William Roscoe Davis (d. 1904)


William Roscoe Davis was an important African American leader in Elizabeth City County (later the city of Hampton) during the American Civil War (1861­–1865), and served as doorkeeper for the Constitutional Convention of 1867­–1868. Born into slavery, Davis was noted for his intelligence and received permission to work as a boat operator. He spent a considerable amount of his money paying for a lawsuit to defend his wife‘s manumission, but a local judge refused to enforce the couple’s legal victory. Davis was among the first slaves to find freedom at Fort Monroe. A Baptist exhorter before the conflict, he became an ordained minister by 1863. His charisma was so impressive that he became a paid orator who toured Northern states. Later in life he claimed credit for the creation of Hampton Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Hampton University), telling people that his request for a new teacher led to the arrival of the institution’s founder, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. He remained a leader in the community and respected elder in his family, also serving as the Old Point Comfort lighthouse keeper and buying property in Hampton. He died in 1904.

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 learned to read and write, probably before adulthood and before he was transferred or sold 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.

Stampede Among the Negroes in Virginia—Their Arrival at Fortress Monroe.

When the U.S. Army occupied Point Comfort in 1861, Davis and his family were among the first slaves to 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 clothing for the refugees 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 congregation. 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 end of slavery. Both during and after the war Davis was a tireless promoter of education for freedpeople. 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 State Convention At Richmond

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.

ca. 1814
William Roscoe Davis was born enslaved near Norfolk.
ca. 1837
William Roscoe Davis and Nancy Moore, a slave of mixed-race ancestry, marry. They will have four sons and two daughters in addition to Moore's one son, all born enslaved.
After a decade-long court battle, Nancy Moore, William Roscoe Davis's wife, is declared free in accordance with her owner's will. The local judge refuses to enforce the ruling.
William Roscoe Davis and his family are some of the first slaves to seek refuge at Fort Monroe after the U.S. Army's occupation.
September 1861
William Roscoe Davis speaks to soldiers and escaped slaves at Fort Monroe.
William Roscoe Davis meets the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher in New York and becomes a salaried speaker throughout the North, collecting donations for enslaved refugees.
William Roscoe Davis serves as the pastor at the First Baptist Church of Hampton, eventually losing his congregation due to a reputation for strictness.
Winter 1865—1866
William Roscoe Davis preaches or speaks at several meetings of African Americans.
November 1865
The school at First Baptist Church of Hampton, where William Roscoe Davis is the pastor, has about 225 pupils.
January 1, 1866
William Roscoe Davis speaks at Hampton's first public celebration of the end of slavery.
December 3, 1867—April 17, 1868
William Roscoe Davis serves as the doorkeeper for Virginia's Constitutional Convention.
William Roscoe Davis serves as the official keeper of the Old Point Comfort lighthouse.
William Roscoe Davis purchases the house and ‚Öû-acre lot where he lives in Hampton.
William Roscoe Davis adds to or replaces his residence in Hampton.
Late 1800s
The Norfolk Union Baptist Association continues to list William Roscoe Davis as an ordained minister although it is not clear if he held another pulpit after the First Baptist Church of Hampton.
March 19, 1890
William Roscoe Davis's wife, Nancy, dies according to the death register. However, the family bible suggests a date probably late in February.
November 19, 1904
William Roscoe Davis dies in Hampton.
  • Davis, Tulani. My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
  • Engs, Robert Francis. Freedom’s First Generation: Black, Hampton, Virginia, 1861–1890. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004.
  • Richardson, Joe M. Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861–1891. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
APA Citation:
Harbury, Katharine, Tarter, Brent & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. William Roscoe Davis (d. 1904). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/davis-william-roscoe-d-1904.
MLA Citation:
Harbury, Katharine, Brent Tarter, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "William Roscoe Davis (d. 1904)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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