In 1974, almost two decades before Harvard University made a similar offer to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, the University of Notre Dame approached Tennessee State University professor Dr. George L. Davis, Sr., and formally asked him to establish its Department of Afro-American Studies. Davis, whom segregation had once forced to walk pass the proximate University of Tennessee to attend Knoxville College, declined the offer. He chose to remain at Tennessee State inspiring scores of students whose names are now more well-known than the man who was their inspiration. This is his story.
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee on November 21, 1921, George Littleton Davis was the third son and last child of Anna Lowe Davis, a schoolteacher, and Fred Russell Davis, Sr., a ranch hand and laborer. Younger than his two older brothers by almost ten years, young George – a shy and introverted child — was influenced greatly by his mother who instilled the value of education in him at a very young age. A voracious reader, in 1936, at just 14 years old and after skipping multiple grades in school, Davis graduated from Knoxville’s Austin High School as valedictorian of his high school class. His classmate, future attorney and Nashville civil rights legend Avon Williams, Johnson C. Smith University ’40, was the class salutatorian.
Unable to attend the more closely-located University of Tennessee after high school because of his race, Davis walked pass UT daily for four years to attend the black-Knoxville College, where in 1940, he was yet again valedictorian, this time of his college class.
After earning a Bachelors of Arts Degree in history, Davis entered the army. While serving in the Army in England during World War II, Staff Sergeant Davis earned a one-year Certificate of Learning from Oxford University in England; then, after completing his service to his country, Davis entered the University of Pittsburgh where he joined the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, earning his master’s degree in 1948 and, at the age of 29, his Ph.D. in 1951.
Davis briefly taught in segregated high schools in rural Virginia both before entering (and, at the time, prior to reaching the age of 21 himself) and also after leaving the US Army. After attaining his PhD in 1951, Dr. Davis was named the university dean at Elizabeth City State Teachers College–now Elizabeth City State University–a position he held for seven years. In 1954, he married North Carolina College for Negroes–now North Carolina Central University alumna Anna Novella Lawson ’50, who was then a secretary at Elizabeth City State; they subsequently had two children and remained married for 41 years, until his death.
In 1958 Dr. Davis moved with his family to Nashville TN to take a position in the History and Political Science Department of Tennessee A&I State College–now Tennessee State University–with a specialty in Eastern European (i.e. Russian) history; he remained at TSU until his retirement in 1986. During his tenure at TSU Dr. Davis served at various times as the head of both the History and Political Science departments of the University, and as president of the TSU Faculty Senate.
His association with TSU’s Political Science Department in the 1960s placed Dr. Davis squarely on the front lines of the modern civil rights struggle in Nashville, and as a result he was involved with almost every aspect of TSU’s involvement in that historic effort during those turbulent times. As the faculty advisor for the University’s chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. Davis counseled TSU’s student protestors who participated in Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins in the early 1950s and 1960s, and he was responsible for being the primary interface with SNCC luminaries such as H. Rap Brown, Howard University’s Stokely Carmichael, and American Baptist and Fisk University’s John Lewis on behalf of the University and its student body. Immediately after Morehouse College alumnus, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, Dr. Davis volunteered to organize a handful of TSU faculty members in a successful 24-hour-a-day, multiple day on-campus vigil to minimize negative student reaction to Dr. King’s death.
As the civil rights struggle started winding down in the early 1970s and the buildup toward the fall of Communism in the 1980s began, Dr. Davis took advantage of his knowledge of Eastern European history as he became Nashville’s pre-eminent scholar on Russia. His views on Russia and its future were sought after by Nashville newspaper and television reporters throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, and before his retirement Dr. Davis made three fact-finding trips to the USSR.
During his 28 years at Tennessee State, Dr. Davis became both an inspiration and a primal influence on the career successes of many of his students and colleagues. Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, head of the Ford political dynasty of Tennessee and former U.S. Congressman Harold Ford, Sr., former TSU History Department Chairman Dr. Bobby Lovett, and former Nashville Councilman Ludye Wallace are just four of Dr. Davis’ former proteges who have distinguished themselves in their own individual political and professional arenas.
In the early 1990s, Nashville Councilman Wallace orchestrated the renaming of 13th Avenue South in Nashville to George L. Davis Boulevard, in tribute to his college mentor. The author of three political science textbooks including American National Government Vol. 1 (1967) and Institutions of American Government (1973), Dr. Davis lived for nine years after his retirement from TSU in 1986, ultimately succumbing to liver cancer on December 9, 1995 at the age of 74.
George L. Davis, Jr. is the son and namesake of Dr. George L. Davis, Sr. A 1981 graduate of Tennessee State University, the younger Davis serves as president of the Tennessee State University Engineering Alumni Association (TSUEAA). Initiated in the Zeta Alpha Chapter, he is a proud member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated.