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Henrietta Vinton Davis

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Based on the article below Henrietta Vinton Davis should be canonized as a saint and elevated to a position of fame and glory for her distinct contribution to our history.

This article, the first scholarly article on the life of Lady Davis, was originally published in the journal “Afro-Americans in New York Life and History”, vol. 7, no. 2, July 1983.

Historians study the past with its emphasis on personalities and events. Sometimes the great doers of past decades are remembered. More often, men and women of achievement, while important in their own times, are overlooked by historians. Such a person is Henrietta Vinton Davis who made a name for herself not only as a major elocutionist but as a leading exponent of Marcus Garvey’s “race first” concept.

Davis, who was born in 1860, was the daughter of Mansfield Vinton Davis, a talented musician, and Mary Ann (Johnson) Davis. As a young woman, she studied under Marguerite E. Saxon of Washington, D.C., Edwin Lawrence of New York City, and Rachel Noah of Boston, where she attended the Boston School of Oratory. During her late teens she taught school in Maryland and Louisiana. In 1878 she became the first black woman to be employed by the Office of the Recorder of the Deeds in the nation’s capital. It was in this capacity that she met Frederick Douglass who held the position of Recorder from 1881 to 1886.1

Davis’ oratorical abilities, which proved valuable to the Garvey movement, were first developed in the nation’s concert halls. A brief survey of her acting career is necessary before we examine her role in Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Frederick Douglass, a life time friend, introduced her to the audience in her first dramatic appearance on April 25, 1883. Davis’ debut at Washington’s Marini’s Hall received a mixed review. “Our lady readers,” commented the editor of The Washington Bee, “has found fault with Miss Davis’ reading.” “There are none in Washington,” he added, “who can equal her in dramatic art.

Newspaper Advertisement announcing the debut performance of Henrietta Vinton Davis at Marini’s Hall in Washington DC.

The People’s Advocate of Washington praised her for her talented debut but indicated sadness that while one third of the audience was white more blacks should have been in attendance to provide her with moral support. John Edward Bruce, writing nearly forty years later, provided this recollection: “I can recall the wild enthusiasm of the audience which greeted [her] and the continuous applause that followed each number….” 2

While Davis possessed a fine voice, her acting style was sometimes criticized. Most papers, however, were quick to praise her for they recognized her talents as being unique. Mr. Thomas T. Symmons, her manager, and later her husband, sought in late April, 1884 to arrange a testimonial for Davis in New York. On May 9, Philadelphia, as reported by the New York Globe, provided Davis with “one of the grandest receptions ever given to a colored lady in Philadelphia.” Despite her success in America’s recital halls, critics still attacked Davis’ style. The Bee considered her performance of Lady Macbeth at Ford’s Opera House to be “a failure.” She was accused of “declaim[ing] her part like a school girl,” and of lacking “harmony in her voice.” Defending herself, Davis complained about the “unkind cut[s]” Nevertheless, the Bee replied that “we can not say that chalk is cheese when chalk is chalk.”

As a reader, Davis was widely respected by many of the nineteenth century’s black leaders. In addition to Douglass, Bishop Henry M. Turner, Booker T. Washington, and I.F. Aldridge thought highly of her. Their endorsements helped her to obtain church engagements where “she [was] a great help to the ministers in raising money….” Her delineations of Shakespeare, which was a first for her race, and her recitals of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s dialectic work won her praise from many northern white newspapers.

Due to missing records, little is known about her career during the years 1895 to 1911. Davis and Nonie Bailey Hardy, a contralto singer, toured in Jamaica in 1912. Later in the year, she managed Kingston’s Convent Garden Theater. While in the island she introduced to Jamaicans the Loyal Knights and Ladies of Malachite, an Afro-American benevolent society. In early 1913 the two returned to the United States after touring Central America.

Marcus Garvey, who came to the United States in 1916, managed to convince Henrietta Davis to forsake her stage career to become a missionary in the cause of African Redemption. It may seem highly unusual that a popular dramatist would leave the concert hall for politics. After all, she was then close to sixty years of age. Yet, Davis had on earlier occasions shown an interest in politics.

Marcus Garvey with quote on emancipation from mental slavery, the next stage of human development.

A brief look at several episodes in her life would indicate that an activist role for her in 1919 was not out of character. In 1892, she wrote to Ignatius Donnelly, the Populist Party candidate for President, “I should like to take part in the present campaign ….” “I stand ready,” she indicated, “to deliver speeches … in any part of the country where I could do the most good among my brethren.” This plea to work with Donnelly was not just a passing thought because Davis apologized for writing him a second time. “but my eagerness, she indicated, “to serve my race and humanity must be my excuse.”

Her interest in her race is further revealed by a 1916 letter written from Bermuda to John Edward Bruce in which she revealed: “That is alright about the recital in Yonkers [N.Y.]. I know you did your best, but I am well acquainted with my people. I know their lack of cohesiveness—and it is that very lack that the whiteman takes advantage of. He knows the weakness of the Negro better than the Negro knows it himself.”

Garvey’s emphasis on race love and self-reliance appealed to Davis. He probably reminded her of her step-father, George A. Hackett, a leader of blacks in Baltimore, who often entertained in his home prominent race leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Henry H. Garnet, Peter H. Clark, and the noted philanthropist, Stephen Smith. Douglass often conversed with Davis and undoubtedly shared with her many of his views on race questions. Garvey’s ability to attract her to the U.N.I.A was a major coup for him because Davis, in 1918, had successfully avoided the vaudeville route, survived “radical shifts of popular taste,” won the “praise of the press of both races,” and was “doing the most brilliant work of her career”.

It is not clear when Garvey and Davis first met. In 1921 Davis indicated that she met him in the West Indies. However, in 1923 she recalled that she first saw Garvey in Jamaica in 1910 but did not meet him until 1919 when, in her words, “I spoke at the [Harlem] Palace Casino on the invitation of Marcus Garvey.” She immediately became one of the original thirteen members of the U.N.I.A. in New York City. The two probably met in Jamaica and Garvey being impressed, renewed the acquaintance in 1919.

Advertisement for Berry & Ross,Inc. manufacturers of the doll used by Henrietta Vinton Davis in her premiere presentation supporting the UNIA.

The association between the two became an important one personally and professionally. Garvey quickly awarded her with positions of both prestige and importance. By June 7, 1919, she was the international organizer, a director of the Black Star Shipping Company, as well as second vice-president of the shipping corporation. She was one of the signers of the Declaration of Rights for Negroes on August 13, 1920. During the next twelve years, Davis served as international organizer, first and fourth assistant president-general, delegate to Liberia, and secretary-general.

As an organizer, Davis had several advantages. Her oratorical skills certainly helped her to “reach” people because she kept her public statements eloquent but simple. Secondly, because of her previous travels throughout the Americas, many already knew her as an actress and undoubtedly came to see this new political woman out of curiosity. Upon hearing her, many became convinced of the soundness of the U.N.I.A.

As an organizer her dedication to the cause of African redemption was without question. John Edward Bruce described her as a useful and valuable asset because “she.., put her whole soul into words.” Davis traveled widely in her role as the U.N.I.A. organizer. Her returns to Harlem’s Star Casino and later Liberty Hall were spectacular successes, often similar to opening night on the stage. After Davis and Cyril V. Henry had returned from a Central and South American trip, Bruce wrote, “the demonstration…was the most successful public meeting of the organization….The galleries and every available space was filled with people who had only been given two days notice. …Mr. Garvey was smiling from the crown of his head to the sole of his feet…” Bruce added that the “eloquent and dramatic address of Miss Davis…[was one] of the notable features of a notable gathering of notable people.”