Edward Daniel Davis (1904-1989)
Prepared by the Historical Monument Trail Selection Committee, Friends of the Riverwalk.
was a hero of the Florida civil rights movement, especially fighting for equality for black students and teachers. Born in Georgia, he earned a master’s degree from Chicago’s prestigious Northwestern University in 1934 and became a school principal in Tampa and in Ocala. As president of the all-black Florida State Teachers Association, he led a lawsuit for equal pay during World War II: At the time, black teachers were paid about half as much as white ones, no matter what their credentials or assignments. The case eventually was won, but David was fired from his job and never returned to education. Instead, he rose to be president of Central Life Insurance Company, a statewide firm based in Tampa that offered insurance to African Americans at a time when traditional companies would not to sell them.
Sometimes called “E.D.,” Edward Daniel Davis was born in 1904 in Thomasville, Georgia. In his book, A Half Century of Struggle (1981), Davis wrote that his father “was a struggling minister of the Colored Methodist Episcopal church” (CME), which meant that the family moved often. “Many of these churches were small,” he explained, “and the membership was poor.”
His parents valued education, though, and he attended elementary schools in four towns near Valdosta. They were, of course, segregated, and the first was a one-room school that had been donated by his grandfather, a former slave. He went to secondary school at the Holsey Institute in Cordele, Georgia, which was run by the CME, and graduated from Voorhees Institute in South Carolina in 1924. He earned his BA at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia; founded by the CME in 1882, it remains a private, co-educational liberal arts school.
He married his “college sweetheart and classmate,” Alice Copeland, in September after their graduation, and they moved to St. Augustine. After a year there, he was named principal of West Tampa Elementary School, while Alice taught English at Booker T. Washington High School. The couple had four children, but Alice died of childbirth complications after the last. That was in the 1930s, and he reared those children largely alone. In 1962, he wed LaRone Taylor, and they would have two children, Samuel Edward Davis and Cynthia Marcia Davis (later Villaire).
It is notable, too, that Davis’ 1929 hiring as principal was during the administration of Blanche Armwood: also a Riverwalk honoree, she was Hillsborough County’s first African American superintendent of schools for African Americans. Davis went on to serve as principal of Lomax School in East Tampa from 1930-1935, while also working on his master’s degree during summers. He earned it from prestigious Northwestern University in Chicago in 1934 and became known as Tampa’s first black educator with a graduate degree. This was an era in which the State of Florida refused to admit black students to its graduate schools, and instead paid their tuition to go out-of-state. Because of this, many black educators had better credentials than their white contemporaries — but black teachers routinely were paid salaries that were about half of those of whites.
He became president of the Florida State Teachers Association, the group that represented black teachers, in 1935, and moved to Ocala the same year. There he was principal of Howard Academy until 1942, when he was fired for his activism in seeking equal salaries for black educators. This was during World War II, and the nation was experiencing a great shortage of teachers – black and white, men and women – because better opportunity was available in the military and in defense industries. The Florida State Teachers Association used that situation to sue for equal pay with white teachers. The initial six plaintiffs included Tampa’s Hilda Turner, for whom a school is named. They eventually won, but meanwhile, school boards fired activists, and they had to find other ways to support themselves.
Davis then founded the Florida Voters League, which aimed to register African Americans to vote, and was its first president. He also served two terms as president of the Florida NAACP, and he chaired the group that championed the nine-year case of Virgil Hawkins, an African American who wanted to study at the all-white University of Florida College of Law. The infamous “Johns Committee,” headed by powerful State Senator Charley Johns, forced Davis and others to testify, charging the university’s liberals, both black and white, with being communists. It was an era when activism took real bravery: racists killed Davis’ Brevard County colleagues, teachers Harry and Harriet Moore in 1951 — a decade prior to the usual chronology of the national civil rights movement.
Davis never returned to education after his 1942 firing, and according to a 2015 article in the Ocala Star-Banner, ran a gas station and laundry in Ocala. He moved back to Tampa when the NAACP opened its state headquarters here in 1952, and joined Central Life Insurance Company, where he spent the next three decades working his way up to president and chairman of the board. The company had been founded 1922 by a group of African Americans that included internationally famous Mary McLeod Bethune. By 1935, it was operating in almost every Florida city, had some 300 employees, and had paid out $1 million in claims. It later built an impressive headquarters on North Boulevard near downtown Tampa.
Davis rose to become president of the national association of similar insurance companies. He also served on the boards of numerous organizations, including Greater Tampa United Way and the Florida Council on Human Relations. He was part of the Hillsborough County Desegregation Committee, and Mayor Julian Lane called on him for leadership in preventing riots. Davis even won a coveted spot on the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, which nominates judges for gubernatorial appointment.
He retired from Central Life in 1978 and moved to Orlando, where he died September 7, 1989. His children had had children, and he left 19 great-grandchildren. His obituary in the Orlando Sentinel lists several editions of Who’s Who that included him. He was the first recipient of the Governor’s Distinguished Black Floridian Award in 1986, during the last year of Bob Graham’s administration. A portion of US 441 in Orlando is named for him, while the site of Ocala’s Howard Academy, which fired him in 1942, was renamed for him in 2015. In that same year, he posthumously joined the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
Edward D. Davis published A Half Century of Struggle for Freedom in 1981. The 224-page book says relatively little about him, but features many civil rights documents of the decades between 1930 and 1980. Other sources with extensive references to him include Ben Green, Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr (1999), and Tampa’s own Robert Saunders, Bridgi