Davis was born into slavery in March 1804 in Madison County and was the son of John Davis and Jane Davis. His father operated a mill that belonged to his owner, who lived in Fredericksburg. After the owner sold the mill in 1816, he granted Davis’s parents their freedom and allowed them to live on his nearby property in Culpeper County. Davis learned farming and carpentry there before moving in December 1818 to Fredericksburg, where he was apprenticed to a shoemaker. He, experienced a religious conversion, and on September 19, 1831, was baptized as a member of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church, of which George F. Adams was then pastor. Soon thereafter Davis married another church member, Fanney, although both being then in slavery their marriage had no legal standing. During the next twenty years they had seven children who were all born into slavery.
The Fredericksburg church had about 300 black members when Davis married. They elected him a deacon, and the white officials licensed him to preach. In 1845 Davis asked his owner whether he could purchase his freedom. The master set a price of $500 if Davis could raise the money in the North. Beginning in June, Davis addressed audiences in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, but he returned to Fredericksburg almost four months later with only $150. He then opened a shoemaking shop and attempted to earn the balance. In 1847 white Baptists in Baltimore, including Adams and William Crane, a supporter of immigration to west Africa, offered Davis a job as a missionary to African Americans in Baltimore and provided him the balance of the money with which to purchase his freedom.
Emancipation Narrative by Noah Davis
In 1851 Davis purchased freedom for his wife and two youngest children, and during the rest of that decade he and his wife had at least two, and possibly five, more children born into freedom. Within the next few years he purchased and freed a daughter and son who were in danger of being sold out of Virginia, and in 1858 when their owner’s death forced the auction of his other three enslaved children, Davis made another tour of northern cities to raise money to purchase and free his daughter. In all, he spent more than $4,000 freeing himself, his wife, and five of his children. He published his memoir, A Narrative of the Life of Rev. Noah Davis, a Colored Man (1859), in order to raise money to purchase his two remaining enslaved sons and to help his struggling church. While preaching and fund-raising, Davis continued shoemaking at his home on Marion Street, and his wife took in laundry and did day work.
In 1863 Davis attended the American Baptist Missionary Convention in Washington, D.C. He was one of twelve black delegates who in that year met with President Abraham Lincoln and successfully requested that African American ministers be allowed to preach to black troops in the field andwithin military lines. The financial condition of Davis’s church was then precarious. About half of the church’s $18,000 debt was retired within a year of its founding, but the school lost money and the few office tenants could not pay rent as a result of the financial panic of 1857 and difficulties during the (1861–1865). In 1866 the church relinquished the building and united with the city’s Union Baptist Church. Davis was in poor health by the time his church ceased to exist, and he died in Baltimore on April 7, 1867. His burial place is not known.