Allison Davis

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Allison Davis
BornWilliam Boyd Allison Davis
(1902-10-14)October 14, 1902
Washington, D.C., U.S.
DiedNovember 21, 1983(1983-11-21) (aged 81)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
OccupationAcademic, anthropologist, educator
Alma materWilliams College (BA), Harvard University (MA, Anthropology; MA, Comparative Literature), University of Chicago (PhD Anthropology)
SpouseElizabeth Stubbs Davis

William Boyd Allison Davis (October 14, 1902 – November 21, 1983) was an American educator, anthropologist, writer, researcher, and scholar. He was considered one of the most promising black scholars of his generation, and he was the first African American to hold a full faculty position at a major white university when he joined the staff of the University of Chicago in 1942, where he would spend the balance of his academic life. Among his students during his tenure at the University of Chicago were anthropologist St. Clair Drake and sociologist Nathan Hare. Davis, who has been honored with a commemorative postage stamp by the United States Postal Service, is best remembered for his pioneering anthropology research on southern race and class during the 1930s, his research on intelligence quotient in the 1940s and 1950s, and his support of "compensatory education" that contributed to the intellectual genesis of the federal Head Start Program.[1]

Early life[edit]

Family history[edit]

Born in 1902 to John Abraham and Gabrielle Davis, William Boyd Allison Davis, who would later be known only as Allison Davis, was raised in a family well-acquainted with both achievement and activism. He was the oldest of three children with a younger sister, Dorothy, and a younger brother, John Aubrey Davis, Sr. Davis's grandfather had been an abolitionist lawyer. His father led a group of 17 white clerks as the head of a government printing office before his demotion under the policies of the Wilson administration, and chaired the anti-lynching committee of Washington D.C.'s chapter of the NAACP. Davis would describe him as a "brave man" who was "already marked in a town of 236 citizens" as a large landowner who "further angered whites by registering and voting."[2]


Allison Davis's path to the university faculty was possible largely because of his academic achievements that preceded it, many of which were entirely unavailable to most African Americans at the turn of the century

Allison Davis entered Washington D.C.’s segregated Dunbar High School in 1916 and, like his father before him, graduated as its valedictorian.[3] The school had been founded almost a half-century before, making it the nation’s oldest public black high school, and had since developed a reputation that pulled black families to the nation’s capital for the chief purpose of gaining residency within the school district. Bucking national trends, the school had settled firmly in the Du Bois camp during the debates on black education a few years before and offered a rigorous college preparatory curriculum that included Greek and Latin.

Though the quality of black colleges would steadily increase through the mid-century, at the time of Davis’s graduation most black "colleges" were still teaching primary and secondary curricula; the ticket to the white post-graduate program was most often through the white university. Between 1916 and 1922, Dunbar sent 16 students to the Ivy League, Williams College, Amherst College, and Wesleyan College. Williams College had a singular arrangement with Dunbar that allotted one full merit-based scholarship per year to the valedictorian.[4] From this agreement Williams derived its entire black cohort and in 1920 drew Davis into its ranks. He graduated in 1924 as valedictorian of his class at Williams College, and went on to earn two master's degrees from Harvard University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.


  1. ^ Guide to the Allison Davis Papers 1932-1984.
  2. ^ Davis, Allison, Leadership, Love, and Aggression, New York: Harcourt Press (1983), p. 3.
  3. ^ Browne, Dallas in Harrison, Ira, African American Pioneers in Anthropology. University of Illinois Press (1998), p. 171.
  4. ^ Sowell, Thomas, "The Education of Minority Children", from Inside American Education.

Further reading[edit]

° David A. Varel, The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

° David A. Varel, "Bending the Academic Color Line: Allison Davis, the University of Chicago, and American Race Relations, 1941-1948," Journal of Negro Education 84 (November 2015): 534-546.