Davis was born of mixed-raced ancestry probably during the 1820s. His mother may have been Vina Roane, who resided in his household in 1880, but his birthplace and his father’s name are unknown. He may have been the freeborn John Davis who was about twenty-seven years old in March 1847 when his name appeared in a Lynchburg register of free blacks or the John Davis, formerly the slave of M. Omohundro, who was enumerated with his wife, Ann, among the city’s black population in 1865. Davis married Ann Eliza Stuart, a tobacco stemmer, sometime between April 1, 1863, and July 27, 1870, when the couple lived near Lynchburg, in Campbell County. Most likely they did not have children.
Career and Land Acquisition
In 1869 Davis purchased a city lot and worked as a grocer. By 1874 he was also operating a saloon. Davis bought additional properties, but in 1874 he had to cover his debts by placing in trust three lots along with buildings, a $1,000 life insurance policy, and the furniture from his household, store, and barroom.
Davis had moved to Roanoke County by 1876 and in January 1879 purchased a house and lot in the town of Big Lick. By 1880 he had opened a saloon, and between then and 1883 he acquired other properties, including another house and lot in Big Lick and forty-five acres of land in Roanoke County. Davis arrived on the eve of an economic boom. In 1881 the Norfolk and Western Railroad Company chose the site for a junction with the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and transformed the town into an industrial and commercial center. Big Lick, renamed Roanoke in 1882, became an independent city in 1884 and by decade’s end was widely proclaimed as the Magic City of the New South.
Davisthe Readjusters, a biracial political coalition led by former Confederate general that had emerged during the state in the 1870s. As a leader in the black community, Davis represented the Ninth District at the Readjuster-Republican State Convention in Richmond in April 1884. He was selected as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, but did not attend. In May of that year Davis ran for the city council on the ticket in the -dominated Second Ward but garnered only 6 percent of the vote. In 1885 black Republicans in the ward bolted when white leaders disregarded their request that Davis be nominated for the council and proceeded to nominate him anyway. Although he finished third in a five-candidate field, he received the highest vote total of the three Republicans in the ward race. That July, Davis attended the party’s state convention in Richmond and afterward corresponded with Mahone about elections in Roanoke. In April 1892 he won election as a delegate to the Republican State Convention that met in Roanoke the following month. That year he also served as president of the city’s Harrison Republican Colored League.
By 1890 Davis had opened a real estate office and had become president of the Roanoke Land and Building Association. That year he acquired a lot in the Gainsboro neighborhood, where he built Davis Hall, a four-story frame building that included rented commercial space on the ground floor and meeting halls and lodging on the upper floors. By 1892 Davis owned property in all five of the city’s wards, totaling thirty lots, and jointly owned one other property, all together valued at $30,000. By April of that year Davis had become second vice president of the Fostoria Land and Improvement Company, a business based in Fauquier County and whose other officers included a former American minister to Liberia, a formerand first president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), and other nationally prominent men.
In 1891 Davis began publishing a daily newspaper called the Press that supported the Republican Party. Housed in the Davis Building, his Press Publishing Company also specialized in books, pamphlets, circulars, letterheads, and other print jobs. By April 1892 the Roanoke Weekly Press was appearing on Saturdays, and it continued publication for several years. A vigorous opponent ofand an outspoken critic of courts that handed down harsher penalties for blacks than for whites, Davis decried the high mortality rate among African Americans and called for better . Between 1891 and 1893 he built the Davis Hotel, a two-story frame building that included a grocery and a restaurant on the first floor. It may have been about this time that he founded the Davis Industrial School to train young black men in useful skills. By 1893 Davis also was operating a drugstore, one of the earliest black-owned establishments of its kind in southwestern Virginia, and had employed Isaac D. Burrell, who later became a prominent physician and pharmacist.
Davis joined other area dignitaries on the speaker’s platform in the town of Salem in January 1893 during a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, at which the featured orator described him as the “colored capitalist of Roanoke.” At the height of his business success, Davis held real and personal property valued at between $50,000 and $75,000. As a result of the financial panic of 1893, however, he lost both the hotel and Davis Hall. Beset by lawsuits, in 1895 he owned only two lots valued at $4,080 and also was delinquent on his taxes.
Davisof stomach cancer at his Roanoke home on July 19, 1896. His body lay in state at Davis Hall and was interred with Masonic honors in the family graveyard adjoining Gainsboro’s African American cemetery. His remaining property was sold at public auction. Davis Hall evolved into a dance hall and burned in 1900. Isaac Burrell purchased the hotel in 1897 and there for many years operated his well-known pharmacy.