Clarence M. Davenport, Jr. – Colonel, United States Army

West Point Graduate Clarence M. Davenport Jr.
By Patricia Sullivan
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Thursday, August 9, 2007

Clarence M. Davenport Jr., 89, a retired Army Colonel who was the sixth black graduate of West Point and had a second career in research and academia, died of pancreatic cancer July 23, 2007, at Maplewood Park Place in Bethesda, Maryland.

Colonel Davenport, who served most of his military career in the artillery, did not often talk about his experiences at the academy, his family said, but he always wore his academy ring and spoke up occasionally to correct the record of African Americans at West Point.

Lieuetnant General A.S. Collins Jr., left, presents Colonel Clarence M. Davenport Jr. with the Legion of Merit. Davenport was the sixth black graduate of West Point.

He entered West Point in 1939 on a congressional appointment from George D. O'Brien, a white Michigan Democrat whose district was becoming increasingly populated by African Americans. Colonel Davenport, a native of Roe, Arkansas, whose family moved to Detroit when he was a child, had put himself through three years at the University of Detroit.

Another black cadet, Robert B. Tresville, enrolled at West Point the same year, but Colonel Davenport and Tresville were not roommates; in fact, neither was assigned a roommate during their four years there, unlike the other cadets.

Like one of their predecessors, Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Colonel Davenport and Tresville endured four years of “silencing,” in which they were spoken to only for official business. No other cadets would sit by them, even during chapel services. At the end of the plebe year, when it was customary for upperclassmen to shake hands with rising cadets, no one took theirs.

“The clergy at the academy were, however, sincere and considerate,” Colonel Davenport said in a 2002 letter to the editor of The Washington Post. “They would often sit beside me and talk when we were traveling by bus or train.”

When a Life magazine photographer shot photos in the chapel, a white cadet told fellow cadet Davenport to leave. He protested, but an Army officer supported the white student, and he obeyed.

As a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant, he graduated on the accelerated wartime schedule in January 1943. When he stepped onstage to accept his diploma, he received a standing ovation from his classmates, a moment captured in the newsreels of the day and included in Frank Capra's 1944 documentary “The Negro Soldier.”

Only five of the 17 African Americans who had been appointed to the military academy in the previous 68 years had graduated, and two black men who enrolled in fall 1940 left within two weeks because of the hostile atmosphere.

Years later, there was a rapprochement with his classmates, and Colonel Davenport, described by a family member as a disciplined man who never held grudges, joined an unofficial association of 1943 West Point graduates. West Point, he said, reflected American society at the time, and the “monumental progress” that the school and the military had made in racial matters exemplified their strength.

Colonel Davenport served in the South Pacific during World War II. His black classmate, Tresville, died in combat during the war. Colonel Davenport was sent to the University of California at Berkeley by the Army, where he received a master's degree in bioradiology in 1954. He also graduated from the Army's Command and General Staff College and the National War College.

In the mid-1960s, he received the Legion of Merit for his command of the 10th Artillery Group, 32nd Army Air Defense Command in Europe. He retired from the Army in 1972 as a full Colonel.

After Colonel Davenport left the military, he completed all but his dissertation for a doctorate in educational administration at George Washington University. He also worked as a senior systems analyst at the Stanford Research Institute and worked at Federal City College, now part of the University of the District of Columbia. He retired in 2000 as Howard University's administrative coordinator in its Materials Science Research Center of Excellence.

Colonel Davenport was a music lover and had subscriptions to Kennedy Center series. He was also an award-winning amateur photographer and a member of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington.

Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Yolande B. Davenport of Bethesda; three children, Elizabeth McKune of McLean, Stephen Davenport of Edmond, Oklahoma, and Richard Davenport of Putnam Valley, New York; and four grandchildren.

Old West Point classmates honor black colonel
By DeWayne Wickham
Courtesy of USA Today

On a cold, rainy day last week, the horse-drawn caisson carrying the body of Clarence Davenport Jr. stopped near a freshly dug grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Nearby, a small group of aging West Point graduates shuffled into position.

The honorary pallbearers formed a wobbly phalanx through which a military honor guard carried the body of the retired Army colonel to its grave. Like Davenport, they were members of the military academy's class of 1943. Unlike Davenport, who was black, all of these men were white.

And just what does race have to do with this story about some military men honoring one of their own?

Davenport was just the sixth black to graduate from West Point. Throughout his time there he was “silenced,” a practice that forced him to eat and room alone — and allowed other cadets to speak to him only during the course of official business.

Silencing was usually used against cadets who committed serious rules violations. In Davenport's case, he was subjected to this practice simply because he was black. Like much of the rest of this country, the military was steeped in racist practices during Davenport's time at West Point.

“They put feces in his bed. They put feces in his shoes,” Davenport's daughter, Elizabeth Davenport McKune, said of the mistreatment her father was subjected to by other cadets.

In the years since Davenport's time at West Point, this nation has been on a race relations roller coaster. The Supreme Court ended de jure segregation of public schools. Congress prohibited discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. It guaranteed the voting rights of blacks and other minorities.

Parallels to today

But recently, three states — California, Washington and Michigan — passed voter initiatives banning the use of affirmative action in college admissions and state contracting. The Supreme Court struck down voluntary efforts in Seattle and Louisville to end de facto segregation of public schools. And, in many other ways, the gap of understanding between blacks and whites is as wide today as it was when Davenport entered West Point.

But as the presence at his funeral of some of his white classmates demonstrates, the Army that Davenport entered has undergone a big change. It is no longer segregated along racial lines, as it was until 1948, when President Truman ordered an end to racial segregation in the military.

“The United States Army is today the most integrated society and culture in the world — more whites work for blacks (and) are commanded by blacks — than in any other institution on the globe,” retired Army colonel Alan Gropman said in his eulogy for Davenport.

Old wounds heal

That might be a stretch, but it's not a very big one. This much is certain: Davenport found a way to heal his wounds. Some years ago, he joined an unofficial group of West Point graduates from the class of 1943. In doing so, Davenport and some of his former tormentors found a way to overcome the racism that divided them during their years at West Point.

While they refused to speak to Davenport when he was at the academy, his former classmates stood in silent tribute to him as his casket was carried past them to its place of burial. That's a metaphor for the kind of racial progress the rest of this country is struggling to make. But, according to the text of his eulogy, (journalists weren't allowed inside the chapel where the funeral service was held), Gropman said this would not be enough to satisfy Davenport. “We must reflect on how far we have yet to go to create an America unstained by racism, bigotry and hate, and work to achieve that America,” Gropman said.

Now that would be a fitting tribute to Davenport, and all the other black West Point graduates who tolerated what he went through to serve this country.


On July 23, 2007, CLARENCE M. DAVENPORT, JR., COL USA (Ret.) of Bethesda, Maryland. Beloved husband of Yolande B. Davenport; devoted father of Elizabeth D. McKune, Stephen R. Davenport, M.D., Richard G. Davenport; grandfather of Michelle, Halle, Leigh and Samantha Davenport.

Services will be held at Fort Myer Chapel on Friday, October 26, 2007 at 11 a.m., followed by interment at Arlington National Cemetery. Memorial donations may be made in his name to the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, Attn: Office of Advancement, 3300 Whitehaven St., NW, Suite 4000, Washington, DC 20007.

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