Struggle and Success

Photograph of man wear a blue shirt and orange sweater tied over his shoulders.

As a Williams student, Gordon J. Davis ’63 became a civil rights activist during a time of great change for the campus and the country.

By Kate Stone Lombardi ’78
Photograph by Dana Smith

How two generations of the Davis family helped pave the way for Williams’ ongoing work on equity, inclusion, social justice and community building.

The first time Gordon J. Davis saw Williams College was in 1957. His father, the renowned social anthropologist and psychologist W. Allison Davis, was driving the family home to Chicago after conducting research on I.Q. testing in Cambridge, Mass. Williamstown was already in the rearview mirror when Allison remarked, off-handedly, “Oh, that’s where I went to college.”

It was hardly a ringing endorsement. And when Gordon began his own college search, his father—one of three Black students in the Class of 1924—told him, “Anyplace but Williams.”

“Being rebellious, I immediately applied,” says Gordon, who graduated in 1963 and, like his father, was one of three Black students in his class.

Gordon related the anecdote and many others to me during an interview for the Society of Alumni Bicentennial celebration, which begins in January 2021. As part of the planning group, I had volunteered to collect stories about fellow alumni. I knew the Davis family had a long, complicated history with Williams, and I was eager for Gordon to share it with me. (Throughout this article, I use first names for clarity. No disrespect is intended.)

Speaking via videoconference from his apartment in Manhattan, Gordon talked about his family’s relationship with the college. Pieces of that history have been shared over the years as they relate to the Multicultural Center, founded in 1989 and renamed the Davis Center in 2012 to honor Gordon’s father and his uncle, John Davis ’33. Today, the center helps lead campus conversations about diversity and equity, supporting students from historically underrepresented groups. Its name represents both the struggles and successes of the Davis family at Williams.

Allison arrived on campus in the fall of 1920, having graduated from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. One of a few public schools dedicated to serving Black youth, Dunbar sent a handful of students each year to Williams or Amherst on a full scholarship. Allison was under no illusions about the discrimination he’d face at the predominantly white college, Gordon says.

In a 2015 New York Times Op-Ed, Gordon wrote about how his father and uncle John witnessed the financial and emotional destruction of their father, John Abraham Davis, by the racist segregation policies of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Born in 1862, John Sr. was at the top of his high school class and ambitious. Jim Crow laws were entrenched, but the Civil Service was integrated and offered opportunity. John took a job with the Government Printing Office and rose from laborer to mid-level management, supervising an office with white employees, Gordon wrote. But Wilson began segregating the service shortly after his election in 1913. John was demoted to increasingly menial jobs, his salary slashed in half, forcing him to auction the family farm. Gordon described his grandfather as “a broken man.” Allison and, later, John Jr. carried this experience with them to Williams.

“He and the others who went there from Dunbar High School knew what they were getting into,” Gordon says today. “They knew it wasn’t a socially integrated place or some bastion of liberal outlook on African Americans.”

Barred from fraternities, Allison and his two Black classmates visited North Adams, a railroad hub at the time. They found companionship and parties where they were welcome with the Pullman Porters, the exclusively Black group of men who worked on the sleeper cars.

Allison graduated from Williams summa cum laude, with highest honors in English. He was class valedictorian and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He completed a master’s degree in English from Harvard University and, soon after, applied for a faculty position in Williams’ English department. The college turned him down. Seeking guidance, he wrote to Williams President Harry Garfield, Class of 1885. Their correspondence is preserved in Williams’ Archives and Special Collections.

Garfield responded: “It is, I suppose, true that you will hardly be considered for appointment in Northern high schools or colleges, and yet the qualifying word is there. The difficulty, so far as our colleges are concerned, is rather obvious: We all have Southern students.”

Garfield advised Allison to apply instead for a teaching job at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), an all-Black college in Virginia, and wrote a letter of recommendation. The letter described a meeting of The Pipe and Quill, a student literary society comprised of “a select company of young men.” The event was held at the Sigma Phi fraternity house, where Allison worked as head waiter. After serving dinner to his classmates that night, he presented his own paper to the society.

As Garfield wrote in his recommendation letter, “Those who were present told me of the occasion, both because of the excellent paper he presented and because of the way he bore himself as waiter at the fraternity house. He served on that occasion as on others, taking his place naturally and apparently without embarrassment as a member of The Pipe and Quill when his duties as waiter were discharged. He dignified the work of his hands and the quality of his intellectual performance.”

Today Gordon says he considers that last phrase the most appalling moment in the correspondence.

Allison took the job at Hampton, but “that’s when his anger ignited” toward Williams, Gordon says. “He was a person who obviously didn’t accept barriers. There were no African American teachers in any white school in the United States, even in high schools. But he didn’t see that as a barrier to why Williams wouldn’t hire him after he’d been a superstar there.”

Gordon notes that his father remained connected with several alumni, including the acclaimed poet Sterling Brown, Class of 1922. In their correspondence, also in the college archives, Allison addressed Brown as “Dutch, Old Scout” and signed his letters as “Flap.” Allison also encouraged his friend’s writing career, offering to introduce him to publishers; “I want like hell to see your work in print,” he wrote on Oct. 18, 1925.

After completing a second master’s degree, in anthropology, and then a Ph.D., Allison held a professorship at the University of Chicago for almost 40 years. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the Civil Rights Commission. Known for his groundbreaking research into the role of class and race in a child’s education and acculturation, Allison and his wife, Elizabeth, embedded themselves in rural Mississippi at huge personal risk to scrutinize life under Jim Crow laws. The product of that scholarship, the 1941 book Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class, remains relevant today. Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson devoted an entire chapter of her 2020 book Caste to Allison’s work, saying in her acknowledgments that she considers him to be “a spiritual father.”

Allison’s younger brother, John, also graduated from Williams summa cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Gordon says John’s experience was more positive than his father’s. Yet when John wrote a letter in 1935 asking Williams to consider a “Negro youth who lives in Springfield” for admission, President Tyler Dennett, Class of 1904, responded, “I should not recommend a Negro to enroll at Williams College at the present time for several reasons.” Among them: Black students were now barred from working at fraternity houses, and there were very few social opportunities for them on campus.

In the letter, which is also in the college archives, Dennett stated there was no policy excluding Black students from Williams per se, noting that the college was “a pioneer in Negro education.” But, he added, “The educational problem as it concerns the Negro is two-sided, since it involves also an educational problem for the whites.” After Williams “went in for Negro education,” Dennett wrote, the college hadn’t been able to draw students from below the Mason-Dixon Line, something he regretted.

John went on to receive a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University and pursued a career as a writer, educator and activist who, in the 1930s, organized one of the earliest civil rights protests in Washington and helped establish the legality of economic boycotts to fight employment discrimination. He was the lead historical researcher in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision ending the separate-but-equal doctrine for public schools. He taught at Ohio State University, Lincoln University and the City College of New York and, from 1943 to 1946, was one of four directors of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Fair Employment Practices. Despite his own frustrations, John didn’t share his brother’s bitterness toward Williams and eventually served as a trustee.

Gordon had his own experiences of racism at Williams. He recalls how, in the fall of 1959, while searching for a pencil in a desk drawer, he found a letter from the college to his freshman-year roommate, asking if he minded “rooming with a Negro.”

“I went over to see the dean to express my outrage,” Gordon says. “He gave me a lecture and told me I was speaking out of turn.”

Gordon didn’t tell his father about the incident. Instead, he became an activist. He recalls how two seniors came to the freshman dining hall that spring to organize students from Williams, Amherst, Trinity and Wesleyan. The plan was to picket the White House on Good Friday in support of the sit-ins in the South. Gordon says most of his white classmates, including someone at his table, booed the speaker.

“I said, ‘What are you booing about? Don’t you believe Negroes are equal to whites?’” Gordon recalls. “‘You’re sitting at a table with me and my cousin and Bill Boyd—what the hell is the matter with you?’”

Bill Boyd ’63 and John Davis ’63, Gordon’s cousin, were the only other Black students in the freshman class. Gordon says his cousin had to physically restrain him from “ejecting” the white student at their table.

Gordon and about 20 Williams students ended up taking part in the Good Friday protest on a sweltering, 90-degree day in the spring of 1960. Some students were concerned that Williams might expel them for picketing. Gordon’s friend Geoff Howard ’63 was worried that his parents would pull him out of school. Gordon remembers reassuring Geoff, “There’s no way they’ll ever know.”

The next day, however, The New York Times published a cover photo of Gordon and Geoff picketing in their tweed suits. Far from being angry, Geoff’s parents bought multiple copies, Gordon recalls with a chuckle.

protesters at a civil rights march

Freshmen Gordon J. Davis ’63 and Geoff Howard ’63 made the front page of The New York Times for a student protest in Washington, D.C., against segregation. Photograph Courtesy of Gordon J. Davis ’63.

During their sophomore year, Gordon and Roger Warren ’63 cofounded the Williams Civil Rights Committee. Connecting with other students at a civil rights conference at Sarah Lawrence College, the two returned to Williams to raise money for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and other activist organizations. They fundraised at each of the 15 fraternity houses, talking to students one on one.

“The real purpose of the fundraising was to confront each individual with the issue of race in America,” Gordon says.

That year, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Williams. After preaching in the chapel, he gave a standing-room-only presentation on civil rights in Jesup Hall. Two years later, Gordon’s senior year, a bus load of Williams students headed to Birmingham, Ala. Gordon didn’t go—his parents had warned him to stay out of the South. But he recalls John Kifner ’63 returning with a “Whites Only” sign he’d stolen from a bathroom.

Martin Luther King, Jr. talk with three young men.

The Rev. Martin Luther King visited Williams in 1961. Photograph Courtesy of Williams College Archives.

“The campus was in complete agitation and excitement about civil rights,” Gordon says. “It took Williams many, many years, but that was the beginning of change.”

His father visited him at Williams only once—to attend Gordon’s graduation.

Gordon went on to Harvard Law School and served as one of the first Black partners in a major corporate law firm. He also was commissioner of parks and recreation for New York City Mayor Ed Koch, and his sweeping changes to the urban landscape included installing benches throughout the park system and restoring beaches and landmarks such as Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Arch and Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park. He is a founding chairman of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a life trustee of the New York Public Library and a trustee of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, appointed by President Barack Obama. On Oct. 29, Gordon is to be honored by the New York Landmarks Conservancy as a 2020 Living Landmark.

All three Davises received honorary degrees from Williams. Allison received his in 1974, and Gordon recalls that his father was “not happy the whole weekend. His basic attitude was, ‘What took you so long?’”

When Gordon received his degree in 1982, seven years before John, his father returned to Williamstown. At a dinner before the ceremony, Allison was surrounded by admiring faculty members. Williams finally seemed to recognize the importance of his father’s work, Gordon says.

A man receives an honorary degree in an outdoor ceremony.

When Gordon J. Davis ’63 received an honorary degree from Williams in 1982, it was a powerful moment for his father, W. Allison Davis ’24. Photograph Courtesy of Williams College Archives.

The next day, father and son stood on the steps of the President’s House, watching the graduation procession. A young Black woman marched by, and Allison asked who she was. When Gordon explained that she was the class marshal, his father responded, “Hmm. This place really has changed. Not as much as it should—but it’s changed.”

Sixty years of anger finally began to thaw. That evening, at a family dinner at the 1896 House, Allison stunned the table by announcing, “This has been one of the happiest weekends of my life.”

Gordon says he still thinks about his father’s words that night. “He knew, and I knew, that Williams had a long way to go,” he says. “Maybe it was the combination of my being honored, being there with my mother and the warmth of the greetings he received. It was a powerful moment for him and provided an opportunity to let anger and resentment fall away. The most important point is that a year before he died, my father was mostly reconciled with Williams.”

Following Allison’s death in 1983, Williams led the successful effort to have a commemorative postage stamp issued in his honor. The Davis Center, Davis Lecture series, Allison Davis Research Fellowship and other awards and workshops bear the family’s name, highlighting equity, inclusion, social justice education and community building. The academic focus of the tributes, Gordon says, would have been the most meaningful to his scholarly father. The Davis legacy at Williams continued when Allison’s granddaughter Jordan joined the Class of 2017.

As a journalist and Bicentennial committee volunteer, I take to heart two guiding principles: to “tell our story as a community” and to “acknowledge shortcomings in the history of the college and the Society of Alumni.” It’s impossible to excuse the college for its treatment of the Davises and so many others. Nevertheless, these alumni persisted and prevailed. I’m grateful to Gordon Davis for entrusting me with his family story.

And I’m haunted by the image of Allison Davis at Sigma Phi, clearing the last dinner plate, slipping off his white waiter’s jacket and presenting his paper to The Pipe and Quill. The topic of that paper is lost to history, but an essay he published after graduation, “On Misgivings,” may provide insight. He wrote, “The man who has accepted life at its face value has surrendered, and is lost.”

Portrait of Kate Stone Lombardi

Kate Stone Lombardi ’78 was a regular contributor to The New York Times for 20 years, and her journalism has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and TIME, among others. She’s the author of The Mama’s Boy Myth (Avery/Penguin, 2012).

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