On August 18, the United States Military Academy honored the late Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Class of 1936, by naming its newest barracks after the four-star general and commander of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
“His name, etched here in stone, is a perpetual reminder of his incredible legacy and example that will inspire all future leaders of character that pass through West Point’s gates,” Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen Jr. ’75, 59th USMA Superintendent, said at the barracks dedication before an audience that included alumni, faculty, cadets, members of Davis’s family, and Tuskegee Airmen who served under his command.
AWest Point committee was formed in 2014 to recommend a name for the barracks and thoughtful deliberations ensued (see “What’s in an Name?” on page 18). The committee considered recommendations from cadets, alumni, and historians. The result was that the Superintendent chose to recommend that the Department of the Army choose Davis as the building’s namesake, selecting him from a field of several worthy nominees.
Major General Fred A. Gorden ’62 (Retired), the 61st Commandant of Cadets (1987-89) and the first African American to hold that position, met Davis on several occasions. Gorden served as Davis’s escort for the 1998 White House ceremony in which Davis was promoted to four-star general by President Bill Clinton. Gorden said that the choice of Davis for the barracks name resonates well beyond the walls of West Point.
“While the scope of his wartime leadership and generalship may not rival that of Grant, Pershing, MacArthur, Eisenhower, or even a more contemporary Schwarzkopf, General Davis’s stature as an American fighting man of indomitable allegiance, courage, and resolute spirit is second to none,” said Gorden.
Caslen later emphasized that one of Davis’s greatest qualities was that he always persevered and stuck with the team, no matter what the challenge, eventually earning the trust necessary to lead.
“If a leader is to be effective and inspire and motivate people to work toward a common goal, then the team has to trust that leader,” he said. “Trust is earned, and is a combination of competence and character. General Davis certainly possessed both—his life and his service attest to that.”
A First Among Equals
Davis was not the first African American to graduate from the Academy; he was the fourth. Before him came Henry O. Flipper, Class of 1877; John Hanks Alexander, Class of 1887; and Charles Young, Class of 1889, the first African American to achieve the rank of colonel. Young mentored Davis’s father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who went on to become a brigadier general—the first black general officer in the U.S. Army—in 1940. The senior Davis then groomed his son to succeed at West Point.
Davis also had the support of Chicago Congressman Oscar Stanton De Priest, the NAACP, and the black press. Other black cadets had tried and failed to graduate in the time between Young’s tenure and Davis’s, but they did not have a comparable support system outside the Academy.
This didn’t mean that Davis’s experience at West Point passed without serious tribulations, quite the opposite. In fact, he was “silenced” during his four years at the Academy and endured sustained harassment because he was black. As time passed, however, he never turned his back on the institution or on his duty as a soldier.
“He was not bitter, he was not resentful, and it did not deter him from his ultimate goal,” said his nephew Judge L. Scott Melville. “There’s a saying about goals, ‘Keep your eye on the prize.’ Well Ben’s prize was to graduate from this institution and he did that.”
Herman E. Bulls ’78, Board Member of West Point Association of Graduates (WPAOG), said Davis’s experience was indicative of his times. “He tended to represent so much about our country, including where our country was in the 1930s,” said Bulls. “He was the first black cadet to graduate in 47 years [after Young], and in that time we had Plessy v. Ferguson [the 1896 Supreme Court decision upholding ‘separate but equal’ treatment of blacks] and the Jim Crow era, so you naturally don’t have another graduate until Davis—and not that many afterward. I’m only number 59.”
Dedication Day Amidst Debate
The new Davis Barracks rises high above post, taking its place within the profile of the iconic West Point skyline, tucked into the landscape below the Cadet Chapel.
On the warm sunny morning of the building’s dedication, most of the participants chose to climb the 71 steps of the steep grand staircase to reach the barracks formation area which skirts the building, providing spectacular views of the Hudson Valley. One after another, they reached the top of the steps to the plaza and marveled at the building’s impressive central tower. Among the guests were a civilian who had named his son for Davis, the highest-ranking woman to graduate from West Point, and a mom who came to see her son officially become a plebe the following day at Acceptance Day (A-Day).
As Lieutenant General Nadja Y. West ’82 stepped onto the apron, she fixed her eyes on the tower. West didn’t notice Captain Sara Schubert ’13 mouth the word “Wow!” at her arrival. As she looked for her seat at the back of the dignitaries’ section, an official informed her that she, the U.S. Army Surgeon General, would be seated in the front row. It was an unconsciously humble gesture, echoing the character of the day’s honoree. Schubert watched the scene play out with appreciation.
“I’m in medical services, so she’s our leader,” Shubert said of her boss, before gesturing to the tower, adding, “I think we’re really setting the example that this is West Point and we’re moving forward.”
West called the journey up the stairs “amazing.”
“I never thought, 35 years ago when I was graduating, that I would ever see a barracks dedicated to such a great African American leader,” she said. “I mean we’ve really come a long way and in this environment that we’re in now, I think it’s also a very timely way to honor a real patriot, a real leader.”
West gave voice to what was on the mind of nearly everyone: the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia had occurred a mere six days before. The crowd was filled with many African American men and women who had graduated from the Academy and had served in the military. Many said that the dedication reassured their faith in the nation. “From the Revolutionary War forward you’ve had African American patriots, not a lot documented in history or through historical monuments, so I think this is just an opportunity to show the contribution and dedication of all of our soldiers,” said West. “I think naming the barracks for Davis shows that diversity makes our nation what it is today.”
Nearby, Patrice Allen took in the scene. Allen, a member of the West Point Parents Club of Western New York, came down from Buffalo to West Point to see her son Terrence (TJ) transition from new cadet to plebe on A-Day the following day, just like his father, Lieutenant Colonel W. Tyrone Allen ’83 (Retired), once did.
“I’m proud of what my family has done for our country, what my husband has done, and what my son is planning to do,” she said. “It warms my heart to see what the leadership is doing here by standing up and publicly acknowledging Davis and the sacrifices that so many other people have made.”
Before being called away by her husband to have their photo taken with West, Allen added that she was also thrilled to see so many African American women participating in the ceremony, especially Simone Askew ’18, the newly appointed First Captain, the first African American woman to hold the post. Moments later, Askew could be seen taking a selfie with General West as Cadet Netteange Monaus ’18 waited to speak on behalf of the Corps of Cadets at the dedication ceremony.
“We’ve really come full circle. Now you’re seeing a barracks in honor of another great man in history, and then seeing the whole community coming together to support it,” said Monaus. “America’s history has had its past and there are still issues, but this shows there’s still a greater community that sees the good in everyone.”
Making of a Monument
West Point is a campus of monuments. It could easily be argued that barracks are the Academy’s most vital monuments, since each day the cadet barracks swirl with the activity of a bustling campus. The significance of the buildings’ names cannot be overstated, nor can the process of how they come into being.
“We have barracks named for MacArthur, Bradley, and Eisenhower,” said Colonel Ty Seidule, Ph.D., Professor and Head of the USMA Department of History. “The barracks represent a pantheon of American military heroes.”
Archie Elam ’76, WPAOG Board Member, said that while Davis may be universally admired, the choice of using his name for the barracks did “reset the relationship with our diverse graduates.”
“But, no one started out with some idea about the barracks with the name of a person of color,” he said. “They voted for General Davis because of his character, not his color.”
In many ways, the process of naming Davis Barracks stands as one of his greatest legacies. During the symposium following the dedication ceremony, Seidule tipped his hat to cadets who had lobbied for the barracks to be named for Davis, which, heemphasized, was done within the Academy’s system. Mary L. Tobin ’03, agreed.
“Cadets are taught if you want to make a change, you’d better make a case for it, bring your facts, and your data, and that’s what those cadets did,” said Tobin. “Plus, the leadership listened to them, and it has not always been that way. They gave the cadets a forum. Even if they decided to turn the cadets down, they allowed their suggestions to be presented.”
As a cadet, now-Second Lieutenant Michael Barlow ’16 initiated the petition to name the new barracks for Davis. Second Lieutenant Terry Lee ’17 was his roommate at the time. Lee said Barlow focused on getting his fellow black cadets on board at a town hall meeting where they launched “Operation Tuskegee,” which set out to gather signatures to support the naming. But not everyone was convinced.
“Some people didn’t feel like they experienced the same discrimination that Davis did; they were satisfied here,” said Lee. “Going from door-to-door came with its own set of problems. Some needed persuading. But those that put down their signature are glad they did.”
Barlow pressed on in consultation with Seidule and Lieutenant Colonel Donald Outing, Ph.D., who was at the time an Academy professor in Mathematics and Director of USMA’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity. Both faculty members mentored the cadet on the finer points of drafting the necessary memos to the administration and on Davis’s history.
“At the time it was very inspiring how Barlow, at 21 years old, was spearheading a project that would impact West Point and the Army,” said Lee. Elam said that resistance is an innate part of working within the system, which he recalled was also “an underground wrestle with our diverse grads and with each other.”
“Change like that is uneven and slow, it’s a reflection of the process anytime you want to change the future against the status quo,” he said. “But with faith, the future always wins.”
Once the name was approved, however, the resistance, such as it was, dissipated, said Seidule. As a historian, he knew that Davis qualified for the honor well beyond reasons of race.
“I was afraid that some might see it the wrong way. They might not understand that we chose Davis because he personified Duty, Honor, Country,” he said, adding that any candidate for a barracks name commemoration at West Point also had to be a general. “We were worried a little bit that there was going to be some blowback, and what I was most heartened by was that there was none. So many people told me how proud they were of West Point, of the Army, and of the nation to have recognized someone as important to all of us as Benjamin O. Davis Jr.”
Granite Versus Action
Yet, no matter how impressive the monument, building, or ceremony, it might all ring hollow if there weren’t active policies in place to back up the gesture, showing how the Academy has evolved since Davis’s days as a cadet.
“The thing you have to continue to ask is, ‘What can we do to make it better?,’” said Bulls. Bulls recalled how he participated in Project Outreach when he was a recent graduate in the late seventies. For a year he worked in the USMA Admissions Office, where he and other grads went into underserved communities and visited junior high school students to expose them to West Point and the military.
“I’ve got to tell you there were ups and downs for African American cadet enrollment. We went from 50 to 100, but this year we’re well over 200, and that didn’t happen overnight,” he said.
Today, there is a Diversity & Inclusion Endowment which helps fund multiple Leadership, Ethics, and Diversity in STEM workshops each year aimed at middle and high school aged youth in underserved areas and cities.
African Americans now make up 15 percent of the Class of 2021. Director of Admissions Colonel Deborah McDonald ’85 credits the growth to WPAOG outreach efforts initiated in the early 1990s. The push led to the formation of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee that encourages graduates of color to keep in touch with their alma mater.
“Once people understand the impact that they have as role models for all cadets, black, white, or whatever, they start to come back,” said Lieutenant General Larry R. Jordan ’68 (Retired), Chairmanof the WPAOG Board, who taught on the USMA History faculty in the mid-1970s. “For cadets, they think, ‘Here’s someone who is a success and enjoying what they do.’ That can’t help but shape their perceptions and their understanding of people from different backgrounds.”
Jordan said that not only do the cadets benefit, but so do the alumni, who gain a better appreciation of what they gained at the Academy.
Those early efforts at building diversity and inclusion at West Point have blossomed into an array of programming (see pp. 12- 13), ranging from the Diversity Leadership Conference to the EXCEL Scholars Program and the West Point Center for Leadership and Diversity in STEM. The programming has grown to encourage understanding beyond the African American community at West Point. There are more than 15 cadet cultural clubs, including: the Asian-Pacific Forum, the Gospel Choir, the Society of Women Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the Corbin Forum, the Native American Heritage Forum, and National Society of Black Engineers.
Back in 1977, merely celebrating Black History week (it was only a week back then) was a significant advance for the Academy, said Bulls. That year also happened to be the centennial of the graduation of Henry O. Flipper, allowing Jordan and his history colleagues to celebrate a century of black history at the Academy. Up to that point, a bust of Flipper in the library was the only significant monument to a black graduate, making it a touchstone for many black cadets, quite literally for some.
“Every day I would pass Flipper’s bust in the library, and I would touch it every time I went by; it is what kept me going,” said Priscilla “Pat” Locke ’80, West Point’s first black female graduate, who continues to work to recruit diverse applicants for West Point. “We didn’t have any African American monuments back then, and there wasn’t a lot of visibility of what African Americans have done at the Academy, and so I just didn’t have a good sense of what I was getting myself into.”
Locke said that the Davis Barracks is much more significant than a bust, particularly when the nation is in the midst of a national conversation about monuments. It’s a conversation that, not surprisingly, has been going on for years at West Point as well.
Brigadier General Andre H. Sayles ’73 (Retired), Ph.D., who served eight years as Professor and Head of the USMA Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was well aware of the Flipper bust and the need for more tributes to African Americans at West Point. He and his colleagues had successfully lobbied to have South Auditorium renamed in 2000 for General Roscoe Robinson ’51, the first African American 4-star Army general, and the first to command the 82nd Airborne Division. “We successfully argued that, even though there was no precedent, the purpose for that name was for cadets to see the name above the stage and ask ‘Who is this guy?’” he said. “We realized that a lot of cadets don’t believe that they can do something unless someone who looks like them has done it,” said Sayles.
But in addition to bronze, bricks and mortar, today there’s coursework and research that allows cadets to engage with the Academy’s past. After the Davis Barracks dedication, a symposium was held examining the life of General Davis. And while the speakers were exhaustive in their accounts of Davis and the Tuskegee Airmen, there remains much research to be done, said Seidule.
“Here at West Point, we need to take the 20th century and just look at the African American experience,” he said. “Quite a bit has been written about African Americans at West Point in the 19th century, but we only had a handful of African Americans in every class up until 1973, and I think that is a great period that’s open for research.”
Daniel Haulman, Ph.D., Chief of the Organizational History Division at the Air Force Research Agency, and a panelist at the symposium, said that history students might look beyond what the Tuskegee Airmen did during World War II, and examine what they did after the war, or what they did in Korea, in Vietnam, or in civilian life.
“Many of them became activists in the Civil Rights Movement and many of them became very important political leaders and educational leaders,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been a lot of research on that.”
The Davis Legacy
As the new Davis Barracks has shown, studying history can change history. It certainly influenced one of Seidule’s students. Michael Barlow would occasionally pop in to his professor’s office to talk sociology, history, and justice. He held strong opinions that he didn’t hide. But as a student of history, he said he recognized that conditions at the Academy had changed dramatically, allowing him to give voice to his ideas, due in no small part to Davis’s efforts.
“I’m opinionated and I study the things I want to study because of the sacrifices Davis made,” said Barlow.
It could be argued that Davis’s “silenced” voice has found a voice in a new generation. But General Gorden said that portraying Davis as an activist would be a misleading.
“He was almost the inverse of an activist. I cannot get the word ‘activism’ to fit him,” he said. “But I can very certainly say that, by his example, anyone who wanted to know what it meant to live, breathe, eat, and sleep the values and ideals of being American, they would find that in him—and, by the way, wasn’t he a great military leader!”
Gorden added that he believed that Davis “would be greatly surprised” to see his legacy in stone, and he added that the young cadets who worked to see him nominated represent an evolution at the Academy that led to a desire “to see things that reflect greater diversity.”
For his part, Barlow said that he was “just an organizer,” and rattled off the names of several cadets who also went door-to-door for signatures from fellow black cadets in support of naming the barracks for Davis.
“There were fights between us, we had disagreements, there were some late nights, stress, and I was ridiculed, but I can’t compare what I went through with what Davis endured,” he said. He credits General Caslen for taking the cadets’ suggestion. “All we did was lobby the committee; he deserves credit for making that recommendation and taking it to the higher generals of the Army,” he said.
But Barlow added that he doesn’t expect the naming of Davis Barracks to fix the subtle aspects of racism. That requires exposure and education, he said. But for new black plebes, it will show them that they’re welcome.
What did he learn in the process?
“Don’t be afraid to be bold, be brave, and stand for what is right, even when it gets tough. Because right is right.”
General Davis would have likely agreed.