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Davis, Daniel Webster(1862–1913) - Minister, educator, writer, Well-Known Lecturer, Chronology, Becomes a Poet

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Daniel Webster Davis was born of slave parents, John and Charlotte Ann (Christian) Davis, in Caroline County, Virginia on March 25, 1862. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Davis moved the family to Richmond, Virginia where Davis and his sister attended public school. Davis was an excellent student, earnest and studious. He received medals for his proficiency and graduated with distinction from Richmond High and Normal School in 1878 at age sixteen.

Davis’s ambition was to become a teacher. With this goal in mind, he worked in various trades until he reached the age of eligibility for the teaching profession. In 1880 at age eighteen he was assigned to teach in a colored public school on Baker Street in Richmond. Davis’s career as a seventh grade teacher lasted for over thirty years. He earned high praise for his work. He was selected by the superintendent of education to teach mathematics and civics in the summer institutes for teachers in Virginia. He also conducted teacher training in West Virginia and North Carolina. It was at the Baker school, though, that he met Elizabeth Eloise Smith. They married in 1893 and were parents of three children, two sons and one daughter.

Davis was educated for the ministry at Lynchburg Baptist Seminary and Guadalupe College. Official confirmation of dates or whether his degrees were earned or honorary has not been determined. It is generally believed that he received both the A.M. and D.D. degrees. He was ordained to the gospel ministry in 1895 and was elected to the pastorate of the Second Baptist church of South Richmond. He served this church from July 1896 until his death in 1913. Davis’s rhythmic preaching style and skilled oratory endeared him to his congregation and the community. Under his leadership, church membership tripled, debts were cleared, and a new, larger, modern brick building was completed in 1905.

Well-Known Lecturer

Davis was often in demand as a public speaker. He appeared on lecture circuits in the South and the Northeast. In 1900, he toured with the Central Lyceum Bureau, covering Ohio, New York, and New England. He was the first black to lecture at the Chautauqua Assembly at Laurel Park, Massachusetts. His speeches were eloquent and often passionate, delivered in clear, expressive English. He employed a mixture of Biblical quotations, storytelling, and humorous anecdotes, interspersed with snippets from his poems and songs. His oratorical style was described as flowery, flamboyant, and witty. His audiences often responded with tears, rapturous applause, and much praise.

Davis spoke on the condition of the Negro and the customs and practices of daily life on the plantation. A central subject was racial inequity. Davis expounded on how best to resolve the problems, explaining what he considered the ideal for the Negro. In a series of lectures delivered in 1902 at the Hampton Normal Institute, he proposed that the way to improve the life of African Americans was through home, church, and school. He stressed the importance of African American culture, family, religion, education, and history. He declared that African Americans ought to be proud of their accomplishments.

Davis’s beliefs about the Negro situation of the day closely paralleled those of Booker T. Washington. At times, Davis seemed conciliatory in his remarks, intimating that even with political and social protest the Negro could not attain self-sufficiency or honorable work without the assistance or cooperation of whites. Many criticized him for being too compromising rather than firmly demanding racial equality, equal justice, and opportunity. Yet there are instances in Davis’s writings and speeches where his thinking is as radical as that of W. E. B. Du Bois. At times, Davis accused whites of unfair practices and for withholding the privileges that should be accorded in full to blacks. He held them in full blame and accountable for every act committed under the guise of slavery. Throughout his life Davis believed that independence for blacks would come only through a slow progression of honorable work and education. He advised the wise use of protest and agitation only as a last resort. Davis wanted blacks to continue to strive for equal opportunity and fundamental rights.



Born in Caroline County, Virginia on March 25


Graduates from Richmond High and Normal School, Virginia


Begins career as a public school teacher


Marries co-worker Elizabeth Eloise Smith on September 8; trains at Lynchburg Baptist Seminary


Ordained for the gospel ministry


Elected to the pastorate of the Second Baptist Church, South Richmond, Virginia


Publishes book of poems, Weh Down Souf and Other Poems


Lectures in Ohio, New York, and New England on tour with the Central Lyceum Bureau


Publishes a history text chronicling the accomplishments of the Negro race


Dies suddenly in Richmond, Virginia on October 25

Davis addressed local grand ceremonies, graduations, memorials, and reunions. He delivered commencement addresses at a number of institutions, including the Waters Normal Institute in Lawrenceville, Virginia, and the Georgia State Industrial College in Savannah, Georgia. He was one of two black speakers at the International Sunday School Convention held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1905 where his speech was widely praised.

Becomes a Poet

Davis’s first collection of poetry, published in 1895, was incorporated into a second volume in 1897 entitled Wey Down Souf and Other Poems . It is his best-known work. His poems are written in a style suited to the conventions of the late 1890s and most likely with the intention of pleasing both black and white audiences. Most were written in black dialect, which for Davis was a subject of serious study. He drew the evocative titles and stereotypical characters of his poems from the customs and celebrations of antebellum plantation life. Although his poems dealt with the burdens, trials, and distresses of blacks, they portrayed the popular minstrel style of the time that emphasized crude sentiments and character traits such as laziness, gluttony, buffoonery, ignorance, and stupidity. His poetry was criticized for helping to perpetuate negative myths about blacks in the minds of white readers. When Davis read his poems in assemblies, on tour with the Central Lyceum Bureau and on various special occasions, audiences erupted into peals of laughter. The poems were also published in the Richmond newspapers. Davis’s critics believed that he espoused the same accommodationist philosophy as Booker T. Washington, with whom he was friends. In 1895 Washington invited Davis to compose an ode for the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition that was accepted. Davis read the poem at the opening ceremony in the Negro Pavilion.

Some of his poems assess the plight of the slaves in a more realistic light. Davis wrote of the unfair treatment slaves received at the hands of their masters, the breaking up of families, and the utter hopelessness inherent in slavery. He blamed white masters for slaves’ bad habits. As a clergyman Davis believed that faith and moral living played important roles in self-development. Consequently, his poems provided instruction with underlying moral messages. They provided entertainment and appealed to nostalgic feelings. Davis’s poetry closely parallels that of his contemporaries, James Edwin Campbell and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

Davis frequently contributed articles on race relations to the leading black magazines. He worked collaboratively with Giles B. Jackson, a Richmond lawyer, to write a textbook, published in 1908, on the industrial history of the Negro race. It emphasized the accomplishments of the race, recounting with pride the contributions made to various professions, including religion, literature, art, education, and business. The book became a powerful incentive for black youth to model themselves after heroes of the past. For many years it was included on the list of textbooks used in the Richmond public schools.

Davis also wrote for The Baptist Companion , the newspaper of African Baptists of Virginia. He wrote for other church, community, and Masonic publications. Davis’s passion for the betterment of youth was demonstrated in his editorship of the Young Men’s Friend , a publication of the Young Men’s Christian Association of Richmond. Its purpose was to promote the educational, moral, and religious education of young men. He also edited a weekly newspaper, Social Drifts .

Serves as Community Leader

Davis was a prominent and respected black leader in Richmond. He enriched the black community and promoted unity between races. He served on the boards of many local organizations, including the Virginia Teachers’ Association, the Virginia Building, Loan and Trust Company, the Jonesboro Agricultural and Industrial Academy, and the Virginia Baptist Sunday-school Convention. He was president of the YMCA in Richmond, director of the Old Folks’ Home, and a trustee of Virginia Seminary and College. He was a member of the Dunbar Literary and Historical Society and the Society for Better Housing and Living in Richmond.

Davis served prominently in Masonic circles, as master, grand representative, and grand warden. In 1910, in an effort to bring to public notice the worthy endeavors of the United Order of True Reformers, he published a biography of the Reverend William Browne, a successful businessman and philanthropist. Like Browne, the Reverend Davis was distinguished by his dedication to reform the community.

Richmond’s citizens mourned Davis’s untimely death from nephritis on October 25, 1913. In tribute to Davis, all the colored schools were ordered closed by the superintendent of schools. In addition to his work as poet, writer, and lecturer, Davis is remembered for his many years of dedicated service to the Richmond school system and the Baptist Church. Davis was honored posthumously by having three Virginia schools named after him: one in Staunton, another in Petersburg, and in 1959 a new school in Richmond was dedicated in his memory.

Davis, Frank Marshall(1905–1987) - Chronology, Southern Discomfort, Posthumous Writings [next] [back] Davis, Angela

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