Daniel Webster Davis

1862 –

Daniel Webster Davis was an educator, poet, lecturer, and community leader who was born into slavery on March 25, 1862. Davis was born on a farm in Caroline County, Virginia, where his parents, Randall and Charlotte Ann (née Christian) Davis, were also enslaved. After emancipation, Davis attended schools in Richmond and graduated from Richmond High and Normal School in 1878, where he received the Essayist Medal. There is some controversy about his postsecondary education. He was awarded what may have been an honorary master of arts degree from the now defunct Guadalupe College, a private Baptist institution for African Americans. He may also have been awarded a doctor of divinity degree from either Guadalupe or Lynchburg Seminary. In 1893, Davis married Elizabeth Eloise Smith, a teacher, with whom he had six children; three survived into adulthood.

Davis published two volumes of poetry—Idle Moments: Containing Emancipation and Other Poems (The Educator of Morgan College, 1895) and Weh Down Souf, and Other Poems (Helman-Taylor Co., 1897). According to scholar Joan Sherman, Davis “versified the traditions, idiosyncrasies, and moods of the Southern black” over a year before Paul Laurence Dunbar published Lyrics of Lowly Life in 1896. Davis, Sherman notes, was a kind of scholar of dialect verse, even providing a two-page glossary of dialect terms and their standard English equivalents in Weh Down Souf. In 1900, Davis went on a four-week tour, during which he read selections from his books. He also lectured at least once in Canada. He co-authored The Industrial History of the Negro Race of the United States (Virginia Press, 1908), an early comprehensive textbook on African American history, for which he also penned the introduction. 

Davis worked odd jobs before settling into his main careers as an educator and community leader, though he also sustained his literary pursuits. He began teaching in Richmond schools in 1880. In 1891, he became the editor of The Young Men’s Friend, a publication from the African American branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). He also sporadically served as YMCA president and secretary. Also, in the early-1890s, Davis edited the weekly, Social Drifts. Other literary activities included his organization of the literary society, Garrison Lyceum, for which he also served as president, and memberships in the Acme Literary Association and the Dunbar Literary and Historical Society. In October 1895, he became an ordained minister and settled into a role as pastor of Second Baptist Church in Manchester, Virginia. At the turn of the century, he participated, alongside other Black leaders, in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901–02, at which he unsuccessfully appealed for the new, post-Reconstruction state constitution to maintain voting rights for Black people. Davis was also founding vice president of the Virginia Industrial Mercantile, Building, and Loan Association and founding assistant secretary of the Negro Business League of Virginia.

Davis died of chronic nephritis at his home in Richmond. The city’s public schools closed on the day of his funeral.