The release of the 2012 film “Red Tails” about the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) servicemen during World War II, was a watershed in more ways than one. Starring Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, and Cuba Gooding, Jr., the action-packed biopic was the first feature film made about the woefully under-acknowledged military men. The movie also changed the trajectory of Doug Melville’s life.
Co-owner of a lucrative event planning business at the time, Melville screened the movie along with a group of Hollywood power brokers including Oprah Winfrey. Melville, who is a descendant of one of the men depicted in the film, came away awed yet disappointed. He recognized Howard’s character was based on his great uncle Benjamin Davis Sr., yet the character’s name was A.J. Bullard.
“Why would you make a movie like this and not give credit to the people who lived the story?” Melville wrote in the newly released book “Invisible Generals,” that he wrote about his family as a direct result of the dismaying experience.
Benjamin Davis, Sr., and Benjamin Davis, Jr. were the first Black generals in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force, respectively. Further, Melville’s great-great-great Uncle Louis was one of the first Blacks to work for the federal government and purchase real estate in Washington D.C.
Determined to ensure the story of the extraordinary professional and personal heroism of his family was known to as many people as possible, Melville switched gears. In addition to becoming a leader in corporate diversity, he devoted years of his life to conducting painstaking research into his family history-made more painful because of his emotional proximity to his subjects.
“I found most of Ben Davis Sr.’s papers stored at the U.S. Army War College. This was the institution that in the early 20s stated that Black Americans were inferior. This institution was the reason their lives were so hard, and at the end of the day, this institution controls all the family archives. That was very hard for me to comprehend,” he explained.
Melville learned that for the entire four years Davis Jr. was a student at West Point, no one said a word to him unless necessitated by coursework. No one ever ate with him, and he never had a roommate. The profound cruelty and unfairness struck Melville deeply. “Here you have this man who’s just trying to live the same American dream as everyone else. But because of his race, it’s made it so much harder for him to do,” he explained.
He was also stunned to realize that despite what they went through, neither man complained or shared their struggles with family members. Melville stated, “I didn’t even know what they had accomplished because it was never talked about. The greatest story in American history is on the couch and nobody’s talking.”
Melville further learned that his great uncle, after leaving a distinguished yet unrecognized military career, went on to become the director of civil aviation security, helping to devise measures to thwart aircraft hijackings. He was also named assistant secretary of transportation, all remarkable accomplishments for which Davis has been unheralded. “It was astonishing for me as I found these things out,” he recollected.
Melville points to the duality of the existence of his heroic great-uncle, as exemplified by media coverage. “I guess there were over 500 Black newspapers in the United States at one point, and Ben Davis was one of the few names that appeared more than anybody else. But for the mainstream papers, he didn’t exist at all.”
Because of this, Melville feels it’s important that we take responsibility for telling our stories. “These stories are hidden in plain sight, but we have to bring them to light because there are so many of them. We have to ask what did the people before us go through? What stories are right there that we just don’t know? For no one to know these stories is a tragedy.”
Melville also became aware of the tragic lack of support given to veterans. “There’s a big opportunity for us as individuals to invest in our veterans’ well-being when they get home. That could be donating time, that could be giving a helping hand to the VA or the VFW.”
There are certain steps, according to Melville, that we can all take to surface the hidden histories of our families and communities. “You should look up your family’s names and histories and set up Google alerts to see if anybody comes up in a story or appears in anybody’s research.” Perhaps more importantly, he adds, “Talk to people while they’re still alive. Figure out who your legacy is and what they did prior to you being here.”