Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Julius W. Becton Jr., pioneering Black general and former head of FEMA, has died at 97


Julius W. Becton Jr., pioneering Black general and former head of FEMA, has died at 97

He was the Army’s highest-ranking Black officer for years and served during the Cold War and three active wars. “It’s the type of thing you don’t dream about,” he said.

Gen. Becton became a solider in part because he didn't want to be a teacher, preacher, or doctor.U.S. Army

by Gary Miles

Published Dec. 1, 2023, 5:28 p.m. ET

Julius W. Becton Jr., 97, formerly of Bryn Mawr, groundbreaking retired Army Lt. General, first Black director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, past president of Prairie View A&M University, one-time chief executive officer of public schools in Washington, retired corporate executive, and author, died Tuesday, Nov. 28, of complications from dementia at the Fairfax retirement community in Fort Belvoir, Va.

Born and raised in Bryn Mawr, and a 1944 graduate of Lower Merion High School, Gen. Becton rose from his two-bedroom basement apartment at Morris and Montgomery Avenues to smash racial barriers in the Army, work alongside world leaders on global issues, and later influence higher education and the U.S. economy.

He and some football teammates rushed to join the Army right out of high school in 1944, and he went on to serve nearly four decades, rising from the segregated 93rd Infantry Division in the South Pacific to become the Army’s highest-ranking Black officer in the 1970s.

He was on high-alert duty during World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars. In 1978, he became lieutenant general and commander in Germany of the Army’s largest European combat corps during the Cold War.

He was a platoon leader and wounded in action several times during the Korean War in the 1950s. He was part of the famous 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Later, he was commander of the prestigious First Cavalry Division, head of the Army Operational Test and Evaluation Agency, and deputy commander of the Army Training Center at Fort Dix.

He won dozens of medals and awards, including the Distinguished Service Medal, two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, and two Bronze Stars. He retired in 1983 as the Army’s second-ranking

Black officer and became head of the Foreign Disaster Assistance office and then the first Black director of FEMA in 1985.

Gen. Becton served “with great distinction” and contributed “numerous and consequential accomplishments over a lifetime of service as a soldier, leader, educator, administrator, mentor and role model,” the Association of the United States Army said when it awarded him its 2007 George Catlett Marshall Medal. In 2017, Gen. Becton told the AUSA: “I enjoyed being a soldier. I enjoyed being around soldiers.”

He joined the academic world as president at Prairie View from 1989 to 1994, and then focused on budget issues and accountability as head of public schools in Washington from 1996 to 1998. He also worked as chief commercial officer at Virginia-based American Coastal Industries and was on the board of directors and a trustee of several organizations.


Gen. Becton graduated from Officer Candidate School and was deployed to the South Pacific near the end of World War.   American Veterans Center

“Gen. Becton has earned respect and admiration from the military and the private sector for his energetic leadership style and keen insight,” Nicholas D. Chabraja, then-chairman at General Dynamics, said in 1997.

Gen. Becton returned to the Philadelphia area often to speak at events and was quoted extensively in The Inquirer and other publications. He rode in parades, was recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs and many other groups, and Ebony magazine listed him several times as one of the 100 most influential Blacks in America.

He published Becton: Autobiography of a Soldier and Public Servant in 2008, and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said: “He writes with the honesty, humor, and family feeling that makes this a rewarding family story.” In 2020, the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management and other groups created a scholarship in his name to support women and students of color who are studying emergency management.

“We had the spirit of [the cavalry] and the spirit of airborne,” he said of his soldiers in a video interview with the Library of Congress. “You combine those two things, you become almost untouchable. At least we thought we were anyhow.”

Born June 29, 1926, Julius Wesley Becton Jr. was a high achiever even in high school. He enjoyed shop class and social studies, was an all-star football center in 1943, and won the broad jump state championship in 1944. In his autobiography, he said: “The Lower Merion sports program was extremely beneficial not only for my physical and mental well-being but also for the life skills it imparted.”

He wanted to be a pilot when he enlisted, but an issue with his eyesight sent him to the infantry instead. He graduated from Officer Candidate School in  1945 and left active duty for the reserves in 1946.

“In today’s Army, it’s not the color of your skin that counts. It’s what you do, how you do it, and your potential.”

Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. in 1972

He took classes and played football at Muhlenberg College in Allentown for a time, married Louise Thornton in 1948, and returned to active duty that year after the Army was desegregated by order of President Harry S. Truman.

He and his wife of 70 years had daughters Shirley, Karen, Joyce, and Renee, and son Wes, and they traveled the globe together. He always credited his hardworking parents for his drive and success, and his wife called him “a natural-born leader” in the forward of his autobiography. She died in 2019.

“He was very serious but with a great sense of humor,” said his son Wes. “He had high expectations for his kids.”

Gen. Becton earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Prairie View A&M University and a master’s degree in economics from the University of Maryland while he was serving. He also attended several military colleges and received five honorary doctorate degrees.

His son said: “He was a very caring leader and brilliant tactician.” In his autobiography, Gen. Becton thanked his children for their “love, inspiration, and constant encouragement. No one could imagine a better cheerleading squad.”

In addition to his children, Gen. Becton is survived by 11 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and other relatives. A brother died earlier.

Services are to be at 10 a.m. Friday, Dec. 22, at Fort Belvoir Main Chapel, 5950 12th St., Suite 101, Fort Belvoir, Va. 22060.

Donations in his name may be made to the Prairie View A&M College of Nursing, 6436 Fannin St., Houston, Texas 77030.

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