In 2012, the Star Wars creator, George Lucas, released his pet project: Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African Americans who fought in the second world war. Doug Melville assumed it would mean that his great-uncle, Benjamin O Davis Jr, would finally gain the recognition he deserved.
“I was invited to a screening and he was set to be the main character in the movie, played by Terrence Howard,” Melville recalls, via Zoom from home in New York. “Then, when the character came on the screen, he had a different name.
“I asked who had made the movie and they said it’s not a documentary, it’s an amalgamation. All those things are true but I couldn’t understand how we could make a movie and not give some shine to the families who the movie is actually portraying.”
Seething, Melville went to his father Larry, now 90. He made clear the snub was just the tip of the iceberg. He described how Benjamin O Davis Jr and his father, Benjamin O Davis Sr, raised him – and how they were treated as if they were invisible because of their race. The tales piqued Melville’s curiosity and desire to protect the family legacy.
“What I learned,” he says, “is that it’s important, at least in the United States of America, to own your own narratives and to take ownership of the story before someone else does.”
Melville’s research took him from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC to presidential libraries and the far corners of the internet. This culminated in a book, Invisible Generals, telling the story of America’s first Black generals, a father and a son who strove to desegregate the military and create the Tuskegee Airmen.
Melville, a 46-year-old diversity executive, says: “At the start of world war two there were 335,000 people in the United States military and there were only two Black officers: Ben Jr and his dad, Ben Sr. It was hard for me to believe that … that got me going.”
Benjamin O Davis Sr (1880–1970) held combat, diplomatic and administrative roles for the US army over more than 40 years. He was stationed in the Philippines during the first world war and stayed until 1920, eventually being promoted to captain. In 1940 he became the first Black army general. He served in Europe during the second world war and was lead adviser to President Harry Truman on the desegregation of the military in 1948.
Benjamin O Davis Jr (1912-2002) was shunned at West Point because of his race in the 1930s but eventually commanded the Tuskegee Airmen and became the first African American general in the US air force. His career included drawing the median line separating China from Taiwan (“the Davis line”), implementing security standards at commercial airports and leading the creation of a national speed limit, earning him the nickname “Mr 55”.
While he never had a son, Ben Jr raised his nephew, Larry Melville, from the time he was six. Ben Jr encouraged Larry to go into law. He became one of Connecticut’s first Black superior court judges.
Doug Melville traced the family’s military associations to the mid-19th century. Ben Sr’s father worked for John Logan, a Union general during the civil war, and was on the horse and buggy with President Ulysses S Grant at his second inauguration, his son on his knee.
Melville recounts: “Ben Davis Sr wanted to fight for America so he left home and joined the Buffalo Soldiers in Wyoming and, when he was out there fighting, he realised being a great equestrian was an opportunity to get promoted. When he did that, he met Charles Young, who was a Black graduate of West Point and told him there’s a way to get Blacks into West Point.
“When Ben Sr had a son – his wife died in childbirth – he brings his son on an aeroplane ride, barnstorming, and his son says, ‘Daddy, I want to be a pilot.’ He says, ‘I’m going to make sure to do everything that I can so you can live your dream.’ He started training him from a child to get into West Point and that’s how Ben Jr became a pilot and the captain and the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
In 1932, Ben Jr became the fourth Black cadet to attend West Point and the first in the 20th century. Over four years, he had no roommate, ate in silence and had minimal interaction with other cadets. Despite this, he graduated in 1936, among the top 20% of his class.
Melville, who regarded Ben Jr as a grandfather, says: “By the time he became a junior, people started waiting outside the bus for him – Black Americans, the chefs at West Point – and it did build that sense of camaraderie. When he graduated, it was front-page news all over America that he was America’s number one graduate because he was able to survive it. They dealt with what they needed to deal with: performance over everything.”
Ben Jr demonstrated two leadership skills Melville finds pertinent now. First, use the system to defuse the system: “Sometimes the systems are set up and you just have to be a part of them to figure out ways to evolve them.”
Second, meet people where they are: “Don’t expect them to go on their own. That’s another great tip and something that he lived by. For all of us, these are somewhat basics but things that still are relevant today. The impossible takes time but in time you can do the impossible and that’s kind of how I look at this whole story of legacy. It takes generations to evolve it.”
Ben Jr enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (now Tuskegee University) to train reserve officers. Ben Sr helped persuade President Franklin D Roosevelt to establish an all-Black unit within the army air force. Ben Jr earned his wings in 1942 and within a year assumed command of a unit comprising a thousand Black pilots, later famous as the Tuskegee Airmen.
In Europe, they outperformed expectations, downing more than twice the number of aircraft they lost, sabotaging miles of railway lines, sinking more than 40 ships including a destroyer and never losing a bomber on an escort mission. The Tuskegee Airmen played a pivotal role in US military integration.
Melville says: “When [Ben Jr] took over as commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, the biggest challenge that he saw was if he gets shot down, he felt that there was a potential that they would cancel their own programme.
“The interesting part is how the Tuskegee Airmen were created and then, when you look at how they had to operate, he knew how frail the system was to give them the opportunity. He wanted to make sure he never got shot down so he had to always debate should he command the mission or send someone else to command the mission.
“When Ben would do interviews, he would share that people didn’t even know there was an all-Black fighter pilot group in world war two.” The base where the unit was stationed did not appear on many of the Allied maps, Melville says, so, concerned that they could be the target of friendly fire, “he encouraged the tails to be painted red so people knew that he was part of America.”
‘The privileges of being an American’
On 5 July 1852, Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Some African Americans have expressed scepticism about fighting for a nation that discriminates against them at home. But more than 300,000 served in Vietnam, even as the US was engulfed in turmoil over the struggle for civil rights.
Despite facing discrimination all his life, for Ben Jr there was no ambiguity about patriotism or assimilation. He once said: “The privileges of being an American belong to those brave enough to fight for them.”
Melville explains: “His attitude about everything was, we are so privileged and we are so fortunate that we can fight for a country that’s a democracy and we can input into the change that we want to see. He was never negative.
“He was positive to a fault because he just said, ‘There’s so many people that are doing so much worse from a lifestyle standpoint, from a nation state standpoint.’ I mean, he’s growing up before world war two so he got to see levels of poverty where there was hardly paved roads and running water may not have been in your place.
“His whole thing was he just wanted to be known as an American. He fought more for that than anything in his whole life because he didn’t like being called African American. He was OK with Black American, if you must, but he just wanted to be an American like everybody else.
“It’s a counter-thought to how we think today because sometimes we think everybody wants to have their own box and everybody wants to be separated. At the end of his life, a lot of people debated him about this. They were like, ‘Why do you want to be an American?’ But he just wanted to be an American with everyone else instead of in the box.
“When he would go speak at colleges, he would always dread the Q&A portion when people would raise their hand, saying, ‘I don’t agree with you, this is the wrong way, we’re African Americans, we’re Black Americans.’ He would say, ‘I understand that.’ His lived experience, though, is hard for us to relate to because he lived 100% segregation and even during world war two, the parts of the planes of the other pilots couldn’t be used on his planes.
“The food, the nurses, everything had to be 100% segregated so, at its largest number, the Tuskegee Airmen was essentially 15,000 people and a 100% segregated air force within the United States Air Force. If you’re looking at it from that perspective, he just kept saying, ‘This is so inefficient, we’re all fighting the same war and you won’t put his plane part on my plane because he’s white and I’m Black?’ This stuff sounds wild but it was just in our lifetime.”
In 2017, West Point opened a barracks named in honour of Ben Jr. Two years later, the US Air Force Academy named its airfield for him too. Melville hopes his book will help make the generals invisible no more and encourage others to shed light on their own hidden figures.
“I want the world to hear this story. I want people to find their own legacy. I want people to search their own family history, understand who’s in your living room, who’s in your house, who’s in your ancestry, that you have stories that you just don’t know because there’s a generation of people that just didn’t talk and they’re right there in your living room.
“Sometimes the greatest stories are right there but you’re worried about your kids and they’re worried about their friends and you’re worried about what you’re going to do. The people right behind you in that living room, they have really great stories too, but a lot of the time we don’t stop them and hear them.”
Source: The Guardian