Davis, Arthur P. 1904–1996
Arthur P. Davis 1904–1996
Dr. Arthur P. Davis was an influential university teacher, literary scholar, and the author and editor of several important critical texts. His 1941 book, The Negro Caravan, was a landmark work in the study of black American literature. While many people are unaware of his work, those who have read his material know that “he walked as an equal in his field with the best,” as mentioned in an essay on Davis by Edouard Leneus on the Howard University website. Leneus went on to praise Davis saying that, “So sharp were his wits for teaching, his appetite for struggles and his dedication to excellence that his heart drowned in this sea of life in April of 1996.”
Arthur Paul Davis was born on November 21, 1904, in Hampton, Virginia. He and his three brothers experienced a strict and disciplined upbringing with their parents, Frances Nash Davis and Andrew Davis. In his essay, “Columbia College and Renaissance Harlem, An Autobiographical Essay,” published in Obsidian in 1978, Davis described his father, who worked as a plasterer, as an authoritarian figure, “a Victorian head-of-the-house but also an excellent parent.”
Davis was a grammar school boy, excelling in his studies at the Hampton Institute. However, while he was expected to workhard at school, Davis also had to help contribute to the household during the summers by working at a black resort on the Chesapeake Bay.
He graduated from high school in 1922, and after a year at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he transferred to Columbia College in New York City. It was the first time Davis had attended a white school. In “Columbia College and Renaissance Harlem,” Davis recalled the oppressive responsibility of the move: “I felt that the whole ‘race’ rode on my poor weak shoulders, that somehow if I failed, I would be letting down all Negroes. Many Negroes of my generation assumed that attitude when they attended Northern white schools. It helped to make us more competitive.”
Davis boarded with a family in Harlem and, although he had a tuition scholarship, needed to earn money for his board and lodging. He sought help from city politician Charlie Anderson, husband of his cousin, Emma Anderson, and close personal associate of Booker T. Washington. But Davis ended up with a series of menial jobs, from an unsuccessful stint as a house boy in a Park Avenue mansion to working the night-shift as an apartment-house elevator operator. In his second year, a Hampton connection found him a job as a counselor with the Children’s Aid Society on East 127th Street.
A philosophy major, Davis thrived academically at Columbia but remained estranged from most of his fellow students: social life for black and white students remained quite separate, and much fun was made of his Southern accent. He was a member of the black
At a Glance…
Born on November 21, 1904, in Hampton, VA; died on April 21, 1996, m Washington, DC; married Clarice Winn m October, 1928; child: Arthur Paul Davis, jr. Education: Attended Howard University, 1922; Columbia College, BA, 1927, MA, 1929, PhD, 1942.
Career: North Carolina College, Durham, NC, instructor in English, 1927–28; Virginia Union University, Richmond, professor of English, 1929–44; Norfolk’s Journal and Guide, columnist, 1933–50; author and editor, 1941–91; Howard University, Washington, DC, professor of English, 1944–69, university professor emeritus, 1969; WAMU-FM, lecturer and show host 1972–73.
Awards: Proudfit fellow, Columbia University, 1937; National Hampton Alumni Award, 1947; award from Howard University’s institute for the Arts and Humanities, 1973; award from College Language Association for distinguished contribution to literary scholarship, 1975; Distinguished Critic Award, Middle Atlantic Writers Association, 1982; honorary doctorate in literature, Howard University, 1984.
fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, and attended many black theater, cabaret, and Broadway productions, as well as many of the notoriously bohemian parties and salons of Prohibition-era Harlem. Most of his social life was conducted close to home in Harlem, where he met his future wife, Clarice Winn, a librarian; they married in 1928 and had one son, Arthur Paul Davis, Jr.
The years Davis spent at Columbia coincided with the most creatively active years of the Harlem Renaissance. “I had a ringside seat,” he recalled in his “Columbia College and Renaissance Harlem” essay, “on the events of those stirring and exhilarating years it was bliss to be alive in those days.” Davis enjoyed the bohemian atmosphere of his neighborhood, especially the area known as “the Campus” around 135th Street and 7th Avenue. “If you stayed on the Campus long enough,” recalled Davis, “you would see not only everybody you knew in Harlem, but in the nation.”
Davis saw or met many of the creative celebrities of the day, including James Weldon Johnson, Wallace Thurman, Paul Robeson, Richard Bruce Nugent, Ethel Waters, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, as well as important political and intellectual figures like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois. He also met Alain LeRoy Locke, an important scholar of the Harlem Renaissance and editor of The New Negro, then on leave from his job as professor of philosophy at Howard University. Blues singer Bessie Smith lived for a short time on 133rd Street, across an air shaft from Davis’ home, and he “was far more interested,” he confessed in his “Columbia College and Renaissance Harlem” essay, “in the racy and earthy conversation that often came from her apartment than I was in her singing.”
Davis graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia College in 1927, only the second black student to receive this honor. In 1929 he received his master’s degree from Columbia, although he had already begun his academic career elsewhere. Between 1927 and 1928 Davis was an instructor in the English department of North Carolina College, now known as North Carolina Central University, in Durham, North Carolina. He transferred to Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, in 1929, working there as a professor of English until 1944.
When Davis was awarded a doctorate in 18th-century English literature in 1942, he was the first black American ever to receive a Ph.D. in English from Columbia. He began teaching at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, the institution with which he would become most closely associated with, in 1944. He was professor of English at Howard until 1969, when he was appointed professor emeritus; the university awarded him an honorary doctorate in literature in 1984.
At Howard, Davis’ mission as an educator and academic writer became clear. Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance luminaries he had met in New York City, Davis was also influenced by powerful orators like Marcus Garvey. In his essay “Columbia College and Renaissance Harlem,” Davis recalled that he and his friends “were impressed in spite of ourselves by the emphasis he put on pride in race, pride in blackness. [It] touched us and unconsciously influenced the thinking and writing” of many of the poets of their generation.
The spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, apparently quenched during the Depression, informed Davis’ agenda for the rest of his academic career: he refined his focus as critic and teacher on the work of black American writers. This was not a new interest, for Davis had taught his first course in black literature in 1929, a radical and controversial offering at the time. But in his first ten years at Howard, Davis became a prolific advocate of black literary endeavors, publishing at least 34 articles, reviews, and miscellaneous critical works.
Davis’ interest in and academic commitment to promoting black literature resulted in a number of key publications, many of which have been used as college textbooks. He served as co-editor of The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes, an important work published in 1941 that received very little critical attention. But according to Davis’ obituary in the New York Times, the unique anthology soon “acquired the status of a legend and an honored place in black intellectual life” and was rescued from obscurity by Arno Press, which re-printed the 1082-page work in 1969.
Even Davis himself, in his 1974 book From the Dark Tower, referred to The Negro Caravan as “something of a landmark in the study of Negro American literature. In all probability, its popularity helped to keep alive an interest in that literature in the years between the New Negro [Harlem] Renaissance and the Black Arts Revolution of the sixties and seventies,” and quotes critic Julian Lester’s introduction to the 1969 edition: it was possibly “the most important single volume of black writing ever published.”
In 1971 Davis co-edited another ambitious and comprehensive anthology, Cavalcade: Negro American Writers from 1760 to the Present, a groundbreaking collection of black writing—from novels and poetry to essays and biographies—that he later expanded into the two-volume collection The New Cavalcade: African American Writing from 1760 to the Present and The New Cavalcade II. This anthology was quickly established as an essential text in college black literature courses.
Davis published From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers from 1900 to I960, a 1974 anthology drawing on several decades of his academic work. The ‘Dark Tower’ of the title was an apartment on 136th Street in Harlem, where heiress A’Lelia Walker held literary salons during the early 1920s. At the Dark Tower, Davis remembered hearing Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen read their work, and observing Walker entertain Carl Van Vechten, who was gathering material for 1925’s Nigger Heaven. Davis envisaged From the Dark Tower as a sequel to Vernon Loggins’ 1931 work, The Negro Author, which traced the development of black writing from 1760 to 1900.
Davis’ work as an editor and educator was to prove an inspiration to many black writers, students, and scholars, including Amiri Baraka, Houston Baker, Paula Giddings, and Spottswood W. Robinson III. From 1933 through 1950 Davis wrote a column, “With a Grain of Salt,” for the Norfolk Journal and Guide. Committed to education beyond the confines of the university, Davis gave a series of talks called “Ebony Harvest” which were broadcast on Radio WAMU-FM in Washington and Baltimore in 1972 and 1973.
He received a number of awards and accolades throughout his academic career, including a 1975 award from the College Language Association for distinguished contribution to literary scholarship, a Distinguished Critic award from the Middle Atlantic Writers Association in 1982, and a Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award from the D.C. Public Library in 1992. Davis retired from Howard University in 1980. He died sixteen years later of cardiopulmonary arrest at the age of 91 on April 21, 1996, in Washington, D.C.
(Editor with Sterling A. Brown and Ulysses Lee) The Negro Caravan, Dryden, 1941.
Isaac Watts: His Life and Works, Dryden, 1943.
(Editor with J. Saunders Redding) Cavalcade: Negro American Writers from 1760 to the Present, Houghton, 1971.
From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers from 1900 to 1960, Howard University Press, 1974.
(Editor with Michael W. Peplow) The New Negro Renaissance: An Anthology, Holt, 1975.
“Columbia College and Renaissance Harlem: An Autobiographical Essay,” Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, Volume 4, Issue 3, 1978, pp. 90–113.
(Editor with J. Saunders Redding and Joyce Ann Joyce) The New Cavalcade: Negro American Writers from 1760 to the Present, Howard University Press, 1991.
Contemporary Authors, Vol. 151, Gale, pp. 131–132.
Jet, May 13, 1996, p. 61.
New York Times, April 24, 1996, p. B9.
Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, Volume 4,
Issue 3, 1978, pp. 90–113.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 25, 1996, p. C5.
“Arthur P. Davis,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (June 21, 2003).
“Arthur P. Davis,” Howard University, www.english.howard.edu/english/davisap.html (June 21, 2003).
—Paula J.K. Morris
"Davis, Arthur P. 1904–1996." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/davis-arthur-p-1904-1996
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