Dr. Allison Davis

US #2816 – from the Black Heritage Series

Dr. William Boyd Allison Davis was born on October 14, 1902, in Washington, DC. 

Dr. Davis came from a family that was familiar with activism.  His grandfather had been an abolitionist lawyer, and his father led an anti-lynching committee of the NAACP.

Davis graduated as valedictorian from his high school in 1920 and again was valedictorian upon his graduation from Williams College in 1924.  From there, he went to teach in rural Virginia.  It was there that he witnessed first hand the effects of social class in education.  He realized that “teaching in the standard manner made no sense to these poor and poorly schooled rural blacks.  I decided that I didn’t know anything to teach them since our backgrounds were so different, yet I wanted to do something to affect such students.”

US #2816 – Classic First Day Cover

Davis was concerned over this experience and decided to return to school to explore how he could make a difference.  In 1931, he went to Harvard to study social anthropology.  There, he enveloped himself in exhaustive study of class and race in the Deep South.  He worked with others to conduct field research that revealed a color-caste system.  Davis used this research to conduct a comparative study of the effects of this system on young African Americans in two cities.  The result of these studies was two books, Children of Bondage (1940) and Deep South (1941). 

US #2816 – Fleetwood First Day Cover

In 1942, Davis received his doctorate from the University of Chicago, where he served as a faculty member for the next 40 years.  He was the first African American to hold a full faculty position at a major white university.  He was also one of the first African American anthropologists in the country.  Davis served on the faculty of the Department of Education and Committee on Human Development. 

US #2816 – Mystic First Day Cover

Davis worked closely with other social scientists there to conduct extensive studies.  They studied infant and child rearing in both white and black families.  Davis also embarked on a major study of standardized intelligence tests that were used in elementary schools.  In his book Social-Class Influences upon Learning, Davis argued that these tests were biased towards middle-class students.  In 1951, he co-authored an analysis of class-based student responses to the questions found on 10 intelligence tests. 

US #2816 – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover

Davis challenged the cultural bias of the testing system and fought for the understanding of human potential without regard to race or class.  He considered his work on intelligence testing to be the most successful aspect of his career.  His research led many cities to abolish or revise intelligence tests.  As he later recalled, “This one time I got what I wanted: a direct effect on society from social science research.”  Davis’s research also helped inspire the Head Start Program.

Item #4901827 – Fleetwood First Day Proof Card

Widely acclaimed, Davis received numerous awards, including the University of Chicago’s John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor of Education.  He was also named Educator of the Year in 1971.  During the 60s, Dr. Davis served on the President’s Commission on Civil Rights and later as vice chairman of the Department of Labor’s Commission on Manpower Retraining.  His final book, Leadership, Love, and Aggression, examined four prominent black leaders through the lens of his class and caste studies.  Davis died on November 21, 1983. 

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  1. What an important work and a positive impact on society and our country. In today’s United States it would be a good time to review Dr. Davis’ research findings and continue building on the shoulders of this influential leader. Thank’ again Mystic for a peek back into history.

  2. Isabel Wilkerson’s new book: “Caste” explores the same caste concept that Dr. Allison Davis was discovering many years ago.

  3. An obviously great American that I did not know anything about until reading this essay. Thank you, Mystic !

  4. Great information for all stamp collectors. Dr. Davis did great work for all mankind. So sad that USPS choose his stamp the first Black Heritage stamp that would not be in color. I think that move hurt sales of the Black Heritage stamps until the USPS issued Marian Anderson in 2005.

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