John P. Davis

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For other people named John Davis, see John Davis (disambiguation).
John P. Davis
Johnpdavis NNC1.jpg
Born John Preston Davis
(1905-01-19)January 19, 1905
Washington, D.C., USA
Died September 11, 1973(1973-09-11) (aged 68)
Nationality American
Ethnicity Black American
Education LLB Degree
Alma mater Harvard Law School
Known for Founder of the National Negro Congress
Spouse(s) Marguerite DeMond

John Preston Davis (January 19, 1905 - September 11, 1973) was an American lawyer and activist intellectual became prominent for his work with the Joint Committee on National Recovery and the founding of the National Negro Congress in 1935. He went on to found Our World magazine in 1946, a full-size, nationally-distributed magazine edited for African-American readers. He also published the American Negro Reference Book covering virtually every aspect of African-American life, present and past.


John P. Davis born in Washington, D.C., the son of Dr. William Henry Davis and Julia Davis. Dr. William H. Davis, his father, was a graduate of Howard University. During World War I, Dr. Davis served as Secretary to Dr. Emmett Scott, Special Assistant to the United States Secretary of War. In the 1920s, Dr. Davis served as Secretary to the Presidential Commission investigating the economic conditions in the Virgin Islands.

The early years[edit]

Davis attended segregated schools in Washington, D.C., graduating from the elite Dunbar High School. In 1922 he enrolled in Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He graduated in 1926, earning an A.B. and double honors in English and Psychology. At Bates, Davis was president of Delta Sigma Rho, honorary debating fraternity, and editor of the student publication The Bobcat.

He toured Europe representing the Bates College debating team. He was the first among African-American men to be sent overseas under the auspices of the American University Union to engage in international debate when his team met and defeated Cambridge University. While he was an undergraduate at Bates College, he was nominated for the Rhodes scholarship and contributed short stories to the magazines The Crisis and Opportunity.

His literary proclivity drew him into Harlem Renaissance. For a time, he replaced the celebrated scholar W. E. B. Du Bois as literary editor of The Crisis. During the Harlem Renaissance, Davis joined with some of the finest young black writers of the period - Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Bennett, Wallace Thurman, Aaron Douglas, Richard Bruce - to produce Fire!!, a magazine devoted to young African-American artists.

Davis had a fellowship to Harvard University from 1926 to 1927, where he received his Master's Degree in Journalism. He left Harvard to join the staff of Fisk University, where he served as Director of Publicity from (1927 to 1928). He later returned to Harvard University in (1933) and earned an LLB degree from Harvard Law School in (1933).

Harvard University[edit]

At Harvard, Davis cemented lifelong friendships with a small core of black students, including fellow Dunbar High School Alumni Robert C. Weaver, later appointed the first black member of a Presidential Cabinet, William Hastie, who would become the first black federal judge, and Ralph Bunche, who was destined to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace.

These friends remained important throughout his career. During their student years they discussed race and politics, especially the inadequacy of the black Republican leadership. When the Great Depression intensified the social and economic problems confronting black America, Davis and his colleagues looked to the example of Reconstruction, the use of federal power to redress the plight of the slaves. They called on the federal government to ensure black civil and political rights. The New Deal seemed to offer the possibility of similar federal intervention for economic justice.

Davis married Marguerite DeMond the daughter of Reverend Abraham Lincoln DeMond and Lula Watkins Patterson DeMond. Marguerite DeMond attended Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, South Carolina, operated by the American Missionary Association and the Congregationalist Church. Even before the Civil War, Avery Normal Institute's racially integrated faculty was providing quality educations for African Americans.

She graduated from Syracuse University in 1931 and came to Washington, D.C., with her mother in 1932, after the death of her father. Marguerite DeMond went to work as a researcher for African-American historian Carter G. Woodson's Association for the Study of African American Life and History. After a one-year courtship Marguerite DeMond and Davis were married. They had five children, Michael DeMond Davis, Miriam Judith Davis Nason, Marguerite Davis, Michelle Demond and John Preston Davis, Jr.

The Joint Committee for National Recovery[edit]

In the summer of 1933 John P. Davis, a new graduate of Harvard Law School and Robert C. Weaver, a doctoral student at Harvard, acted to ensure that African-American interests were represented. The two men returned to their hometown of Washington, D.C. and established an office on Capitol Hill, where they fought successfully against the racial wage differential and the integration of Negro families into the program of the Homestead Subsistence Division in the first recovery program.

Davis and Weaver organized the Negro Industrial League to pressure New Deal agencies to address the needs of blacks. They monitored the hearings of the National Recovery Administration to ensure that blacks benefited from the program.

Their efforts led to the establishment of the Joint Committee on Economic Recovery, a group of twenty-six national groups including the Young Woman Christian Association, National Urban League (NUL), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored (NAACP). Davis became Executive Secretary of the Joint Committee on National Recovery, a position he held until 1936, where he functioned as legislative lobbyist.

The committee lobbied for fair inclusion of African Americans in government-sponsored programs and publicized incidents and patterns of racial discrimination. The implementation of a National Recovery Program, however, promised to have immediate and long-term consequences for African Americans. As more established African-American leaders deliberated about how to respond to the flurry of New Deal legislation.

National Negro Congress[edit]

In May 1935 a conference on the economic status of the Negro was held at Howard University in Washington, D.C., out of which emerged a major civil rights coalition that was active in the late 1930s and 1940s. The National Negro Congress—whose sponsors included John P. Davis of the Joint Committee on National Recovery, Ralph J. Bunche and Alain Locke of Howard University, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, James Ford of the Communist Party, Lester Granger and Elmer Carter of the Urban League, and Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP—was truly significant in two respects. Davis was one of the original founders of the National Negro Congress (NNC) and remained Executive Secretary and guiding spirit from the NNC's inception in 1935 until 1942.

The NNC represented one of the first sincere efforts of the 20th century to bring together under one umbrella black secular leaders, preachers, labor organizers, workers, businessmen, radicals, and professional politicians, with the assumption that the common denominator of race was enough to weld together such divergent segments of black society. It also signaled the Communist Party’s movement into the mainstream of black protest activity. In particular, the evolution of the National Negro Congress dramatized the growing convergence of outlook between Communists and activist black intellectuals that had taken shape in the protests of the early Depression years and reached full fruition during the years of the Popular Front.

In 1943 the first lawsuit challenging segregated schools in the Washington, D.C. was brought in Michael D. Davis's name by John P. Davis. The Washington Star was sharply critical of an African-American lawyer legally challenging the District's Dual school system when the principal of Noyes School refused to admit Mike Davis at the age of five. The Washington Star paper said the District citizens had long accepted separate schools for blacks and whites and that the suit brought by John P. Davis would cause even deeper divisions in the nation's capital.

The U.S. Congress in response to Davis's suit appropriated federal funds to construct the Lucy D. Slowe elementary school directly across the street from his Brookland home in the neighborhood of Washington, D.C..

Our World magazine[edit]

Davis was founding publisher of Our World magazine, a full-size, nationally-distributed magazine edited for African-American readers. Its first issue, with singer-actress Lena Horne on the cover, arrived on the nation's newsstands in April 1946. Our World was a premier publication for African-American men and women covering contemporary topics from black history to sports & entertainment with regular articles on health, fashion, politics & social awareness, was headquartered out of New York City.

Our World portrayed black America as no other national publication had ever done. Its covers featured entertainers’ Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole.

The American Negro Reference Book[edit]

In 1964 Davis's position as editor of special publications for the Phelps-Stokes fund, he used his resources and talents to create a single volume a reliable summary on the main aspects of Negro life in America and to present it in sufficient historical depth to provide the reader with a true perspective. The American Negro Reference Book was the result covering virtually every aspect of African-American life, present and past.


The largest collection of Davis's paper is in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. Insight into Davis political and social views can best be found in his own writings. The Papers of the National Negro Congress reproduces all of the organization’s records that are housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, including the voluminous working files of John P. Davis and successive executive secretaries of the National Negro Congress.

Beginning with papers from 1933 that predate the formation of the National Negro Congress, the wide-ranging collection documents Davis’s involvement in the Negro Industrial League and includes the "Report Files" of Davis’s preoccupative interest and absorption with the "Negro problem." The most extensive overview of Davis' life is the entry by Hilmar Jenson in John Preston Davis, The Forgotten Civil Rights (1996). Much of the scholarly writing about Davis focuses on his experiences in the National Negro Congress.


  • The Negro Heritage Library: Ten-Volume Set by Sylvia G.L Dannett & Others John P. Davis ( - 1964)
  • The New Cavalcade: African American Writing from 1760 to the Present by Arthur P. Davis, J. Saunders Redding, and Joyce Ann Joyce ( - Oct 1992)
  • Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880—1940 (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) by Arwen P. Mohun ( - Dec 17, 2002)
  • Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin by John Hope Franklin ( - Oct 13, 2005)
  • Succeeding Against The Odds by John H. Johnson ( - Oct 1, 1993)
  • Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture) by Karen Ferguson ( - Dec 6, 2001)
  • Black Self-Determination: A Cultural History of African-American Resistance by V. P. Franklin ( - Jan 1993)
  • Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (Chapel Hill) by John Egerton ( - Nov 1, 1995)
  • U.S. Labor in the 20th Century: Studies in Working-Class Struggles and Insurgency (Revolutionary Series) by John H. Hinshaw and Paul Le Blanc ( - Sep 2000)
  • The Civil Rights Movement (Blackwell Readers in American Social and Cultural History) by Jack E. Davis ( - Oct 26, 2000)
  • All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way by Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler ( - Sep 1, 1997)
  • Sterling A. Brown's A Negro Looks at the South by John Edgar Tidwell and Mark A. Sanders ( - Jan 8, 2007)
  • A Dictionary and Catalog of African American Folklife of the South by Sherman E. Pyatt and Alan Johns ( - Nov 30, 1999)
  • Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1945 (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture) by Beth Tompkins Bates ( - Dec 5, 2000)
  • From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900 to 1960 by Arthur Paul Davis ( - May 1974)
  • The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader (African American History (Penguin)) by David Lewis ( - Jun 1, 1995)
  • The Big Sea: An Autobiography (American Century Series) by Langston Hughes and Arnold Rampersad ( - Aug 1, 1993)
  • Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins and Elizabeth Gardner Hines ( - Jan 25, 2005)
  • Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality by Thomas Sowell ( - Dec 17, 1985)
  • Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (Making History) by Martin Gilbert ( - May 29, 2007)
  • In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement by Paula J. Giddings ( - Feb 27, 2007)
  • A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights As a National Issue: The Depression Decade by Harvard Sitkoff ( - Feb 5, 1981)
  • Black Women in White America: A Documentary History by Gerda Lerner ( - Nov 17, 1992)
  • The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America by James N. Gregory ( - Jan 17, 2007)
  • The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education by David Tyack ( - Jun 28, 2007)
  • Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 by Penny M. Von Eschen ( - Feb 1997)

Further reading[edit]

  • Days of Hope - Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era by Patricia Sullivan
  • Urquhart, Brian. Ralph Bunche: An American Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993) [Paperback edition titled Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, 1998]
  • Documentary film: Lift Every Voice. John Preston Davis and the National Negro Congress 1990.
  • The Rise of an African American Left: John P. Davis and the National Negro Congress from Hilmar L. Jensen III, Bates Collecge
  • The Myth of Brown November 2005 published by The Pocket Part a Companion to the Yale Law Journal
  • Before Brown Reflections on Historical Context and Vision 2003 published by American University Law Review
  • Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin by John Hope Franklin (Hardcover - November 2, 2005)
  • "Remembering John P. Davis: The Forgotten Civil Rights Leader" November 2005 published by International News Agency
  • Succeeding Against the Odds by John H. Johnson
  • The American Negro Reference Book. John P. Davis. Prentice-Hall, 1966.
  • "What the ‘New Deal’ Means for the Negro," 1935. From John P. Davis, "A Black Inventory of the New Deal," The Crisis 42 (May 1935), 141-42, 154.
  • "The Overcoat," John P. Davis
  • Charles Hamilton Houston and John P. Davis Critique the Lily-White Tennessee Valley Authority, 1934
  • Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench by Michael D. Davis and Hunter Clark
  • John P. Davis Wins Debating Honors in the British Isles - The Washington Post, July 5, 1925
  • Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library.

External links[edit]

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