A forgotten piece of West Virginia history

Posted by | February 22, 2011

Please welcome guest author Kathryn N. Gregory, staff writer for The Charleston Gazette. Her article below ran in the February 19, 2011 issue of the Gazette. “The information relating to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings in the original article was slightly wrong,” Gregory adds. “This information related to Woodson’s father’s paternal side of the family, not Davis. That was an oversight on my part. They are still connected to Jefferson, just on a different side.”

William Davis, the first black man nominated for governor in West Virginia and Booker T. Washington’s first teacher, may be a forgotten piece of West Virginia history, but more than 100 years later, his great-grandchildren are trying to change that.

William Davis of Charleston WVSiblings Florence Berger and Ronald Woodson are working to have Davis included in the history books.

“Even without him being Booker’s first teacher, just what he did for Negro education at the time is worth noting,” Berger said.

She is referring to Davis’ contribution to the education of blacks in the Malden and Charleston areas in the 1860s.

According to historical records, Davis was born in Columbus, OH, in 1848. His mother’s father was a station operator for the Underground Railroad in Ohio, and Woodson and Berger have always been told that they are descendants of one of President Thomas Jefferson’s sons with Monticello slave Sally Hemings.

Although they have no documentation about the validity of the Jefferson ancestral claim, it’s part of their family’s history, woven into the stories they have been told all their lives.

Davis was educated at public schools in Ohio until he was 15. In the Union Army, he served in a cavalry regiment stationed at the nation’s capital and popularly known as the President’s Escort or “Lincoln’s Body Guard.” He was honorably discharged for an ear defect in 1865, sending him to work with his father, according to Woodson.

That year, Davis landed in the Kanawha Valley, then a home to many freed slaves. He never left.

Davis’ great-grandchildren were told that the Rev. Lewis Rice, a local minister in Malden, asked him if he would like a job teaching freed slaves.

At only 18, Davis accepted the position. Although he was young, the locals were so eager to learn, they embraced him with open arms, Woodson said. Davis became the first African-American teacher in the Kanawha Valley, according to the article “Booker T. Washington’s West Virginia Boyhood,” by Louis R. Harlan.

Things did not get off to an easy start.

Rice’s own bedroom was used as the schoolhouse, causing some inconvenience for the homeowner. “The bed was dismantled and removed to make room for three or four slab benches, hewn by hand and accommodating an average of 10 persons each,” according to the Harlan paper.

“There was no funding for schools that catered to blacks. My [great-grandfather] was paid by contributions from the parents, and a different family brought him lunch each day,” Woodson said.

But Davis was “energetic” and “eager to teach,” so despite the adversity imposed upon him and the school, the students learned.

In the spring of 1867, Davis separated his more advanced pupils from the others and called them the secondary school, though he remained the only teacher and presumably still taught the students in the same room.

Davis was one of the first to separate primary from secondary students in a black school, according to Harlan.

In 1869, just a few years after settling in the Valley, Davis married Hallie Ann Lewis and moved to Charleston. From then on, no matter the weather, he walked the six miles there and back to Malden each school day, Woodson said.

In 1872, Davis left the tiny schoolhouse to head the Negro grade school in Charleston. “He is mild and courteous in his manner, kind to his pupils and conscientious and earnest in the discharge of his duties,” the superintendent wrote in a local newspaper according to the Harlan paper.

His reputation and impact on education preceded him, causing an unexpected event to take place in 1888.

Davis was nominated by a delegation of 49 African-Americans in the state to run for governor that year on an independent ticket supported by the free African-Americans in the Valley, according to “A Timeline of African-American History in West Virginia,” filed with the state archives.

The vote was the first major election in the state where blacks had become a significant voting force. To this day, he is still the only black person to be nominated for governor in West Virginia.

It was during his first years as a teacher that Davis met and taught Booker T. Washington, who is best known as an author, orator and educator, founding the Tuskegee Institute, now University, in Alabama in 1881. But at the time, he was just another one of Davis’ students.

Washington was born to a slave cook on a Virginia farm in April 1865. After his mother was freed, she trekked 200 miles to Malden, where her husband worked in the salt furnaces. It was there that Washington started his foray into education, under the youthful, but energetic teachings of Davis, according to the Harlan paper.

A wedding photograph of William Davis and his bride, Hallie. The couple married in 1869.

A wedding photograph of William Davis and his bride, Hallie. The couple married in 1869.

Davis took a special interest in Washington, going to his house to help tutor and teach him outside of regular school hours, something that was common at the time, according to Woodson.

Of all the people who impacted Washington’s life, Davis may have had one of the most profound impacts, Woodson said. When Washington was honored at Tuskegee at their anniversary celebration in 1937, Washington brought Davis along as his guest of honor, pointing out that Davis’ contribution to education and his desire to teach helped make Washington the man he became.

“In the end, he said it was my great-grandfather’s faith that inspired him to become a teacher,” Berger said.

In 1995, Woodson, who worked for GMAC for 30 years, started piecing together his family history, but took it up full time in 2008, after the Malden Booker T. Washington dedication ceremony where a statue honoring the late activist and educator was unveiled.

Woodson wrote a letter of appeal to Charleston Mayor Danny Jones on Feb. 14 imploring him to consider Davis for his personal achievement and service to the community and to recognize him as an important local historical figure.

Doing the research has not been easy. “I’ve been up against a brick wall getting this information,” Woodson said. Many of the historical accounts from Davis’ time offer conflicting reports of history, particularly those related to blacks.

“A lot of the information we don’t have because our parents didn’t get it from their parents,” Woodson said. “It was a different time. Children were seen and not heard.”

Berger said she regrets more than anything not asking her father, who was 18 when her great-grandfather died, more questions about her family’s history.

“You wish you had all the time in the world to get to know [your ancestors] as people,” she said.

Berger, a registered nurse, has started to chronicle her own life, even if it’s just writing down the color of her eyes and her favorite color. That way, her great-grandkids will actually know her as a person.

“A person is much more than just what they accomplish in their lives,” she said.

Berger’s interest in her great-grandfather’s story started with just wanting to know more about the type of man he was when he lived.

“I always imagined him as a tall person,” to match the stature of the stories she heard about what he did for blacks in West Virginia, but he was only 5 feet, 7 inches and only 18 when he was appointed teacher.

Now that their research is in its final stages, the family hopes to have their great-grandfather’s name included in the pages of history.

“We see so much history about other people and not much about him,” Berger said. “He was selfless. He wasn’t out for recognition. He just followed his calling of teaching.”

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