Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was born on July 1, 1877 in Washington, D.C. His father, Louis Davis, worked as a servant for General John A. Logan. General Logan respected Louis Davis and rewarded his service with an appointment as messenger in the Department of the Interior.
Benjamin graduated from M Street High School, where he was a cadet. He entered Howard University in 1897 and while there was a member of the black unit of the National Guard. On July 13, 1898, Davis enlisted as a volunteer soldier in the 8th U.S. Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War. On June 18, 1899, he reenlisted in the regular army as a private in Troop 1, 9th Cavalry at Fort Duchesne, Utah. At this time he served as corporal and squadron sergeant major. On February 2, 1901, he received a regular commission and was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. He served in Troop M, 9th Cavalry in the Philippines. On March 30, 1905, he was promoted to first lieutenant and on December 24, 1915, he was promoted to Captain.
In 1905, he became a professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University and remained there for four years. From 1909 to 1912, Davis was military attache in Monrovia, Liberia. In 1915, he returned to Wilberforce University as professor of military science. In 1902, Davis married Elnora Dickerson, a dressmaker. They had two children, Olive, born in 1905 and Benjamin Jr., born in 1912. In 1916, shortly after the birth of a daughter, Nora, Davis’ wife, Elnora died. A year after his wife’s death, Davis was assigned to the Philippines as supply officer of the 9th Calvary at Camp Stotsenburg. During his three-year stay in the Philippines, he corresponded with Sadie Overton, a English teacher at Wilberforce University. In 1919, Overton and Davis were married. After his marriage, he became a professor of military science and tactics at Tuskegee Institute and remained there until 1924.
In 1924, Davis became instructor of the 372nd Infantry of the Ohio National Guard in Cleveland. In the summers of 1930 to 1933, he traveled to Europe as the official army representative for the Pilgrimage of War Mothers and Widows, an organization comprised of the relatives of slain World War I soldiers buried in European cemeteries. For his excellent service on this assignment, he received letters of commendation from the Quartermaster General and the Secretary of War. He was given his first independent command in 1938, which was the 369th National Guard Infantry Regiment. On October 25, 1940, after 42 years of loyal service in the army, Davis became the first black American general in the U.S. Army with a promotion to brigadier general. After the promotion, he served as brigade commander at Fort Riley, Kansas with the 2nd Cavalry Division. In 1942, he was also appointed to the Committee on Negro Troop Policies, where he investigated racial incidents and helped solve racial problems. Davis was instrumental in instituting a proposal to retrain African-American service troops as combat soldiers and changing the military’s policies of segregation. For his work in combating segregation in the armed forces, Davis was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.