The black member of Congress who appointed Benjamin O. Davis Jr. to West Point was misidentified in Style yesterday. He was Illinois Republican Oscar De Priest. (Published 2/5/91)

Plebe summer, 1932. The United States Military Academy, West Point.

Dressed in lightweight slacks and short-sleeve shirts, pairs of cadets whirl awkwardly around the floor of their ballroom dancing class -- except for one tall, straight-backed young man who dances alone.

He swims alone too and will never receive his Red Cross lifesaving certificate, for no one is willing to be his buddy. And he eats alone, for no matter where he is seated, no one will speak to him.

During the four years that he is at West Point, no one speaks to him except in the line of duty.

Why? Because cadet Ben Davis is black. And in 1932 the U.S. military academies did not welcome cultural diversity.

"I couldn't believe that I would be treated the way I was treated," says retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. "If ever a man went to West Point with ideals, I was it. Boy, did I have ideals. Did I believe in duty, honor, country. Did I believe that cadets were the greatest people on the face of the Earth. I believed all that."

For a moment it is silent in his Rosslyn apartment overlooking the Potomac, the White House, the Capitol. Just thinking about those days is still painful. So painful that for years, the idea of reliving them seemed impossible to contemplate. And that's what writing an autobiography involved. No matter that he was the first black in this century to graduate from West Point, the first black three-star general in the Air Force -- to him those firsts represent a segregating, divisive way of thinking.

"There was just too much pain and suffering in my background," he says. "I didn't want to have anything to do with it."

But do it he has. And tomorrow night, when the 78-year-old Davis steps out on a podium at the National Air and Space Museum to tell his story during its celebration of Black History Month, it will be as a man who has finally divested himself of stories he didn't even want to share with his parents. He would only share them with Agatha -- Agatha, his wife of more than 50 years; Agatha, who made him write the book.

When Ben Davis Jr. was young, he had two great passions: pride in the achievements of his father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., and a desire to fly. He would honor them both.

Davis Sr. was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army when his only son was born. His 50-year military career was fraught with a frustration born of the Army's conviction that a black man could not and should not command white soldiers. Not in combat. Not in peacetime. Not at all.

As his father was moved from black teaching post to black National Guard unit and back again, Davis Jr., his two sisters and (after his mother died) his stepmother would watch that frustration mount and wonder if the world would ever change. (For Davis Sr., recognition didn't come until 1940, when at 63 he was promoted by Franklin D. Roosevelt to the rank of brigadier general.)

So in the summer of 1926, when Davis Sr. paid a barnstormer at Bolling Air Force Base $5 to take his son up as a passenger, people thought he had lost his mind. "That was a lot of money in those days," says Davis. "And we never understood it because he was a close man with a penny."

But Davis Sr. must have understood something about his 14-year-old son. And even though Davis Jr. can no longer remember what the flight was like, he remembers the incredible feeling of being up in the air looking down on Washington, and his sudden determination to become an aviator.

When at 17 he was still resolved to become a pilot, his parents arranged for him to move to Chicago in order to be eligible for an appointment to West Point. (The only black representative in Congress, Alonzo Parham, was a Republican from Illinois.) By July 1, 1932, he was enrolled at West Point.

There was no reason to assume that the (still-segregated) Army would train him to be a pilot. There was no reason to assume he would escape his father's frustrations. But Davis knew he was smart and strong, able and ambitious. "As a matter of fact," Davis says ruefully, "I was fool enough to believe that I could become a cadet officer because I knew I was as good as many of them."

Achievement vs. Race "If you talk to a good many of the cadets today, they will tell you that what I am relating didn't happen. The silencing didn't happen," says Davis. "And they are technically correct, because silence was imposed by the honor committee of the corps of cadets for violations of honor. Well, I didn't have any violations of honor."

When he first arrived at West Point, no one treated him differently -- though, admittedly, his room assignment was peculiar. He lived alone in a large room designed for at least two cadets. But on the third night he was there, a knock on his door alerted him to a meeting in the basement. When he got there, he realized the meeting was about him. "What are we going to do about the nigger," was the question under discussion. He hastily retreated to his room.

"From that time on, it was that way," he says. "They agreed among themselves that I was to be treated the way they would treat a 'nigger' rather than as a human being. And it was just as though the honor committee had imposed silence upon me as an individual."

Sunday night through Saturday noon, like every plebe, he was busy with his academic work, athletics, the routine of being a cadet.

"There wasn't any time for me to sit back and feel sorry for myself," he says. "Instead, if you can believe it, I was able to develop mechanisms in my own mind of feeling sorry for these misguided young men who represented the cream of the nation who were willing to force me out of West Point just because I was black."

On weekends he ran cross-country, or borrowed a horse from the stables, or stayed in his room and read. He was excluded from all social events.

"I don't know what to say about it except that it was a hotbed of racism. There was another black cadet who came along a couple of years after I did. They forced him out. But they couldn't force me out. I gave them no basis for discharging me. Academically I had no problems. Disciplinary problems, none. I just wasn't going to be forced out."

As Davis approached graduation, the superintendent of the academy realized that the Army faced a potential problem. Davis's grades -- 35th in a class of 276 -- entitled him to select the branch of the service he went into, but how could they accommodate his desire to be a pilot? There weren't any black units in the Air Corps.

After conferring with the chief of infantry in Washington, the superintendent proposed a "plan for the Army to be saved from me and me to be saved from the Army."

"The superintendent's plan was neat and intriguing," says Davis. He would apply for a commission in the infantry, and in particular Fort Benning, where there were black troops, and where he could take the company officers' course. Then he could be eligible for and attached to a base with black National Guard units near a fine law school. And then he could resign from the Army and go into politics.

"The only problem," says Davis, "was that I wanted to fly airplanes."

Not surprisingly -- and only up to a point -- things went exactly as the Army planned, except that Davis didn't take any steps to make it happen.

What changed his fate was history and the need for pilots during World War II. "It was all by chance," he says. "Political developments caused the War Department to be directed by the president to form the 99th Pursuit Squadron," he says, referring to the black flying unit he commanded. "And then I went to Tuskegee Army Airfield where I was trained as a pilot."

Davis is proud of the black flying men he served with at Tuskegee, and in particular, of the success of the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group he led into air combat over North Africa and Italy during the war. "These two units in combat operations demonstrated that they could perform equally as well as whites," he says. "So their actions were terribly important ... and the {congressional} leadership could stick its neck out because they had confidence that we could perform."

It was the new-found confidence in black airmen, Davis thinks, that enabled the Air Force, which was the newest branch of the military (it was created in 1947) to become the first to integrate. That was May 1949 when, under the direction of President Harry S. Truman, the USAF issued Air Force Letter 35-3. From that point on, all the men who had been grouped on predominantly white bases in all-black "F squadrons" were reassigned worldwide into white units. Davis is still astounded at the speed with which black airmen were moved "into barracks occupied by white people, and mess halls where white people ate." A year later, he recalls, there wasn't a single black unit in the U.S. Air Force.

"It was just like that," he says, "like night turned to day."

An American First The striking thing about Davis's autobiography, "Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American" (Smithsonian Institution Press), is its nonjudgmental tone in describing situations of inhumanity, racism and cruelty.

"I'm really not mad at anybody," he says. "I long ago developed the rather calm attitude toward things that happen to me as an individual. But, on the other hand, I don't have a calm attitude toward the evidence of racism that still exists in the United States. I don't have a calm attitude about the fact that our government hasn't improved the lot of minorities. No. I'm complaining about racism. I'm complaining about the attitudes of people in these United States toward their fellow Americans."

When Davis is questioned about the disproportionate number of blacks in today's military, he says, "They are in danger where they are. But -- and this is one very great big 'but' -- they have a tremendous opportunity to prove themselves and prove to the United States the value of black people to the armed services. And when they do that, they will reap the rewards for their efforts, just as the Tuskegee Airmen reaped the rewards and pointed the way to the integration of the armed services.

"So, yes, there may be disproportionate representation ... but I think that it should be regarded as an opportunity for service. Because these are all volunteers that we're talking about, and they are benefiting from being where they are. They receive far better treatment in the armed services of the United States than they can receive in civilian life."

Although Davis has had a distinguished post-military career -- as safety commissioner of Cleveland, at two high-level jobs in the Department of Transportation and on several presidential commissions -- he hasn't been in uniform for 20 years. So it is with astonishment and pride that he watches Gen. Colin Powell's role in the Persian Gulf War.

"I was extremely proud that Colin Powell had been able to impress the people for whom he worked so favorably that he received the appointment. ... And I looked upon it as a beacon of opportunity for other people. But I won't say that I wasn't surprised because I was. I think it is extremely unusual for a black person, regardless of all capability, to have been appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I hope he is able to get through this war without being badly hurt."

Davis is worried about this war. He says it represents a danger to the United States, a danger to George Bush and a danger to the armed forces. He allows himself these very unmilitary thoughts because he is no longer in uniform. He considers himself much more of a reader than a doer now, with time to reflect on his opinions. For a career military man, he takes a thoughtful view. But Davis is a man whose life was forged on a bedrock of personal character. And no one is going to tell him how to think. He has his own views.

One of them is on the use of the words "African American." It is not a term he feels comfortable with. For starters, he doesn't like labeling. "A person is a person," he says.

Beyond that, he finds the term misleading and not particularly helpful. "I have been opposed to segregation all my life," he says. "And I object to 'African American' strenuously. Everybody I know is mixed up. When a black person uses that term, he is asking to be separate from the mainstream of American life. I prefer to be an American."

Just as he prefers to be known as an American general, and one of the makers of the Air Force. He even declined the opportunity to have a portrait of him painted and hung at West Point as an inspiration to black cadets. "I don't want to be discriminated against by being put in a separate group," he says.

A Love Story "The sort of thing that happened to us holds you together or takes you apart," says Agatha Davis. "We've always worked together. I've always tried to do everything I can for him. He's always tried to do everything he can for me -- and he still does. I don't think anybody could have a better husband."

Agatha Scott, a teacher from New Haven, Conn., and Ben Davis were married on June 20, 1939, in the chapel at West Point. The West Point chaplain officiated. "There were no crossed swords," says Agatha Davis, laughing at the idea. "There wouldn't have been anybody to hold them."

Did she have any idea what she was getting into? "It wouldn't have made any difference," she says.

They'd met at a New Year's Eve party in New York. It was his first leave after having been at West Point for a year and a half. "There was this handsome guy in a West Point uniform," she recalls. "Everybody at that dance knew he was there, and all the girls in the place were after him. But I decided he was going to pay attention to me, so I took a whole lot of confetti and stuck it down his stiff collar."

They met again the next year, right before Christmas, in New York. She had made plans -- parties and dances for which she already had an escort, a dentist from York, Pa. "I told him some of the things I was going to do. And he said, 'Could I take you.' And I said, 'I can't do that because that wouldn't be very nice, but if you want to go and ask him, it's all right with me.' So he went and asked him if it was all right. And I felt real silly, but I didn't care. It started there, and from then on, it was just the two of us."

Each weekend she drove up from New Haven to see him. There was little they could do -- no invitations to hops or football game parties -- and few places to go. The library was the most comfortable place they could be with one another. "Not that we looked at the books," she says. "We looked at each other."

Her presence in his life made the silencing bearable. Some of it he shared with her and some of it he kept to himself. But they were never invited anywhere, and she never met another cadet. "It wasn't really obvious to me," she remembers. "We were only interested in each other. ... But he never let it touch him to the extent that he wanted to give it up. Never."

At Fort Benning after their marriage, life was difficult. An initial effort to call on his commanding officer, mandated by Army etiquette, was met with a locked screen door. Soon afterward, their application for membership in the officers' club (which had been suggested by the adjutant) was responded to by the return of their check with the explanation that because Davis had not used the club, it was assumed he was not interested. "I lost a lot of respect for the military there," he says. "It went on that way for two years."

Overseas -- Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Korea, the Philippines -- as he made his way up through the ranks it was always easier. "We made wonderful acquaintances and friends once we got overseas," says Agatha Davis. "We still have them. Any nationality, any race, overseas people never thought of you as being anything but an American. They didn't care what you were."

At home, people cared. And on more than one occasion, Agatha Davis let people know what she thought of them. Davis says it made it easier for him. "She expressed things I may have felt but didn't think I could say. Military people never spoke on matters of the day. But Agatha never held her tongue."

She had always been an independent thinker. And life in segregated America -- in the military, in Alabama and Georgia, in Washington, D.C. -- made her angry. But the treatment her husband received angered her more. "After spending four horrible years at West Point, they didn't treat him right," she says.

"He didn't get the assignments he should have gotten. He didn't get to be a pilot when he qualified for it. He had to be an officer with black soldiers, not that there's anything wrong with black soldiers, but you know what black soldiers were doing then ... menial work, cutting grass, that's not what I call real soldiering. There was no effort made by anybody to be decent to him. No one."

In part, Davis's autobiography was a way of exorcising the past. He had never kept a diary, but following his father's advice, they saved every official paper, every newspaper clipping, every letter they wrote to each other. Organized by Agatha Davis chronologically into cardboard boxes and brown paper bags, they line the walls of a bedroom in their apartment. The sign on the door says "Davis Archives, Welcome."

The book (initiated by an invitation from the director of the Smithsonian Institution Press, Felix Lowe) was a joint project. She would organize the material for each chapter and ready it for writing; he would write the chapter; he would read it aloud to her; and together each would add things the other might have forgotten. She compiled the index. Trips to several archives filled out their memories.

Could he have managed any of it without her? "I have to say I couldn't," he says. "She was a person I could confide in. I told her everything that was going on. She was the only one I told."

And now, he has told everyone else. Since the completion of the book, Agatha Davis has noticed that her husband speaks his mind more freely. It is as if the silencing has finally been lifted.

Says Ben Davis with pride, "I feel better having written this book."