In honor of Black History Month, we’ve been exploring the lives of four Black Charlotteans who are part of the Museum’s Path of Portraits project. (Keep reading to learn what Path of Portraits is!) The final featured Charlottean for Black History Month is my favorite – educator George E. Davis, as imagined by Ricky Singh.
Ricky Singh brought his original style to his interpretation of George Davis, painted at the 2021 African American Heritage Festival. Unlike the other featured Charlotteans, there are photos of George from his lifetime, so Singh was able to move in a creative direction for this portrait – he called it the Banksy George.
George Davis was a life-long educator and education advocate. Born in Wilmington in 1862, George grew up in a well-to-do family. His father was a member of the Wilmington Police Force (based on a brief search, it doesn’t seem that the Davis parents still lived in Wilmington in 1898 during the white supremacist coup) and his mother was a teacher. As a young teenager, George attended the Gregory Institute in Wilmington, then taught school in Laurinburg. He continued his education at Biddle Institute (now Johnson C. Smith University). After graduating, he spent a short time at Howard University, with ambitions to become a doctor, but his old professors at Biddle convinced him to return and join the staff there. He was the first Black professor at the school and taught mathematics, natural sciences, and sociology, coached several athletic teams, served as the dean of faculty, and was an active member of the State Teachers’ Association.
George Davis, wife Marie, and their five children. George is standing, second from the right, and Marie is seated on the far right. The photo is undated.
George’s wife Marie was also an educator and was the principal at the Fairview School, a segregated school for Black students. In the summers, George and Marie developed and taught at summer institutes for teachers at Biddle. They even rented rooms to Biddle students once their five children grew up and moved away. Today, their house is restored and houses offices to support teenagers aging out of the foster system.
George and Marie’s home near Johnson C. Smith University. Over the years, they raised their children, rented rooms to university students, and hosted summer institutes at the home. After George sold it to the school, it was used as offices. The house was added to the local landmarks register in 2017.
After a 35-year career at Biddle, George Davis retired in 1920. Rather than sit back and enjoy his retirement, Davis almost immediately started a new career in the brand-new state “Division of Negro Education” as a Rosenwald Fund agent and assistant to Nathan Newbold. In 1921, this made him the highest-ranking Black person in state government at that time. As a Rosenwald agent, Davis’ job was to travel across the state and convince rural communities and school boards to participate in the Rosenwald Fund Community School initiative. Davis helped communities fundraise to help pay for the school construction - which they were essentially paying for twice, since their tax dollars also went into the school system but were distributed unequally between the white and Black systems. Davis also inspected Rosenwald School buildings to ensure they met the high standards of the Rosenwald Fund.
Davis kept detailed notes of his travels and activities as a Rosenwald Agent, which are archived in the North Carolina State Archives. This section regarding the Derita Schoolhouse reads, in part, “This obligation [of funding repairs] is, of course, upon the County, but the Superintendent is not willing to do his duty by these people. They have gone on doing for themselves.”
Over 25 years, George Davis helped raise $650,000 in community funds to build schools, which is over 13 million dollars in today’s money. These funds were raised in communities of farmers, laborers, seamstresses, and sharecroppers. The folks making these donations were just one generation away from slavery. Davis’ notes are archived in the North Carolina Archives, and you can read about the struggles he encountered with school boards, superintendents, and community members. George Davis has a pretty incredible story, but the people he encountered, who opened their pockets when he asked, are the real heroes.
George Davis retired from the Division of Negro Education in 1935, after the Rosenwald Fund had changed its priorities from school construction to cultural support, and moved to Greensboro to live with his daughter. He sold his home to JCSU. He died in 1959, just before the Civil Rights Movement gained steam. George Davis’ life was bookended by two of the most significant periods in this country’s history. His efforts to improve education for Black students from primary school to university helped provide a foundation for the successes of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.
Path of Portraits is on permanent display at the Museum and we’re hopeful that we can continue the series in new iterations in the coming years, whether that’s through more paintings, sculpture, permanent signage, or something we haven’t even dreamed of yet. We’re grateful to our partners at Charlotte Is Creative for helping us make our vision a reality and to the Arts & Science Council for funding this work.
I hope you’ll join the Museum this Saturday, Feb 26, for African American Heritage Festival! It’s 100% free to attend (also thanks to ASC) and we’ll have dance performances, book talks, and history presentations, plus kid’s activities, and a food truck.
Hope to see you Saturday!
Path of Portraits is part of the Museum’s mission to honor the history of all members of our community and provide a space that encourages visitors to connect with people from the past. Working with Charlotte Is Creative and four local artists, the Museum commissioned four portraits of historic figures in Charlotte history. Each artist painted their respective portrait live at the 2021 African American Heritage Festival, after which the paintings were installed in the Museum with biographical information. The project was funded by the Arts & Science Council.
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass