John W. Davis misunderstood, supporters say
CLARKSBURG — West Virginia native John W. Davis was a Democratic nominee for president, a member of the House of Representatives, ambassador to Great Britain and the U.S. solicitor general. Burt Lancaster played him in a movie. He was the uncle to another famous West Virginian, diplomat Cyrus Vance.
But it may be his relationship with the Brown v. Board of Education integration case for which he is best remembered.
Including Brown, he made 140 oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Before he died in 1955, no one in the 20th century had equaled that feat.
In the Brown case, Davis argued in favor of keeping schools separated by race. Some who are familiar with Davis’ life worry the case unfairly cast him as a person opposed to equal rights for blacks.
His only child, author Julia Davis, whose mother died shortly after giving birth, wrote “Legacy of Love” in 1961. In the book, she wrote that her father’s law partners urged him not to take the case.
“I added my voice,” Julia wrote. Her father favored starting integration at the college level and letting it work down, but he feared desegregation at lower grades would create “a bitterness damaging to both Negro and white,” Julia wrote.
Clarksburg resident Laura Davis is not directly related to John, but her great aunt was his second wife. “He thought things were moving too fast,” she said, “and people would be hurt. He was not a racist.”
Laura saved letters from her great aunt that give insight into the interesting life they led at the Court of Saint James, when Davis was U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Laura said Time magazine called her great aunt, Ellen G. Bassell, “the most beautiful embassy host in London in 50 years.”
Rod Rogers, who grew up in Clarksburg, believes Davis, who was born in Clarksburg in 1873, should be recognized for his achievements. “John Davis is not taught in West Virginia history,” he said.
Rogers could certainly teach a class. He has collected 1,100 pieces that relate to Davis, including letters, newspapers, buttons, badges, medallions, newsreels, pieces of clothing, paperweights and fans.
Rogers and his brothers used to walk to school in the same neighborhood where the Davis mansion once stood. Rogers has the drawings for the mansion, too.
He said they would stand on the elevated sidewalks and often imagine what it would be like to stand where Davis stood, addressing the crowds of people who came to Clarksburg to see him.
“I think what he did with his life is amazing. He was a delegate to the state Legislature, a congressman, an ambassador and a presidential candidate, and one year before he died he argued the Brown case,” Rogers said.
Davis’ papers were offered to West Virginia University, but the university turned them down, fearing there was a stigma associated with the case. Washington and Lee, Davis’ alma mater, accepted the papers.
Although he was a Democrat, he held “fidelity to the conservative legal principles espoused by his father and by the Washington and Lee law faculty,” according to www.ourcampaigns.org.
In 1924, he was the Democratic nominee for president, but he lost to Republican Calvin Coolidge.
Davis’ running mate was Charles Bryan, the brother of William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, who was famous for his “Cross of Gold” speech.
The 1924 race also included “Fighting Bob” LaFollette of Wisconsin, who ran as the nominee of the Progressive Party.
Rogers, who is a member of the Harrison County Historical Society, said Davis should receive more recognition for what he accomplished in his life. He pointed out there is no mention of Davis on the signs that welcome people to Clarksburg.
More than 50,000 people poured into Clarksburg on the weekend of Aug. 11, 1924, to see Davis in a parade. But Rogers said Davis’ campaign manager disappointed them all. Clem Shaver, who was also the National Democratic Chairman and from Fairmont, convinced Davis that he should save his strength instead of appearing in the parade.
Rogers read details of that famous weekend from the pages of the Clarksburg Exponent. Future U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph, then a cub reporter, wrote the story.
Special trains brought people in to see Davis, and there was a tent city set up in Nutter Fort to accommodate the overflow. “They stood 10 deep along the parade route,” Rogers said. “Some of them stood for six hours, never to see Davis.”
In her book about her father, Julia Davis, who died in 1992, wrote that the presidential campaign was to him “a process of being picked and pulled by millions of hands, and fed into millions of maws.”
She quotes him as saying, “Politics is the science of applied selfishness,” and, “It is the first duty of a politician to get elected.”
In the presidential race, neither West Virginia nor his home county, Harrison, voted for him. “That news gave him a pain which he could not conceal,” his daughter wrote.
She refers to the defeat as “his first major failure.”
Many of the cases he argued were notable. In his second case as solicitor general under Woodrow Wilson’s administration, he argued against Oklahoma’s “grandfather clause,” which excluded blacks from voting.
He spoke up for religious liberty when New York Gov. Al Smith, a fellow 1920s presidential candidate, was attacked for his Catholicism. He defended a Yale University professor in a case that led to the development of the law of conscientious objection.
He also opposed McCarthyite tactics, and was involved in both the Alger Hiss case and in preparing the appeal of J. Robert Oppenheimer to the Atomic Energy Commission for his security clearance.
“He also felt keenly the assumption that he was not a liberal,” Julia Davis wrote. “As a lawyer in Clarksburg, he had defended the right to strike for the miners and the glass workers; in Congress he had helped to draft the Clayton antitrust act, and had personally written its most liberal labor planks; as solicitor general he had defended the eight-hour law, the Sherman antitrust law, and had overthrown the grandfather clause, which kept Negroes from voting in Oklahoma.
He had exhausted his private funds in public service. For only three years of his life had he been ‘a Wall Street lawyer,’ and yet the liberals had turned against him.”
In Clarksburg, he helped to found the law firm Davis and Polk, and he lived within walking distance of his office. He had a large home in New York City, too, and his clients there included J.P. Morgan.
When he took the Brown case, his daughter wrote that he believed “the law was on his side, and that the case presented a last chance to fight for the individual state against encroaching federal government.
“More important still, he believed that for the Negroes themselves the change would come too soon; that the efforts to force the issue would rouse antagonisms which time was healing and would cause a bitterness damaging to both Negro and white. He was in favor of starting integration at a college level and letting it work down by a gradual evolution.”
On the day the case was argued, Julia Davis sat with Mrs. Thurgood Marshall, whose husband would successfully argue against “separate but equal,” the case law established in Plessy v. Ferguson, the law that Davis argued to keep.
Mrs. Marshall told Julia that Thurgood thought her father was “the greatest lawyer in the country, and every time he has a case down here [the U.S. Supreme Court], if Thurgood can spare the time he comes over to listen to him.”
In a unanimous opinion issued May 17, 1954, the justices declared that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” Integration did not happen immediately, and in some Southern states, schools were not integrated until the 1970s.
Although the case is commonly referred to as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., it also included challenges in South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. The justices agreed to hear the combined cases because they had “a common legal question [that] justifies their consideration together in this consolidated opinion,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote.
Davis wrote the brief and also served as chief counsel for South Carolina when the case was argued.
The story was made into a movie called “Separate But Equal.” Burt Lancaster played Davis, and Sidney Poitier played Marshall.
In her book about her father, Julia Davis also wrote that in his presidential campaign, he denounced the Ku Klux Klan. He lost several states where the Klan promised to campaign against him, she said.
But in St. Louis, a group of black people honored him for his efforts.
“There are some public figures,” she wrote, “who, like some actors, look smaller off stage. With him the opposite was true. The nearer one came to him, the larger he appeared, and those who knew him best loved him most.”
To contact Rod Rogers regarding Davis memorabilia, call (304) 623-0629 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact staff writer Susan Williams, use e-mail or call 348-5112.