Davis was born into slavery near Norfolk, probably about 1814. According to family tradition, he was the son of a white ship’s captain and an enslaved woman of mixed African and American Indian descent, neither of whose names is recorded. He, probably before adulthood and before he was transferred or to the Armistead family, of Point Comfort, in Elizabeth City County. There Davis nearly killed an abusive white plantation overseer with a knife, but other slaves restrained him, and he eventually became the overseer. Davis’s widowed owner later permitted him to work as a pleasure-boat operator and allowed him to keep most or all of his earnings. He was deeply religious and became a well-known Baptist exhorter among the enslaved people in and near Elizabeth City County.
About 1837 Davis married Nancy Moore, a slave of mixed-race ancestry who at the time had one son. They had four sons and two daughters. Their marriage had no legal standing, and all of their children were born into slavery. Nancy Davis was supposed to be manumitted according to the terms of her owner’s will, but following the owner’s death, his son refused to free her. William Davis spent $1,800 of his savings to hire attorneys to sue for her freedom. The case reportedly dragged on for more than a decade until 1859, when it was decided in favor of Davis’s wife, but the local judge refused to enforce the ruling.
When the U.S. Army occupied Point Comfort in 1861, Davis and his family were among the firstto seek refuge there. His talents, charisma, and character made a strong impression on all who met him. Lewis Lockwood, of the American Missionary Association, wrote enthusiastically that he was a “man of genius and piety” and of compelling eloquence. When Davis spoke in September to soldiers and escaped slaves, Lockwood described the address as “a master-piece. It melted every heart.” The following year Lockwood and Davis traveled to New York, where Davis met Henry Ward Beecher, a noted abolitionist. Davis became a salaried speaker and for more than a year addressed audiences in Northern states to collect money and for the at Fort Monroe.
Davis served as the pastor at the First Baptist Church of Hampton in 1865, but he had a reputation of insisting so firmly on what one of his grandsons referred to as puritanical conduct that he eventually lost his. He preached or spoke at several meetings of African Americans during the first winter following the Civil War and on January 1, 1866, at what was reportedly Hampton’s first public celebration of the . Both during and after the war Davis was a tireless promoter of . The school at his church had about 225 pupils in November 1865. He later claimed credit for establishing Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) because his request that the American Missionary Association send a new teacher for local black children had resulted in the arrival of Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who founded the institute. Davis desired a more rigorous curriculum than the institute offered during its early years.
The role that Davis played in politics is poorly documented and may not have been particularly conspicuous. He was sufficiently well known, at least among political leaders and reformers of the lower Peninsula, that he was elected doorkeeper of the convention that met in 1867 and 1868 to write Virginia’s new constitution. By 1870 Davis was serving as the official keeper of the Old Point Comfort lighthouse, a post he held for about a decade. In 1871 he purchased the house and the ⅞-acre lot where he lived in Hampton. Two years later he added to or replaced his residence. The Norfolk, Virginia, Union Baptist Association, which had been founded in Hampton’s First Baptist Church in 1863, carried Davis’s name as an ordained minister until the end of the nineteenth century, but it is not clear from surviving records that he held another pulpit for any length of time. In retirement he sold vegetables from his garden.
Davis’s wife died in 1890, probably late in February according to a family bible, although the death register gives a date of March 19. Their grandchildren, both those who knew him when they were young and those who were born too late to remember him, grew up with constant reminders of his character and standing in the community and his commitment to education. With his white hair and beard, Davis resembled an ancient patriarch. He always dressed well, carried himself with the utmost dignity, and insisted that whites address him formally as Mr. Davis. His grandchildren and later descendants included numerous distinguished educators, scholars, artists, and other professionals who credited his example for their success. Davis died in Hampton on November 19, 1904.