Ellwood Davis Downing (9 September 1891–29 October 1963), dentist and civic leader, was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was the son of Lylburn Liggins Downing, a Presbyterian minister, and Lottie Jackson Clinton Downing. He grew up in Roanoke, where his father was pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church for more than four decades. Downing graduated from Biddle University (later Johnson C. Smith University), in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1910 and received a D.D.S. from Howard University, in Washington, D.C., in 1913. Licensed later that year by the Virginia State Board of Dental Examiners, he became the second registered African American dentist to open a practice in Roanoke. On 12 July 1950 in New York City he married Della Mae Williams, of Roanoke. They had no children.

Downing did much to improve dental care in the black community. Beginning in 1922, and for several decades thereafter, he treated children at clinics in Roanoke City and County public schools. In 1925 he became staff dentist at Burrell Memorial Hospital, which his brother Lylburn Clinton Downing, the longtime superintendent, had helped found to serve African American patients. For about six years Downing instructed nurses at the training school attached to the hospital, and for nine years, beginning in 1948, he chaired the hospital's board of trustees. During World War I he served as a first lieutenant in the army dental corps. Downing was an examining dentist for the Selective Service System during World War II and from 1942 until 1944 commanded the Maggie L. Walker Ambulance Corps of the United States Army Auxiliary.

Downing emerged as a leader among his professional colleagues. He served as vice president (1919–1920) and then president (1920–1921) of the Old Dominion State Dental Association, a statewide organization representing the approximately sixty African American dentists then practicing in Virginia. He was a member of the National Medical Association's House of Delegates in 1920 and associate editor of the dental section in the Journal of the National Medical Association from 1921 to 1922. In 1928 Downing won the presidency of the Magic City Medical Society, which brought together Roanoke's black medical professionals. He served as the vice president from Virginia in the Interstate Dental Association, an alliance of African American dentists from eastern and southern states, and in 1930 and again in 1931 he was elected president of that organization. During the 1932 annual convention, at which Downing relinquished the presidency, the group changed its name to the National Dental Association and dedicated itself to becoming a nationwide organization.

Downing, a skilled tennis player, competed in tournaments throughout the eastern and midwestern United States. In 1923 and 1930 he and his partner won the national doubles championship sponsored by the American Tennis Association, the governing body for African American players. He also competed in singles, and his "unorthodox stroking" so foiled opponents that he ranked in the association's national top ten throughout the 1930s. As the ATA's general field secretary from 1930 until 1963, Downing worked to stimulate a broader interest in tennis and helped to secure more courts and better coaches for black players. He chaired the association's committee on intercollegiate competition and worked with athletic directors to build vibrant tennis programs at African American colleges. He also captained a goodwill tennis squad whose members played exhibition matches at colleges and lectured students on the game.

A devout Christian who refused to play tennis on Sundays, Downing became chair in 1924 of the board of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, which was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. He served as a council member, elder, and moderator in the African American Synod of Catawba and the Presbytery of Southern Virginia. A member of the national church's evangelism commission, Downing joined Presbyterian ministers and lay leaders on a mission to Puerto Rico in 1960. He was named to the executive committee of the integrated National Council of United Presbyterian Men in 1963.

Like many other early twentieth-century African American medical professionals, Downing was a leader in community affairs. He served as president of the local black Young Men's Christian Association for twenty years and also chaired the Colored City Recreation Committee. In addition to serving as vice president of the Roanoke Committee on Interracial Cooperation in 1950, Downing and twenty-three other Roanokers, black and white, in May 1960 organized an unofficial committee designed to foster amicable relations and open communication between the races. This organization negotiated the peaceful desegregation of city lunch counters early in the 1960s. Ellwood Davis Downing died of a heart attack at his Roanoke office on 29 October 1963. He was buried at C. C. Williams Memorial Park, in Roanoke.


Sources Consulted:
Biographies in G. James Fleming and Christian E. Burckel, eds., Who's Who in Colored America, 7th ed. (1950), 161–162 (portrait), and funeral program, 1 Nov. 1963, copy in Dictionary of Virginia Biography Files, Library of Virginia; marriage record, Church of the Transfiguration, New York, N.Y.; publications include Downing, "Removable Bridgework" and "President's Annual Address," Journal of the National Medical Association 13 (1921): 45–47, 123–125; Norfolk Journal and Guide, 19 July, 16 (portrait), 30 Aug. 1930, 25 July 1931, 3 Sept. 1932, 31 Aug. 1935 (quotation), 13 Aug. 1938; Chicago Defender, 19 Aug. 1939; Roanoke Times, 5 May 1960; Edwin Bancroft Henderson, The Negro in Sports (1939), 178–180, 184; American Tennis Association Executive Bulletin, no. 23 (July 1960); obituaries in Roanoke Times and Roanoke World-News, both 30 Oct. 1963, and Norfolk Journal and Guide, 2 Nov. 1963.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Jennifer R. Loux.

How to cite this page:
Jennifer R. Loux,"Ellwood Davis Downing (1891–1963)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Downing_Ellwood_Davis, accessed [today's date]).


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