In The Lost Black Scholar, historian David A. Varel tells the story of Allison Davis, the first Black professor to become a full faculty member at a predominantly white American university—the University of Chicago—and a brilliant scholar who, despite making significant contributions to race-related issues in multiple fields, was underappreciated in his time and continues to be overlooked by scholars and historians today.
William Boyd Allison Davis was born in 1902 and grew up in Washington, D.C. His father, John Davis, held a managerial position in the Government Printing Office, and named his eldest son after Iowa senator William Boyd Allison, who was instrumental in his securing an appointment in that office. After the 1912 election of Woodrow Wilson, a Southern-born Democrat whose policies and appointees re-segregated parts of the federal government, the Davis family fell upon very hard times: like so many others, John was demoted and eventually lost nearly two-thirds of his salary.
Allison Davis attended Washington, D.C.’s Dunbar High School and made a name for himself in the field of literature at Williams College in Massachusetts. However, in order to effectively counter the junk science that was supporting white supremacy by claiming other races were inferior, Davis moved into the field of anthropology, studying at Harvard and the London School of Economics. As Varel noted at a book talk held at the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Hyde Park last month, this allowed him to “embody the politics of respectability in order to communicate in this sphere.” Davis believed that “the social world determines the differences among groups”—not genetics. By studying different groups using the the methods of social anthropology, he “…expose[d] the social forces that circumscribed the lives of racial minorities and the poor,” Varel writes in the book.
Research on social forces required fieldwork, so Davis and his anthropologically-trained wife, Alice Elizabeth Stubbs Davis, joined a mixed-race team of five scholars that went to Natchez, Mississippi and lived there from 1933 to 1935. Varel’s descriptions of the very real dangers that the Jim Crow South presented to a highly educated Black couple made this section of the book compelling and disturbing reading: “[Davis] knew all too well that a transgression of the racial code, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, could mean his or Elizabeth’s life.”
A book, Deep South, came out of this study, of which Davis was the lead author. In it, the group of scholars argued “that caste and class were the primary elements of Natchez’s social organizations, but that caste was ‘the fundamental division,’” Varel writes. Davis and his colleague, Lloyd Warner, drew from scholarship on the East Indian caste system to argue that a similar system helped to explain the more limited social mobility of Black people in the South. But caste wasn’t the whole story—Davis and his team showed how caste strictures could be loosened “through a complex system of tradeoffs.” From this perspective, current race relations were not immutable; rather, they showed that “significant change was possible—if blacks could be empowered.” Deep South was well-received by academics and became “basic reading in sociology” in colleges and universities across the country.
However, after World War II, the political climate in the country changed, shifting which intellectual theories were in vogue. “As Americans faced an external military threat, and as they witnessed the fall of democratic governments at the hands of fascistic regimes, many intellectuals closed ranks and sought to locate and nurture a distinctive “American Way of Life” that could defeat the forces of aggression abroad,” Varel writes. Davis’s work, which focused on the ways in which divisions in race and class undermined that idealistic way of life, “did not fare well in such an environment.” This was a trend in Davis’s career: there were multiple points when his ideas were in sync with the zeitgeist of one period but not in sync with others.
Striking examples can been seen in the way Davis talked about the effects of segregation. During the arguments for Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, emphasized the damage to Black students caused by segregation. Although Davis signed his name to a legal brief to the Supreme Court to this effect, he generally eschewed talk about damage and instead “always put the onus for dysfunction on the social system itself, and he generally elected to emphasize the resiliency and rationality of individual black people as they navigated environments of inequality and discrimination,” Varel writes, going on to point out that: “[a] later generation of scholars schooled in the civil rights movement would come to reject expositions of damage as inaccurate and insulting, but in Davis’s time, his position made him a marginal countervailing voice among a chorus of proponents of damage imagery.”
Later in his career, Davis moved into the field of psychology and studied family socialization, making insightful observations about the socialization patterns of lower-class and middle-class families. He also led the first quantitative empirical studies of cultural biases within intelligence tests. “This study had the most practical effect of any of my work,” Davis once said, according to the UofC’s Department of Special Collections. “It led to the abolition of the use of intelligence tests in New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, and other cities. This was one time I got what I wanted: a direct effect on society from social science research.”
In his work at the UofC—which was based in its now-defunct Department of Education—Davis was critical of the ways that segregated schools were failing their students. “In his research on school acculturation, he showed that segregation prevents lower-class and minority children from learning the dominant middle-class culture, and thus served to maintain rather than offset social divisions,” Varel writes.
The book’s appeal was evident by the rapt audience at the book talk last month, at which Varel, a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi, was interviewed by Chicago journalist and author Ben Austen. Jared Davis, one of Allison Davis’s grandsons, offered a few remarks as well. Varel explained that this book came out of his search for a dissertation topic: he wanted to investigate someone who worked to counter pseudo-scientific racism. Specifically, he wanted to learn more about work in this area done by Black scholars who did not receive credit for it at the time. As Varel noted, “Allison Davis provided a way to tell this story.” From a personal perspective, Jared Davis said that the book helped him to better understand and appreciate his grandfather’s work.
As Varel noted at the talk, Davis “refused to be pigeonholed in a discipline.” This is one of the reasons why he is referred to as “the lost Black scholar”—the breadth of his disciplinary range makes him more difficult to capture from the lens of a single discipline. Each of these fields, however, provided new tools with which to combat the social and economic effects of slavery and segregation. As Varel observed, “his scholarship was part of his activism.”
Though the book has obvious local appeal, the breadth and depth of Davis’s work—and the well-contextualized nature of the book—should make it interesting to many outside of Chicago. As with many aspects of his work, Davis’s views on social problems and the best responses to them are prescient. If you walk over to the Allison Davis Garden in Washington Park, near the western end of the Midway Plaisance, you can see one of his famous quotes is engraved in stone: “Although we seem trapped in an age of anger and despair, the alternatives remain the same as in all other ages. We can scuttle—or we can sail the seas. Navigare necesse est. ‘One must chart his course and sail.’”
Ben Austen is a member of the Weekly’s Board of Directors
David A. Varel, The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought. $45. University of Chicago Press. 304 pages
Katie Gruber is a contributor to the Weekly. She is from Cincinnati but has lived in Hyde Park since 1996. Her book “I’m Sorry for What I’ve Done”: The Language of Courtroom Apologies was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. She last wrote for the Weekly in June about criticisms of a new state scholarship program.