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Frank Marshall Davis

1905–1987

Frank Marshall Davis was born on December 31, 1905 in Arkansas City, Kansas. His parents divorced one year after his birth. At the age of seventeen, he moved to Wichita to attend Friends University and, soon thereafter, transferred to the school of journalism at Kansas State Agricultural College. He began to write poems as the result of an assignment in college.

In 1927, Davis moved to Chicago, where he wrote articles and short stories for magazines and newspapers. In 1930, he moved to Atlanta to become the editor of a semiweekly paper. Under Davis’s editorship, the Atlanta Daily World became the first successful Black daily newspaper in America. He continued to write and publish poems, and his poetry caught the attention of Frances Norton Manning, a bohemian intellectual, who introduced Davis to Norman Forge. Forge’s Black Cat Press released Davis’s first book, Black Man’s Verse, in the summer of 1935.

Black Man’s Verse was a critical success. The book brought together Davis’s interests in jazz and free verse with a condemnation of racial oppression. Sterling A. Brown stated that Davis “at his best is bitterly realistic.” One section of the book, “Ebony under Granite,” chronicles the lives of various Black people buried in a cemetery. For this reason, it has been compared to Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. In 1937, Black Cat Press released Davis’s second book, I Am the American Negro. As with his earlier volume, this book presents a strident critique of racism. The title poem, a “docudrama” in free verse and prose, is an attack against Jim Crow laws.

Between 1935 and 1947, Davis was executive editor of the Associated Negro Press in Chicago. He also started a photography club, worked for numerous political parties, and participated in the League of American Writers. With the encouragement of authors such as Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, Davis completed what many consider to be his finest collection, 47th Street (Decker Press). 47th Street was published in 1948 and chronicles the lives of various people on Chicago’s South Side. 

In the same year in which 47th Street was published, Davis took a vacation to Honolulu, which led to his establishment of a permanent residence there. He raised five children there, operated a small wholesale paper business, and wrote a weekly column for the Honolulu Record. Although his work fell slightly out of favor, it was rediscovered during the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and, in 1978, he published his final volume, Awakening, and Other Poems (Black Cat Press).

Frank Marshall Davis died on July 26, 1987. Black Moods: Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2002) and Livin’ the Blues: Memories of a Black Journalist and Poet (University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), both edited by J. Edgar Tidwell, were published posthumously.

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