Allison Davis, notable social anthropologist and psychologist, graduated valedictorian from the historic Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., in 1920. At the time, Dunbar was one of only a handful of public schools dedicated to educating black youth. Davis continued his impressive academic record at Williams College, graduating summa cum laude and valedictorian in 1924. He went on to earn a MA in English from Harvard University in 1925 and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago.
That same year, equipped with an impressive academic record and eager to teach, Davis applied for a junior faculty position in the English department at his alma mater. But he was denied the opportunity, which would also have made him the first professor of color at the college. Neither he nor his younger brother John (Williams College ‘33) had any doubt that racial politics were the cause of such a blunt rejection. The incident had a profound effect on Allison, who, not surprisingly, bore a lingering resentment toward Williams College for a good deal of his adult life.
Like many black scholars of that era, Davis ended up teaching at a black institution. In his case, Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he taught from 1925-1931. There, armed with newfound determination to affect real change through active scholarship, Davis worked rigorously to inspire rural black students to think and write critically. Naturally reflective and deeply concerned about his students, he acknowledged the shortcomings of standard teaching practices prevalent at the time: “Teaching in a standard manner made no sense for poor and poorly schooled rural blacks. I decided that I didn’t know anything really to teach them since our backgrounds were so different, yet I wanted to do something…”
An inveterate scholar, Davis knew that ideas drive change and that sweeping change, historic change, requires ideas of the broadest possible scope. So he returned to Harvard to earn a second master’s degree, this time in anthropology. Honored with a Rosenwald Fellowship, Davis continued his study of human societies and cultures at the London School of Economics. In 1935, he joined the faculty of the department of anthropology at Dillard University in New Orleans. It was there that he embarked upon a major course of fieldwork—in collaboration with Yale psychologist John Dollard and supported by the American Youth Commission of the American Council on Education. Davis studied black adolescents in both New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi, for three years, then spent a year as a research fellow at the Institute of Human Relations at Yale, after which he and Dollard published their joint research results in a book entitled, Children of Bondage: The Personality Development of Negro Youth in the Urban South (1940).
This work combines Davis’s pioneering ethnographic approach with a pronounced focus on social psychology. It highlights the role of class in education and acculturation. “[The lower-class child] learns from his family and teachers that the chances for a person in his lower-class position to finish high school and college, and to become socially mobile through education, are so slight in view of the economic position and classways of his family, that they scarcely exist.”
Davis completed his education as a Rockefeller Research Fellow, earning a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1942. “While working under [W.Lloyd Warner],” Davis said, “I had the opportunity to study the types of villages from which my past English students had come.” His research centered around two of the oldest cotton communities in Mississippi and helped lay the groundwork for the book, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941), a cooperative effort by a team of social anthropologists to document the economic, racial, and cultural character of the Jim Crow South. This pivotal study was the first to apply anthropological techniques to the American landscape and to critically analyze the roots of racism. In his review of Deep South, the eminent sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “As a contribution to our knowledge of sociology and the interactions of a small, deeply divided human group, this book deserves a high place.” Still in print, Deep South continues to influence the work of contemporary social scientists.
Allison’s wife, Elizabeth Stubbs Davis—a Mount Holyoke College graduate—played an instrumental role in the research and publication of both Children of Bondage and Deep South. As his most trusted advisor and valued research assistant, she worked behind-the-scenes conducting interviews for Deep South (lest the project be jeopardized by white southerners already skeptical of the undertakings of the researchers). Allison frequently acknowledged the “countless ways” he was indebted to Elizabeth. Until her passing in 1966, she edited and advised him on articles, speeches, chapters, and books. The couple had two sons, Allison S. Davis (b 1939) and Gordon J Davis (b 1941) '63.
Upon earning his doctorate degree at the University of Chicago, Davis was immediately recruited by its department of education. He was awarded tenure three years later, in 1947, and became a full professor in 1948, making him the first black scholar in U.S. history to hold a tenure track position at a predominately white institution.
Allison Davis is perhaps most widely known for his social science research on the relationship between academic performance and child development, as well as for his persistent criticism of intelligence testing, which challenged the assumption that children from low-income families are inferior in intelligence to their upper-income counterparts. Davis drew great satisfaction from the success of his research in this area. “This study has had the most practical effect of any of my work,” he said. “It led to the abolition of the use of intelligence tests in New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, and other cities. This was one time I got what I wanted: a direct effect on society from social science research.”
Davis earned many distinctions. In 1967, he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve on the Civil Rights Commission. In 1970, he became the first John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Two years later, in 1972, he became the first scholar of education to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Likely one of the most significant distinctions of all was conferred in 1974 when, to commemorate Davis’s national influence, Williams College bestowed an honorary degree upon him—nearly 50 years after the institution denied him a teaching position because of his color. Though still somewhat disillusioned by that early experience, especially at the hand of his alma mater, Davis appreciated the many progressive changes Williams had instituted over the decennia with respect to diversity of demographics and curriculum; though, as ever, there is still much work to be done.
Allison Davis was honored with a commemorative postage stamp in 1994. The announcement issued by the United States Postal Service read, in part: Davis “challenged the cultural bias of standardized intelligence tests and fought for the understanding of the human potential beyond racial class and caste. His work helped end legalized racial segregation and contributed to contemporary thought on valuing the capabilities of youth from diverse backgrounds.”
Indeed, Allison Davis’s commitment to increasing access to quality education for low-income children revolutionized policy and paved the way for compensatory education programs such as Head Start and affirmative action. These programs have changed the face of educational institutions across the country, particularly at Williams College, which is currently among the most diverse institutions of higher learning in the United States.
John Aubrey Davis, esteemed political scientist, educator, and activist, was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa society at Williams College where he graduated summa cum laude in 1933. While his major was English (Davis was a gifted writer), his passion was politics and public policy. It was a passion kindled at a very early age. “My father,” he reminisced, “used to carry me on his shoulders at anti-lynching demonstrations.” In his early years, Davis was equally seized by a passion for education.
Davis attended the historic Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., the first public high school for black students, known for its academic excellence; a considerable number of its graduates went on to earn college degrees. The social activism Davis was exposed to as a young man, both at home and in school, set the stage for his future as a civil rights activist and educator. His older brother, Allison Davis '24, himself a graduate of Dunbar High School and of Williams College, followed a similar career path as a scholar-activist in the field of anthropology.
Much of John Davis’s creative writing during college offers glimpses of his future practice, especially his senior project, a play entitled John Henry, about the exploitation of Negro labor. Only a few months out of Williams, John joined a demonstration against the Hamburger Grill in D.C., protesting the firing of several black workers. The then 21-year-old Davis organized a successful boycott that led to the employees’ reinstatement. In the autumn of 1933, together with a small group of his peers, Davis helped found the New Negro Alliance (NNA), an organization dedicated to using street-level activism as a way of influencing public policy mobilization, especially as it related to the working conditions of the black community. NNA became a large, well-organized alliance that put pressure on businesses in D.C. neighborhoods to hire black workers. The Alliance earned nationwide recognition and support when it argued the case, New Negro Alliance vs. The Sanitary Grocery Co., before the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first group to win the right of non-employees to picket against employment discrimination. Thurgood Marshall was assistant attorney for the case, the outcome of which was vital for future National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) boycott decisions and legislative victories.
Davis’s decision to pursue a degree in political science had a lot to do with Ralph Bunche, a political scientist and notably the first person of color to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Professor Bunche attended a public meeting chaired by Davis and was reportedly so impressed with him that he spent the better part of the night convincing Davis he belonged in political science, not English. Heeding the Bunche’s advice, he went on to earn an A.M. in political science from the University of Wisconsin in 1934. He taught for many years at both Howard University and Lincoln University before completing his doctoral degree in political science at Columbia University in 1953.
Davis worked with Thurgood Marshall a second time, serving as the lead academic researcher in the historic Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. His incisive and illuminating research was integral to the argument on which the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund based its landmark case. The Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 decision ended the separate-but-equal doctrine for public schools in the United States.
The public sector also benefited from Davis’s skilled leadership. He was Assistant Director of the first State Committee Against Discrimination in the U.S.; he headed the Review and Analysis Division of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice; and, from 1957-1961, he served as Commissioner of the New York State Commission Against Discrimination.
Davis influenced national as well as international education and politics. He played a critical role in developing relations between the emerging independent nations of West Africa and the United States; led the American delegation to the First World Conference of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956; participated in the formation of the Societe de Culture Africaine and established its United States counterpart—the American Society of African Culture—which, among other things, sponsored cultural exchanges featuring celebrated artists and performers. Davis’s role in promoting cultural and literary exchange between West Africans and American blacks was—and indeed continues to be—unique and invaluable. His efforts are duly acknowledged in recent works by the celebrated musician Randy Weston and by esteemed scholar Robin D.G. Kelley, the Gary B. Nash chair of U.S. history at UCLA.
John Davis authored numerous articles as well as two books, Southern Africa in Transition and Regional Organization of the Social Security Administration. In both he references his wife, Mavis Wormley Davis, a library scientist and published scholar in her own right, as being of great help to him throughout the years. Mavis and John had two sons, John A. Davis ‘63 (b. 1941) and Smith (Smitty) W. Davis (b. 1948).
Davis has been described as a man of “immense good humor… a brilliant conversationalist.” He was also remarkably humble. Davis summarized his career by saying: “…since activism was the cause of my entering political science…I did not hesitate to practice what I learned.” In truth, his distinguished career as an activist, educator, and public administrator helped transform the social, educational, and political landscape in the United States.