, Jr. was 7 years old, his father was sent to Tuskegee, Alabama to teach military science and tactics at the Historically Black Tuskegee Institute. This was mostly uneventful until 1924: the KKK marched through Tuskegee to ‘protest’ the appointment of Black medical staff to a new veterans’ hospital Though they planned to terrorize and intimidate the Black community, Davis Sr. sat on his porch, in full military uniform, with his family. His son watched the Klansmen parade by. In the summer of that year, Davis Sr.’s tenure at Tuskegee ended, and the family moved to Cleveland’s CENTRAL NEIGHBORHOOD. Jr. enrolled in CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL that year. As a Clevelander, Davis liked to rowboat on LAKE ERIE, and ice-skated on WADE PARK lagoon in winter. His family still regularly went to Washington, D.C., though, and during one of these visits Davis was taken for a ride at an airshow. The experience left a mark on him.

Though Davis graduated high school at the top of his class in 1929, he felt aimless at WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY. Both he and his father felt he enter into service, and became interested in West Point. They had good timing: though the system of admissions was usually racially exclusive, as African Americans struggled to get the necessary nominations, Oscar De Priest, a Black-Republican congressman from Illinois, was determined to get a Black man into the academy. Though his previous nominee, Alonzo Parhamin, had flunked out in 1929 along with ⅓ of his freshman class (as was common at the time), De Priest remained undeterred. Davis Sr. arranged to get his son the nomination, and Davis Jr. passed his exams on his second try.

Davis graduated from West Point in 1936, ranked #35 in his class of 276. He was the school’s fourth black graduate, and the first in nearly 50 years. Many things had not changed since the early days of his father’s career: Davis was rejected from the Air Corps on account of his race, was assigned to the 24th (‘Buffalo Soldier’) Infantry Regiment, and was eventually transferred to the Tuskegee Institute. Only with the outbreak of WORLD WAR 2 did this outlook change: Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, feeling pressure to create a Black regiment, decided to form an African American aviation unit: it would be centered at Tuskegee. Davis joined the first training class in July 1941, finished it in March 1942, and was promoted to the rank of colonel. He and his classmates, the first Black combat pilots in American history, served in Tunisia, Italy, and Germany. When the military was integrated in 1948 - the Air Force being the first branch to fully do so - Davis was involved in arranging and coordinating the process.

In 1969, CARL B. STOKES was elected mayor of Cleveland, making him the first Black mayor of a major American city. Stokes, who had been raised in Central’s public housing and was elected in the wake of the HOUGH RIOTS, was a reform-minded activist politician; his ambitious outlook is highlighted by his signature program, CLEVELAND: NOW!. Stokes hoped to rapidly improve conditions for Black Clevelanders, who formed his electoral core and had been hit particularly hard by de-industrialization, zoning laws, and urban decay. Stokes hoped to appoint an African American successor to Cleveland’s Safety Director, JOSEPH MCMAMOM, who had died in 1969. He planned for such a successor to help him get a new Police Chief, and reform the then largely-white force. Stokes believed that, as a light-skinned ‘military man’, Davis would gain the respect of White Clevelanders, while as an African American, he would be naturally invested in Black needs and of a similar mindset on how to address them. These assumptions proved themselves problematic.

Davis found Cleveland’s police force to be riven by racism, even within its union, but he had little interest in directly intervening where he did not think he had authority. His perspective was not to oppose police actions, but to make the force a more efficient institution, and in this capacity he felt his authority was absolute. This defiant attitude towards his position would prove problematic, as Davis was serving in another man’s mayoral administration. Further, his perceived inaction towards incidents of racism in the city (such as the beating of an African student on MURRAY HILL), his support of police militarization, and his rejection of many Black-community propositions, like police name tags, damaged his reputation among the city’s Black masses. Davis felt a strong antipathy towards Black nationalism/militancy, and wanted Stokes to stop supporting politically radical organizations, which, especially in light of the GLENVILLE SHOOTOUT, he viewed as a threat to public order and safety. These issues created a rift between Davis and Stokes, which eventually caused Davis to resign on July 27, 1970. In his resignation letter, he wrote the following:

I find it necessary and desirable to resign as director of public safety, City of Cleveland. The reasons are simple: I am not receiving from you and your administration the support my programs require. And the enemies of law enforcement continue to receive support and comfort from you and your administration. I request your acceptance of my resignation at your earliest convenience.

Davis’ lack of Black support, particularly among the large faction of Black radicals and social progressives, threatened Stokes’ political viability and likely also reflected personal disagreements with the mayor. The two held fundamentally different political ideologies, as touched upon in Stokes’ autobiography, Promises of Power:

The possibilities struck me... being black, he would have to be the kind of man who would agree with what I wanted to do... [but] I remembered how, when I was young, [Davis’] father had sent a tremor... through America's black community... addressing his all-black troops...: ‘I may be your color, but I am not your kind.

This was a conflict broader than two personalities, and reflective of an ideological divide spreading across Black America.

After his brief foray into Cleveland politics, Davis returned to bureaucratic positions. He worked with the Department of Transportation for 5 years from 1970-1975, overseeing airplane safety, as it was becoming a global problem. After this, he essentially retired. He died in Washington D.C..

Benjamin O. Davis, African American Aviator & Tuskegee Airman, in front of P-47
SI Neg. 2004-55822
Benjamin O. Davis infront of a P-47. Smithsonian Institute SI Neg. 2004-55822

Justin Evans

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