In the 1930s, two Black social anthropologists, Dr. Allison Davis and his wife and scholarly partner Elizabeth Stubbs Davis risked their lives to produce their groundbreaking work, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class. On March 30, in a conversation hosted by Venable partner Lisa Tavares, the couple's son and Venable partner, Gordon Davis, spoke about his parents lifelong commitment to dismantling racism; the powerful personal motivators that compelled them; and how Isabel Wilkerson rescued their work from obscurity by making it the central framework of her recent bestseller, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.
Gordon began by discussing the tumultuous events that shaped his father's early life. Born in 1902, Allison Davis was the son of a self-made Black man, John Abraham Davis, who had risen through the ranks of the federal civil service from laborer to middle management. The family's fortunes changed dramatically in 1913, however, when the family farm had to be sold soon after Allison's father had been demoted to a menial position of messenger earning a fraction of his previous salary. This was as a direct result of racist policies enacted by President Woodrow Wilson whose administration deliberately erased the hard-earned successes of countless accomplished African Americans by forcing them out of any senior roles in the federal government. The loss of his position, farm, and stature in the community rendered John Abraham Davis a broken man.
Gordon pointed out, however, that although Wilson had effectively wiped out his grandfather's achievements, his segregationist policies ultimately motivated the next generation of the Davis family to devote their lives to ending racism. Aside from the 1930s study in Mississippi, Allison Davis conducted other groundbreaking research into the Jim Crow south, racial inequalities, and cultural bias in education; became the first tenured African American professor; and was commemorated on a postage stamp for his lifetime achievements. Meanwhile, his younger brother was in charge of all the historical research, which was critical to and underpinned the legal arguments used by the NAACP in the Brown v. Board of Education litigation. He was also instrumental in organizing the first economic boycotts in Washington, DC of drugstores and movie theaters. "So," Gordon said, "this man who was broken, but unbowed, reared two sons who had a major effect on the issues of caste and racism in the United States."
Gordon also discussed his mother, who despite being a pioneer within the field of anthropology and having played an indispensable role in the 1930s study and other illuminating work, has had her contributions largely erased from historical record. Referencing a 2018 book about his father called The Lost Black Scholar by David A. Varel, Gordon acknowledged the author's assessment that his mother's omission from the historical record has a lot to do with the subordinate role women, and Black women in particular, are still allotted in our society. Quoting Varel, he ended by saying that, "(his mother's) life exemplifies how race and gender intersected to circumscribe the lives and marginalize the voices of all Black women."