Daryl Davis

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Daryl Davis
Daryl Davis in 2017.png
Davis in 2017
Background information
Born (1958-03-26) March 26, 1958 (age 61)
Chicago, Illinois, United States
GenresPiano blues
Delta blues
Chicago blues
Occupation(s)Pianist, singer, author
InstrumentsPiano, vocals, keyboards
Years active1980s–present

Daryl Davis (born March 26, 1958) is an American R&B and blues musician, activist, author, actor and bandleader.[1] Known for his energetic style of boogie-woogie piano,[1] Davis has played with such musicians as Chuck Berry,[1][2] Jerry Lee Lewis, B. B. King,[2] and Bruce Hornsby.[3][4] His efforts to improve race relations, in which as an African-American he engaged with members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), have been reported on by media such as CNN, NPR, and The Washington Post.[5][6][7][8] Davis summed up his advice as: "Establish dialogue. When two enemies are talking, they're not fighting."[9]

Davis is a Christian and has used his religious beliefs to convince Klansmen to leave and denounce the KKK.[10]

He is the subject of the 2016 documentary Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America.

Early life[edit]

Born in Chicago, Illinois, United States, Davis was the son of a Department of State Foreign Service officer, and moved around the globe with his parents during most of his early childhood. Living in various foreign countries, including African nations, Davis grew accustomed to the casually integrated schools of foreign diplomats, where children of many nations, races and cultures were schooled together — and grew up oblivious to the racism in his home country. Not until he returned to the United States, at age 10, did he discover that people could hate him for his skin color, alone. The awakening incident came when he joined an all-white Cub Scout pack, in Belmont, Massachusetts, and — while carrying the flag, with his pack, in a local parade — began to be struck with rocks and bottles thrown from the crowd, until pack leaders formed a protective ring around him; young Davis did not understand the incident until he discussed it with his father. The illogic of it, in his mind, led to a lifelong curiosity about such attitudes — a curiosity which would later shape much of his future activity.[11][12]

Musical career[edit]

Perhaps because of his birth in Chicago, Illinois, Davis absorbed the style of blues musicians from the Mississippi Delta who had migrated north.[13] In 1980, Davis earned a bachelor of music degree from Howard University, where he was a member of the Howard University Choir and Jazz Vocal Ensemble. Davis "was mentored by legendary pianists Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson who both claimed him as their godson and praised his ability to master a piano style that was popular long before he was born," according to his Kennedy Center profile.[3]

Davis has frequently played backup for Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.[1][2][14][15] He was a friend of Muddy Waters and played piano in The Legendary Muddy Waters Blues Band.[15] Davis has also performed with blues icon B. B. King.[2]

Davis has played with such artists as Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires, The Platters, The Drifters, The Coasters, Bo Diddley,[15] Percy Sledge, and Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave).[13]

Davis was awarded "Best Traditional Blues/R&B Instrumentalist" at the 2009 Washington Area Music Awards. For several years, Davis served as Artistic Director of the Centrum (arts organization) Acoustic Blues Festival.[16]

"Davis’ piano work impresses with his winning combination of technique and abandon, and his vocals are strong and assured," wrote a reviewer in Living Blues Magazine.[17] "Black rock’n’roll lives!"


  • American Roots (2000)
  • Alternate Routes (2005)
  • Greatest Hits (2011)

Career as writer and lecturer, and anti-racism activist[edit]

Daryl Davis holding up KKK robes at Blues and Rock for Humanity in November 2017.

Davis has worked to improve race relations by seeking out, engaging in dialogue with, and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1983, he was playing country western music in a "white" bar in Frederick, Maryland when a patron came up to him and said it was the first time he had "heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis". Davis explained to the man that "Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie woogie piano players and he's a friend of mine." The white patron was skeptical and over a drink admitted he was a member of the KKK. The two became friends and eventually, the man gave Davis contact information on KKK leaders.[18][19][20]

A few years later, Davis decided he wanted to interview Klan members and write a book on the subject. He had a "question in my head from the age of 10: 'Why do you hate me when you know nothing about me?' That question had never been answered from my youth."

In meeting with the Imperial Wizard of the KKK in Maryland, Roger Kelly, he concealed his race before the interview.

My secretary called him, and I told her, 'do not tell Roger Kelly I'm black. Just tell him I am writing a book on the Klan.' I wanted her to call because she's white. I knew enough about the mentality of the Klan that they would never think a white woman would work for a black man. She called him and he didn't ask what color I was, so we arranged to meet at a motel.

The meeting was tense. Kelly arrived at the motel with a bodyguard dressed in military style fatigues and armed with a gun. Davis became friends with Kelly,[19][12] with Davis later invited by Kelly to be his daughter's godfather.[12] When Kelly left the Klan, he gave his robe to Davis, who hopes to one day display it in a "Museum of the Klan".[12]

Davis eventually went on to befriend over 20 members of the KKK,[19] and claims to have been directly responsible for between 40 and 60, and indirectly over 200 people leaving the Klan.[21] He found that the Klansmen had many misconceptions about blacks, which stem mostly from intense brainwashing in their youth. When they got to know him, Davis claims, it was more difficult to maintain their prejudices. Davis recounted his experiences in his 1998 book, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan.

One Klansman told Davis that "All black people have a gene in them that makes them violent," based on the scientific finding that a 2-repeat MAOA gene increases the likelihood of violent activity, which was found to be most prevalent in African-Americans.[22]

After a time I said, 'You know, it's a fact that all white people have within them a gene that makes them serial killers. Name me three black serial killers.' He could not do it. I said 'you have the gene. It's just latent.' He said, 'Well that's stupid.' I said, 'It's just as stupid as what you said to me.' He was very quiet after that and I know it was sinking in.[23][12]

Klan members have often invited Davis to meetings and they have given him their robes and hoods.[19] Among the "Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" he interviewed were Grand Klaliff Chester Doles, Grand Giant Tony LaRicci, and Grand Giant Bob White, according to The Washington Post.[8] One Klan member gave Davis a medallion stamped with the words "KKK – Member in good standing."

Davis claims to be responsible for helping to dismantle the KKK in Maryland because things "fell apart" after he began making inroads with its members there.[19][23] Contrary to this claim, the KKK remains active in Maryland.[24] Richard Preston, leader of the Confederate White Knights whose robe was alleged to have been surrendered to Davis, was arrested for firing his gun at counter-protesters at the 2017 Unite the Right rally.[25] Daryl Davis offered to post Preston's bail.[26] He later took Preston to the National Museum of African American History. Shortly thereafter he was asked to give away the bride at Preston's wedding.[5]

"The lesson learned is: ignorance breeds fear," says Davis. "If you don't keep that fear in check, that fear will breed hatred. If you don't keep hatred in check, it will breed destruction."[8]

Chester Doles, a member of the Klan, was convinced that Davis was a spy for the Anti-Defamation League or some other Klan-buster, and Davis's friends found his fascination with the Klan to be odd. "He's attracted to controversy," says Adolph Wright, an old friend and fellow musician who believes Davis is a bit eccentric. "When the crowd goes right, he goes left," Wright told the Post.[8]

Davis's father, the retired senior Foreign Service officer William B. Davis, believed that his son engaged with the Klan because he needed to make sense of their hatred, to seek common ground. He remarked to The Washington Post that his son "has done something that I don't know any other black American, or white American, has done."[8]

Accidental Courtesy documentary[edit]

In 2016, the documentary film, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America debuted on the PBS TV series Independent Lens. The film, directed and produced by Matt Ornstein, showed Davis interacting with KKK members and white Aryans, and provided contrasting views of his activities from members of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Black Lives Matter.[27] The film was shown on PBS on February 13, 2017, and reran thereafter.[28][12][29][30] Frank Ancona, the Klansman depicted at the opening and close of the documentary film Accidental Courtesy, was found shot dead in Missouri on February 11, 2017, two days before the airing of the film. Ancona's wife and step-son were both charged for the murder.[31][29][32][33]

Acting career[edit]

Davis has acted on stage, film and television. He played a minor character in HBO's television series The Wire. He appeared on stage in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life with Marcia Gay Harden, Brigid Cleary, and Richard Bauer, and in Elvis Mania at an off-Broadway theater in New York City. He received positive reviews for his role in Zora Neal Hurston’s Polk County.[34]


  1. ^ a b c d "Class of 88 - Celebrating Chuck Berry: Jon Carroll, Daryl Davis & Josh Christina... April 17, 2017," Archived October 30, 2018, at the Wayback Machine, Institute of Musical Traditions (public-funded), Takoma Park, Maryland, (includes "a picture of Class of 88 Performer Daryl Davis performing with rock icon, Chuck Berry"*), retrieved March 29, 2017 (NOTE: This photo also appears at the "Go Ahead On!" blog, April 2010).
  2. ^ a b c d Davis, Daryl, "It was my dream to meet Chuck Berry_ Then I got to perform with him for 30 years", March 28, 2017, The Washington Post, retrieved March 29, 2017 (includes photos of Davis performing with Berry).
  3. ^ a b "Profile of Daryl Davis Band". Kennedy-Center.org. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Archived from the original on 2015-01-02.
  4. ^ "The Silver Dollar Lounge (story on Daryl Davis)". NPR.org. National Public Radio.
  5. ^ a b Mallory Simon. "Why a KKK wizard went to the crucible of black history". Cnn.com. Retrieved January 8, 2020.
  6. ^ Rochelle, Carl (June 30, 1996). "African-American, KKK wizard forge unlikely friendship". Cnn.com.
  7. ^ "CNN Sunday Morning: Daryl Davis with the KKK". Youtube.com.
  8. ^ a b c d e Massey, Bob (July 5, 1998). "Dancing with the Devil". The Washington Post.
  9. ^ "'When two enemies are talking, they're not fighting': Meet the black man who has made a career out of befriending members of the KKK". Dailymail.com. November 23, 2013.
  10. ^ "An African American Confronts the Klan in Accidental Courtesy". Christianitytoday.com. Retrieved 24 January 2018.
  11. ^ Davis, Daryl, speaking in PBS TV Independent Lens documentary film Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America, aired on PBS television network February 13, 2017, and subsequently; viewed February 18, 2017
  12. ^ a b c d e f Fleishman, Jeffrey, "A black man's quixotic quest to quell the racism of the KKK, one robe at a time," December 8, 2016, Los Angeles Times, retrieved February 18, 2017
  13. ^ a b "Music Biography". DarylDavis.com.
  14. ^ Davis, Daryl, "Chuck Berry In Concert – 10/22/10 Strathmore Music Center Rockville , MD, (and Bo, and Jerry Lee, and Nat, and Jimmy, and More)", Go Head On!: The Art, Rock and Influence of Chuck Berry blog, November 2010, Davis' own first-person account of performing with Chuck Berry (with photos showing them playing together), retrieved March 29, 2017.
  15. ^ a b c Malitz, David, "Playing Your Song," June 15, 2007, The Washington Post, retrieved March 29, 2017.
  16. ^ "Daryl Davis, Artistic Director". Centrum.org. Centrum Foundation.
  17. ^ "Reviews and Quotes". DarylDavis.com.
  18. ^ Savastio, Rebecca (November 20, 2013). "KKK Member Walks up to Black Musician in Bar-but It's Not a Joke, and What Happens Next Will Astound You". Guardian Liberty Voice.
  19. ^ a b c d e Friedersdorf, Conor, "The Audacity of Talking About Race With the Ku Klux Klan," March 27, 2015, The Atlantic, retrieved February 18, 2017
  20. ^ Radford, Benjamin (2018). "Critical Thinking Approaches to Confronting Racism". Skeptical Inquirer. 42 (1): 31. Archived from the original on 2018-06-22.
  21. ^ Howard, Russell, "The Russell Howard Hour" Series 1, Episode 7 November 2, 2017, Sky.com.
  22. ^ Barnes, JC. "The 2-repeat allele of the MAOA gene confers an increased risk for shooting and stabbing behaviors". PubMed.gov. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  23. ^ a b OBrien, Robert (November 25, 2013). "Here's the Black Blues Musician Who "Dismantled the Entire KKK in MD"". Baltimore Fishbowl.
  24. ^ "Active Hate Groups in the United States in 2015". Splcenter.org. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  25. ^ Rentz, Catherine. "Baltimore Klansman tried to rebrand the KKK. Now he awaits trial in Charlottesville shooting". Baltimoresun.com. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  26. ^ Ward, Justin (29 June 2018). "Daryl Davis makes a new friend". Medium.com. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  27. ^ "Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America". IMDb.com. 9 December 2016.
  28. ^ "Accidental Courtesy – The Feature Documentary". Accidentalcourtesy.com.
  29. ^ a b "From 'Accidental Courtesy,'" February 13, 2017, Washington Post retrieved February 18, 2017
  30. ^ "'Accidental Courtesy' PBS documentary shows black musician sitting down with white supremacists," February 7, 2017, Washington Times retrieved February 18, 2017
  31. ^ Written notice projected onscreen after the end of the documentary "Accidental Courtesy," when aired on PBS public television stations February 18, 2017
  32. ^ Stack, Liam, "Leader of a Ku Klux Klan Group Is Found Dead in Missouri," February 13, 2017, New York Times retrieved February 18, 2017
  33. ^ Bowerman, Mary, "Wife, stepson charged in murder of KKK imperial wizard," February 13, 2017, USA Today retrieved February 18, 2017
  34. ^ "Daryl Davis - Actor Resume". DarylDavis.com.

External links[edit]