Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Henry Jackson Davis (25 September 1882–15 April 1947), educator, was born in Cumberland County and was the son of William Anderson Davis and Sallie Wyatt Guy Davis. After receiving a B.A. from the College of William and Mary in 1902, he was principal of the public high school of Williamsburg for one year, assistant secretary of the Young Men's Christian Association in Roanoke from 1903 to 1904, and principal of the public schools of Marion during the 1904–1905 academic year.

Jackson, or Jack, Davis, as he was usually known, became superintendent of Henrico County schools in 1905. While in that position, he completed and received an M.A. from Columbia University in 1908. Early in his tenure Davis visited Virginia Estelle Randolph's one-room Mountain Road school for African American students in Henrico County. Randolph taught such skills as gardening, sewing, and woodworking and had improved and beautified the school by whitewashing the building and landscaping the grounds. Davis realized that Randolph's example could serve as a model for other African American teachers.

Davis's major accomplishment in Henrico County was attracting the support of the Negro Rural School Fund, Inc., of the Anna T. Jeanes Foundation, which provided funding for teacher supervision and industrial education for African Americans. In 1908 Randolph was appointed the first Jeanes Supervisor Industrial Teacher, thus establishing formal in-service training in Virginia for African American teachers. The Jeanes teachers, as they were known, served in poor rural schools and employed a curriculum of industrial education. Following Randolph's example, the teachers encouraged and assisted in the physical improvement of their schools. The industrial focus drew criticism from some African American educators and parents, who preferred a traditional liberal education, but it did succeed in funneling money to needy schools. Davis and other white reformers believed that the school environment could change only by improving physical surroundings and that better school facilities would lead directly to other improvements in African American communities. They also believed that school improvements could not simply be imposed by white reformers but had to be linked to other community-building organizations. Davis continually urged active participation in and ownership of school improvements by the African American community.

From 1909 to 1910 Davis was an inspector of schools for the new State Board of Examiners and Inspectors. In the latter year the state accepted an offer from the private General Education Board to fund a white supervisor of black schools in Virginia. Davis was the obvious choice for the new position and served as the state supervisor for rural elementary schools for African Americans until 1915, when he became the first field agent for the General Education Board. For fourteen years (from 1915 to 1929) as the board's field agent he came face to face with the miserable conditions of rural African American education in the South. A talented amateur photographer, Davis documented those conditions in approximately 6,000 photographs that he used in speeches and presentations to both white and black audiences in order to promote school improvement. Some of the images document southern white schools, but most depict rural African American schools, teachers, and students. Davis's use of his camera to drive social change linked him with such Progressive-era social reformers as Lewis Wickes Hine. The University of Richmond conferred an honorary LL.D. on Davis in 1930, as did the College of William and Mary the following year.

Davis became an assistant director of the General Education Board in 1929, associate director in 1933, and vice president and director in 1946. In 1935 he went to Africa as a Carnegie visitor and returned in 1944 as head of a group sent by the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, the British Conference of Missions, and the Phelps-Stokes Fund. Beginning in 1939 Davis was a trustee of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, an organization devoted to African American education and race relations in North America and Africa. He became vice president of the fund in 1940 and succeeded Anson Phelps Stokes as president in 1946.

Davis was a member of the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary from 1914 to 1920 and of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. He served for a time as secretary of the International Education Board. At the time of his death he was president of the board of trustees of the Booker T. Washington Institute in Liberia, president of the New York State Colonization Society, and a member of the Advisory Committee on Education in Liberia. Davis frequently contributed to national journals of educational research. With Thomas M. Campbell and Margaret Wrong he published Africa Advancing: A Study of Rural Education and Agriculture in West Africa and the Belgian Congo (1946), containing the results of the survey made in 1944.

Davis married Helen Corinne Mansfield in Bluffton, Clay County, Georgia, on 9 May 1911. They had two daughters before her death on 30 November 1941. Even though Davis spent the second half of his professional life working for New York–based organizations, he worked from a Richmond office until 1937, and after his transfer to New York he maintained residences in Richmond and in Cumberland County, as well as a summer house in Middlesex County. Henry Jackson Davis died at his Cartersville home in Cumberland County on 15 April 1947 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery, in Richmond.

Sources Consulted:
Birth and death dates on gravestone (name inscribed as Jackson Davis); biographies in Philip Alexander Bruce, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, and Richard L. Morton, History of Virginia (1924) 4:143 (with erroneous 1922 marriage date), National Cyclopędia of American Biography (1891–1984), 37:267–268, and Edward Gaynor and Rebecca Yokum, eds., Jackson Davis and the Lost World of Jim Crow Education (2000), portrait on 41; birth date and name as Jackson Davis in World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards (1917–1918), Record Group 163, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; minister's return, entered 24 May 1911, Probate Court, Clay Co., Ga.; Jackson Davis Papers, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; with online edition of correspondence, diary transcriptions, photographs, speeches, and writings; unpublished reports, correspondence, and diaries in General Education Board Archives, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York; Virginia Journal of Education 8 (1915): 395–396; William A. Link, A Hard Country and a Lonely Place: Schooling, Society, and Reform in Rural Virginia, 1870–1920; (1986); obituaries in New York Times, Richmond News Leader (also with editorial tribute), and Richmond Times-Dispatch, all 16 Apr. 1947, Norfolk Journal and Guide, 19 Apr. 1947, School and Society 65 (26 Apr. 1947): 307, General Education Board Annual Report, 1946 (1947), xv–xix (portrait on xvii), and Journal of Negro History 32 (1947): 401–403.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Edward Gaynor.

How to cite this page:
Edward Gaynor,"Henry Jackson Davis (1882–1947)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2019 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Davis_Jackson, accessed [today's date]).

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