Henry Jackson Davis was born in Cumberland County on September 25, 1882, the son of William Anderson and Sally Wyatt (Guy) Davis. He attended the public schools in Richmond and received his BA from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in 1902 and his MA from Columbia University in 1908. He was married in Bluffton, Georgia, on May 9, 1911, to Corinne Mansfield, and they had two daughters, Helen Mansfield (Davis) Lynch and Ruth Elizabeth (Davis) Langhorne.
Following graduation from the College of William and Mary, Davis became principal of the Williamsburg public schools. He served as assistant secretary of the Roanoke Young Men’s Christian Association from 1903 until 1904, principal of the public schools at Marion from 1904 until 1905, and superintendent of schools in Henrico County from 1905 until 1909. The years in Henrico County began the long involvement with African American education that would shape the rest of his career.
In 1905 as part of his regular rounds, Davis visited the one-room Mountain Road School for African American children in Henrico County led by. Randolph taught her students practical skills such as gardening, woodworking, and sewing. In addition, she whitewashed the school building and landscaped the school grounds. Davis concluded that Randolph’s example could serve as a model for other African American teachers in rural settings and supported her methodology over opposition from some parents who wanted their children to receive a traditional liberal education.
Davis’s major accomplishment in Henrico County was attracting the support of the Negro Rural School Fund of the Anna T. Jeanes Foundation. The fund provided support for teacher supervision and industrial education for African Americans. In 1908, Randolph was appointed as the first Jeanes Supervising Industrial Teacher, thus establishing formal in-service training in Virginia for African American teachers. The “Jeanes Teachers” served in remote rural schools and instituted a curriculum of industrial education; following Randolph’s model, the teachers encouraged and assisted the physical upgrading of their schools.
Davis and other white reformers believed the school environment could change only by improving the physical surroundings. Better school facilities would lead directly to other developments in African American communities, Davis maintained. The advancement of rural black schools would lead to better conditions for African Americans generally. School enhancements could not simply be imposed by white reformers, he believed, but had to be linked to other community-building organizations. Davis continually urged active participation and ownership of school upgrading by the African American community. Davis’s support for enhancing educational facilities and creating opportunities for African Americans stopped, however, at the color line.
General Education Board
From 1909 until 1910, Davis was an inspector for the newly created Virginia State Board of Examiners. When the General Education Board (GEB) offered to fund a white supervisor of black schools—and Virginia officials agreed—Davis was the obvious, if not the only choice. Davis held the position of State Agent for Negro Rural Schools from 1910 until 1915, when he was appointed as the first field agent for the GEB. During the next fifteen years, most other southern states followed Virginia’s lead and appointed field agents to supervise African American schools.Davis’s fourteen years as the GEB’s field agent (1915–1929) brought him face-to-face with the miserable conditions of rural African American education in the South. He documented these conditions in some 6,000 photographs he took, using them in speeches and presentations to illustrate school conditions and promote improvements. Some images show southern white schools but most are of rural African American schools, teachers, and students. Although he was an amateur, Davis’s use of his camera to record and drive social change links him to social reformers such as Lewis Hine.
Davis moved out of fieldwork in 1929 when he was appointed assistant director of the General Education Board. He became associate director in 1933 and vice president and director in 1946.
In 1935 Davis 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. Davis was also a trustee of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, an organization devoted to African American education and race relations both in America and in Africa. He became vice president of the fund in 1940, and succeeded Anson Phelps Stokes as president in 1946. In 1945, Davis coauthored with Margaret Wong Africa Advancing, a book providing the results of the survey made in 1944. He was also a frequent contributor to national journals of educational research.
In addition, Davis was the president of the board of trustees of theInstitute in Liberia, the president of the New York State Colonization Society, and a member of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and of the Advisory Committee on Education in Liberia. A moderate on the issue of race relations, Davis did not challenge segregation, but rather worked within its confines. He never advocated school integration, even in a token way. In that respect, his views possibly slowed the cause of school desegregation in Virginia and in the South in general, even while he was simultaneously responsible for increasing the educational opportunities of African Americans.
Davis died suddenly on April 15, 1947, at Cartersville in Cumberland County. Henrico County named an elementary school in his honor in 1962.
- Africa Advancing: A Study of Rural Education and Agriculture in West Africa and the Belgian Congo (1945)