GM –LIF – Today’s American Champion was an American educator, anthropologist, writer, researcher, and scholar who became the first African American to hold a full faculty position at a major white university when he joined the staff of the University of Chicago in 1942, where he served for the balance of his academic life.

GM –LIF – Today’s American Champion was an American educator, anthropologist, writer, researcher, and scholar who became the first African American to hold a full faculty position at a major white university when he joined the staff of the University of Chicago in 1942, where he served for the balance of his academic life. He was considered one of the most promising black scholars of his generation.Among his students during his tenure at the University of Chicago were anthropologists St. Clair Drake and sociologist Nathan Hare. Davis, who has been honored with a commemorative postage stamp by the United States Postal Service, is best remembered for his pioneering anthropology research on southern race and class during the 1930s, his research on intelligence quotient tests in the 1940s and 1950s, and his support of “compensatory education,” an area in which he contributed to the intellectual genesis of the federal Head Start Program.Today in our History – October 14, 1902 – William Boyd Allison Davis (October 14, 1902 – November 21, 1983) was born.Born in 1902 as the first child of John Abraham and Gabrielle Davis, William Boyd Allison Davis, who would later be known as Allison Davis, was raised in a family well-acquainted with both achievement and activism. He had a younger sister, Dorothy, and a younger brother, John Aubrey Davis, Sr. Davis’s grandfather had been an abolitionist lawyer.His father led a group of 17 white clerks as the head of a government printing office before his demotion under the policies of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration and chaired the anti-lynching committee of Washington D.C.’s chapter of the NAACP. Thus, he was a leader in his community, and Davis would describe him as a “brave man” who was “already marked in a town of 236 citizens” as a large landowner who “further angered whites by registering and voting.”This contrasted sharply with the elitism of many upper-class African Americans, whom Davis would citicize throughout his life for their lack of leadership in the struggle for racial equality and attempts to distance themselves from lower-class blacks. He is the father of Allison S. Davis.Davis entered Washington D.C.’s segregated Dunbar High School in 1916 and, like his father before him, graduated as its valedictorian. The school had been founded almost a half-century before, making it the nation’s oldest public black high school, and had since developed a reputation that pulled black families to the nation’s capital for the chief purpose of gaining residency within the school district.Bucking national trends, the school had settled firmly in the Du Bois camp regarding black education and offered a rigorous college preparatory curriculum that included Greek and Latin. Though the quality of black colleges would steadily increase through the mid-century, at the time of Davis’s graduation most were still teaching primary and secondary curricula; the ticket to the white post-graduate program was most often through the white university. Williams College had a singular arrangement with Dunbar that allotted one full merit-based scholarship per year to the valedictorian. From this agreement Williams derived the majority of its black cohort, and in 1920 drew Davis into its ranks by graduating first in his class at Dunbar.Davis excelled at Williams, graduating as valedictorian in 1924 with a degree in English summa cum laude as well as membership in Phi Beta Kappa. During his studies, he gravitated toward the poetry of Robert Frost, whose stoic depiction of working class people resembled his own admiration for their resilience and adaptability. Though Williams offered a racially integrated classroom environment and had a tradition of supporting the early abolitionist movement, Davis and other black students endured segregation in campus housing; during his years there, the few black students were forced to live together to avoid the possible scandal that could accompany housing them with white students, and they were not permitted to attend social events on campus. Nonetheless, the atmosphere at Williams was relatively progressive for its time, and Davis got along well with many of his white peers, among whom were several Southerners. He also became close friends with Sterling Brown, a fellow Dunbar alumnus, who later recalled the instances of prejudice and social isolation he and other black students endured while at Williams in his essay “Oh Didn’t He Ramble.” In spite of an excellent academic performance and amicable relationships with peers and aculty, Davis was rejected for a teaching assistant position upon graduation in 1924 under the pretext that the school had too many Southern students to permit his appointment. With his post-graduation ambitions at Williams frustrated, in 1924 Davis entered Harvard University on a scholarship, where he earned his master’s degree in literature a year later. Among his professors were the well-known literary critics Bliss Perry and George Lyman Kittredge. However, the most influential intellectual tradition that Davis encountered during his year there came from Irving Babbitt and his New Humanism, in which he saw similarities with his own disdain for the materialistic culture of the black upper classes and the lack of moral leadership among blacks on a national level. This criticism recurred in his work in the late 1920s and early thirties when he participated actively in the explosion of black literature and culture known as the New Negro Renaissance.After graduation, the reality of finding a job in academics set in. Few universities would hire an African American teacher, so Davis’s choices were limited. In the Fall of 1925 he began teaching at the Hampton Institute, later Hampton University, one of the many segregated black colleges throughout the South. Davis realized that a cultural barrier separated him from his students, many of whom came from the most acutely segregated regions of the Deep South and lacked the rigorous academic training and privileged upbringing that he had enjoyed. This division, along with the paternalistic attitude of the Institute which manifested in the form of a strictly regimented campus life and an adherence to segregationist policies, frustrated him and eventually would drive him to change his academic focus from the arts to social sciences in a bid to make a greater impact on society. In the meantime, he fought the most egregious injustices at the Institute by helping students who were organizing a petition with a list of demands to the administration. The protest was quashed, but Davis continued to support a small group of promising students who grew to admire his work, among whom was St. Clair Drake, who was to make important contributions to Davis’s research during the 1930s for Deep South and who later became an important anthropologist in his own right.While at Hampton between 1925 and 1931, he remained actively involved in the literature of what was then known as the “New Negro Renaissance.” Likewise, in 1927 he published “In Glorious Company,” a narrative essay which describes a group of working-class blacks during their train ride North. This piece displayed his unique literary voice based on respect for the resilience of ordinary blacks who endured injustices every day, while at the same time it avoided an excessively romanticized depiction of African-American life or a reliance on realism as a way to scandalize the reader. This was a departure from many previous writers of the Renaissance who depicted success in the black struggle as part of an effort to highlight the artistic achievements of their race. Davis’s approach, which David Varel identifies in the tradition of “Negro Stoicism,” combined elements of Babbitt’s New Humanism as well as his own belief that literature should focus on uplifting ordinary blacks. During the same period he regularly corresponded with W.E.B. Du Bois and published several pieces in The Crisis, including the poems “To Those Dead and Gone” and “Gospel for Those Who Must,” always centered on the theme of perseverance in the lives of poor blacks. However, his most notable work during this era was the polarizing 1929 essay “The Negro Deserts His People,” in which he harshly criticized the black bourgeoisie for having abandoned the masses in their struggle for equality; the concern of class stratification continued to guide his work throughout his career, as he transitioned from the arts to social science in the early 30s and sought to directly confront class differences in the black community.By the late 1920s, Davis sought other ways to effect change on a broader scale, and he began to seek funding for an anthropological study of African Americans and their folk culture by studying its African roots, perhaps interested by the emphasis on pan-Africanism that emerged during the Renaissance. He corresponded with Bronisław Malinowski at the London School of Economics and Dietrich Westermann of the University of Berlin regarding funding to study in Europe, but eventually he decided to return first to Harvard for his M.A. in anthropology, which he did in the fall of 1931. While studying at Harvard, Davis participated in Lloyd Warner’s research for his study of Yankee City, where he helped interview the town’s black residents. The project dissected the social life of a New England town by dividing it into six social classes, which Warner maintained were reinforced by social cliques in which one’s social class determined which cliques one had access to. Warner’s theory of social classes would significantly shape Davis’s thinking, and the two would later work together on the Deep South project.Davis went on to earn a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, where he was offered a full teaching position.Davis is depicted on a United States postage stamp issued on February 1, 1994. Research more about this great American Champion and share it with your babies. Make it a champion day!

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