Davis, Allison 1902-1983

views updated Jun 27 2018

Allison Davis 1902-1983

Social anthropologist, educator

Rising Through the Academic Ranks

How Black Americans Get Categorized

Selected writings


On February 1, 1994, the late University of Chicago social anthropologist Allison Davis joined the prestigious ranks of such outstanding African Americans as Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, and Jackie Robinson. The occasion was the issuance of a new United States postage stamp in Daviss honor-the 17th in the Postal Services Black Heritage stamp series. He challenged the cultural bias of standardized intelligence tests and fought for the understanding of the human potential beyond racial class and caste, a Postal Service announcement declared. His work helped end legalized racial segregation and contributed to contemporary thought on valuing the capabilities of youth from diverse backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the late Dr. Daviss time in the spotlight was brief; the 29-cent stamp bearing his likeness was replaced a mere month later by the new 32-cent stamp. Yet, even this brief exposure introduced many Americans-for the first time-to a man who wrote ten respected books, was one of the first black professors to be granted tenure at a major predominantly white northern university, and served on the Presidents Commission on Civil Rightsand so much more.

Indeed, Davis rose above the Jim Crow limitations of his youth to argue effectively and successfully that defective intelligence tests were excluding talented blacks from educational institutions and depriving the nation of untapped sources of human talent. Whats more, his impassioned reasoning had enormous impact on the course of education in the United States. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education: [Daviss] thesis that social class, rather than race, was the determining factor in black educational inequality formed the basis for the federal antipoverty programs Operation Head Start, a major and durable achievement that seeks to get disadvantaged children started off on the right educational foot.

Rising Through the Academic Ranks

Born on October 14, 1902, Davis entered a life of unusual privilege for a black child at the turn of the century. As the son of John Abraham and Gabrielle Dorothy Davis of Washington, D.C., his parents, a federal employee and homemaker, encouraged young Allison to read Shakespeare and Dickens and to enroll at the prestigious Williams College in Western Massachusetts. Despite the fact that the colleges system of rigid segregation did not allow Davis to live on campus, he rented a room in a black-owned boardinghouse down the street where he became the valedictorian of the Class of 1924. He went on to earn two masters degrees in comparative literature and anthropology from Harvard University in 1925 and 1932 respectively, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1942. En route, he also studied at the London School of Economics.

He married the former Elizabeth Stubbs in 1929 and

At a Glance

Born Allison Davis, Oct. 10, 1902, in Washing ton, D.C. to John Abraham and Gabrielle Dorothy (Beale) Stubbs; married Elizabeth Stubbs June 23, 1929 (dec. 1966}, children: Allison Stubbs, Gordon Jamison; married Lois Mason Jan. 7, 1969; died Nov. 21, 1983. Education: B.A., Williams College (valedictorian), 1924; M.A. in English, Harvard Uni-varsity, 1925; M. A. in anthropology, Harvard University, 1932; studies in anthropology at London School of Economics, 1933; Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1942.

Career: Co-director, field research in social anthropology, Harvard University, 1933-35; prof, anthropology, Dillard University, 1935-38; research associate, Inst. Human Relations, Yale University, 1938-39; research associate, University of Chicago Center on Child Development, 1939-42; asst prof., U Chicago, 1942-47; assoc prof. 1947-48; professor, 1948-70; John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor 1970-83. vice chairman, Committee on Manpower Retraining, U.S. Dept of Labor, 1968-72; member, Presidents Commission on Civil Rights, 1966-67; guest lecturer at various universities.

Awards: Recipient, Distinguished Service Medal, Columbia Teachers College, 1977; Recipient, MacArthur Foundation grants, 1982 and 1983; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Member, Phi Beta Kappa.

fathered two sons, Allison and Gordon Jamison Davis. Gordon would go on to become the New York City commissioner of parks and recreation. He recalled his fathers accomplishments in a telephone interview with CBB. Daviss obvious intellectual gifts won him a rapid rise through academia. He started out intending to become a poet and a writer. According to his son, these interests explain his M.A. in literature, but after teaching a few years, Davis shifted gears and devoted himself to the study of culture-particularly the racist culture that was firmly in place in America at that time.

Early in his career, he became codirector of field research in social anthropology at Harvard University, professor of anthropology at Dillard University in New Orleans, and research associate in psychology at the Institute for Human Relations at Yale University. He was also a visiting professor at other universities, but spent the bulk of his professional lifeover 40 yearsat the University of Chicago, starting there as a research associate at the institutions Center on Child Development in 1939. In 1940, he published his first book, Children of Bondage: The Personality Development of Negro Youth in the Urban South, for the American Council on Education.

Davis was beginning to attract attention for his theories of how cultural factors impact poor children and how learning takes place in different ways depending on social class and caste. Accordingly, he was hired by the University of Chicago in 1942 as an assistant professor in its Department of Education, where he became a full professor in 1948. In 1947, he and his colleague Abram Lincoln were the first African Americans to be granted tenure at the University of Chicago and were among the first such appointees nationwide. But there was more going on here than just an acknowledgement of Daviss intellectual gifts.

According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Professor Davis taught at the University of Chicago for over 40 years at a time when most blacks in Chicago could aspire to do nothing higher than [take] a job working as a Pullman porter or a civil servant in the post office, According to the same article, Davis was hired only because the liberal Julius Rosenwald Fund offered to pay his salary. Then, once hired, he was unable to buy a house in the universitys Hyde Park neighborhood. Even after obtaining tenure, Davis was unable to walk into the faculty Quadrangle Club until 1948, when the club also began admitting women.

How Black Americans Get Categorized

In 1941, Deep South, certainly Daviss most emotional book, was published with coauthors Burleigh B. Gardner and Mary R. Gardner and with research help from Daviss wife, Elizabeth Stubbs Davis. A study of the cotton plantation system and the color caste system in and around Natchez, Mississippi, Deep South would later help to shape Gunnar Myrdals landmark volume on race relations, An American Dilemma. Daviss book was also the first effort to apply anthropological techniques to the American landscape and to critically analyze the roots of a racist culture.

In a retrospective chapter published in an updated edition of the book in 1965, Davis wrote with sadness that the conditions he had found in Mississippi in 1933 remained largely unchanged. People were born into a caste, depending on the color of their skin, and they literally died that way too: even cemeteries were as segregated as society, Davis reported.

In the final empirical view, government rests upon power, upon physical, economic and political control of the governed by the governing, of those who submit to subordination by those who dominate. The Negro, whether in the deep South or in Chicago, is at the bottom of the power hierarchy. He exerts the least economic, political and physical power, although in black counties and in northern cities he may be far from the least in numbers. Since the Negro in the deep South had little power except that of a laborer in a rather depressed labor market and that of a customer in a money economy, and since he had been trained by the economic and caste systems not to use the potential bargaining power he had, he remained the most severely subordinated group in the United States.

This caste system, Davis wrote, still rested on endogamy (legal regulation of marriage to prohibit black/white marriage), the interracial sex taboo and the overwhelming proscription of all types of relations of social equivalence (eating together, visiting in the home, dancing together, courting) between whites and Negroes. This system of sexual and social control still is reinforced, as it has been for ninety years, since the end of Reconstruction, by economic, political, educational and physical subordination of Negroes to whites.

Worse yet, Davis wrote, if this control couldnt be peaceably enforced, violence inevitably ensued: In the 1930s even black womenwho could hardly be accused of the widely feared rape of white womenwere subject to lynching. The dangers of which Davis wrote werent just something he observed; he lived them too, his son, Gordon, said in the telephone interview. They were like spies, he said of his parents research trips to Mississippi. They were dropped in from a foreign country into the heart of a segregated, racially segregated caste system of the Old South, which was still enforced, as the book described, by violence and extralegal means.

If it had ever been discovered that they were collaborating with a white couple [the Gardners interviewed whites while the Davises, acting undercover as academics researching the black church, interviewed blacks], they would have been in considerable danger.

In fact, Gordon Davis said, his father carried a gun in the car at all times and met with the Gardners only at isolated locations and at safe places like all-black Tuskegee College in Alabama. It was an an extraordinarily heroic and courageous act, the son said. The work they did was foundational. Among Daviss subsequent books were: Father of the Man; How Your Child Gets His Personality, in 1947; A Psychology of the Child in the Middle Class, in 1960; Compensatory Education for Cultural Deprivation, in 1965; and The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, in 1967.

In terms of I.Q. tests, Gordon Davis said of his father, he was the first person to systematically challenge and reveal that standardized testing in this country, particularly the focus on the I.Q. test, was culturally biased in a way that was detrimental to the lives and futures of millions and millions of lower-class, working-class, and black children. He was the first one who blew the alarm in a way that was heard. Allison Daviss last work, Leadership, Love, and Aggression, in 1983, examined the psychologist profiles of the African-American leaders Rev. King, Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Frederick Douglass. He admired them particularly on account of their ability to use anger and aggression for creative and positive purposes, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education stated.

In the 1960s, the upheaval that led to the fight for civil rights for black Americans was reaching its peak; by this time, Davis had developed a reputation that reached far beyond the University of Chicago. He served, under presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as a member of the Presidents Commission on Civil Rights and as vice chairman of the Department of Labors Commission on Manpower Retraining. He was also a member of the Conference to Ensure Civil Rights in 1965 and the White House Task Force on the Gifted in 1968. In 1967 he became the first scholar from the field of education to become a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Sadly, his first wife, Elizabeth, did not live to share his successs; she died in 1966. Davis married for the second time, three years later, in January 1969; his second wife, the former Lois Mason, has outlived him. But the couple still had 14 years together. And according to reports, Davis in his private life was more than just a starchy academic. His son, Gordon, described him as a devoted and talented tennis player. And a Chicago Tribune article once described him as a lover of Mozart and classical ballet, and a jazz fan who particularly admired Louis Armstrong. Hed recite Chaucer and Shakespeare from memory but wanted his children to understand and identify with the black experience.

In 1970, Davis was named the University of Chicagos John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor. He held visiting appointments at Columbia Univ, the University of Michigan, Smith College, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of California at Berkeley. He also won MacArthur Foundation genius grants, in 1982 and 1983, to further his work on the life and career of Dr. King, and he established the Allison Davis 24 Lecture Series at Chicago in 1988, which annually brings to campus a distinguished African American scholar for a lecture and short residency.

Davis died on Nov. 21,1983, at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, after undergoing heart surgery. He was 81-years old. On the tenth anniversary of his death, the Postal Service announced the issuance of the stamp honoring his contributions to ending racism in America. A large number of Daviss colleagues had joined together to promote this project before the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, which decides what stamps will be issued.

My father was a brilliant man who brought to bear his powers of observation and analysis, and he was a wonderful writer, his son said, enumerating possible motivations for the stamp project. His books are some of the most well-written social science books ever done. So what he brought to it was that he bored away at the system in the most positive and substantial way he knew how, which was to analyze it, expose it and try to begin to articulate... how the society needed to be changed.

Selected writings

Leadership, Love & Aggression, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Rebellion or Revolution, William Morrow, 1968.

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, William Morrow, 1967.

The Psychology of the Child in the Middle Class, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1960.

Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class, University of Chicago Press, 1941.

Children of Bondage: The Personality Development of Negro Youth in the Urban South, American Council on Education, 1940.



Davis, Allison, Citation from Power and Caste, retrospective chapter, pp. 337-346.

Gardner, Burleigh B., Gardner, Mary R., Deep South, A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class, University of Chicago Press, 1965.


Amsterdam News, New York, Jan. 8, 1994, p. 8.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Spring 1994, p. 23.

New York Times, Nov.23, 1983, p. B8.

Time, Jan 31, 1993, p. 5.


Dr. Allison Davis Honored\17th in Black Heritage Stamp Series, Postal News, Jan 21, 1994.

Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Gordon J. Davis, May 5, 1996.

Joan Oleck

Davis, Allison

views updated May 11 2018

Davis, Allison

October 14, 1902
November 21, 1983

The educator William Allison Davis was born in Washington, D.C., and attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, graduating in 1924. The following year he received an M.A. in English from Harvard University. Soon after, he switched his focus to anthropology; he received an M.A. in anthropology from Harvard in 1932. From 1933 to 1935 he was a field researcher for social anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, studying class/caste relations in a southern town. The project ultimately resulted in the well-known study Deep South (1941). In 1935 Davis was hired as professor of anthropology at Dillard University in New Orleans, and in 1939, after a brief period at Yale University, he moved on to the University of Chicago, where he was named an assistant professor by the university's Center for Child Development. Soon after, Davis and his colleague John Dollard collaborated on The Children of Bondage: The Personality Development of Negro Youth in the Urban South (1940), a study of the destructive psychological effects of segregation on southern black children. In 1942 Davis received his Ph.D. in education from the University of Chicago and was named an assistant professor of education. Over the following years he did exhaustive research on racial bias in intelligence testing, and in 1948 he published his most notable book, Social-Class Influences upon Learning, in which he argued that black children's lower scores on IQ tests were not based on their lower intelligence, but resulted from middle-class cultural bias in the questions posed.

In 1948 Davis was granted tenure and promoted to full professor at the University of Chicago, the first African American to hold such a position at a major integrated university. During the next twenty years, he continued his work in psychology and education. He devised the Davis-Ellis intelligence test, a relatively bias-free measure of mental development, and wrote several important studies of the influence of social and class factors in the education of children, including Psychology of the Child in the Middle Class (1960) and Compensatory Education for Cultural Development (1964), as well as numerous articles in professional journals.

Davis received many tributes for his work. He was the first scholar from the field of education elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1965 he was elected a Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois. In 1966 he was appointed the President's Commission on Civil Rights, and in 1968 served as vice-chair of the U.S. Labor Department's Commission on Manpower Retraining. In 1970 he became the University of Chicago's first John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor.

Davis retired from teaching in 1978 and was named professor emeritus. He devoted his last years to writing Leadership, Love, and Aggression (1983), a study of the psychological forces governing four African AmericansFrederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Wrightand the role of anger and love in their leadership efforts. In November 1983, shortly after the book was published, Davis died following heart surgery. In 1993 the U.S. Postal Service honored him with a postage stamp.


Davis, Allison. Leadership, Love, and Aggression. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

greg robinson (1996)

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