Biographical Sketch of William H. Davis

Extracted from
Early Negro Education In West Virginia
by Carter G. Woodson
(Institute: The West Virginia Collegiate Institute, 1921)

One of the first schools in Kanawha County was organized at Malden, which immediately after the Civil War had a much larger and more promising Negro population than the city of Charleston. Many Negroes had been brought to Kanawha County, and after their freedom many others came to labor in the salt works, as was the case of Booker T. Washington, who came to Malden from Halesford, Virginia. This private school was conducted by Mr. William Davis, the first teacher of Booker T. Washington.

Mr. Davis' career is more than interesting. He was born in Columbus, Ohio, November 27, 1848, and remained there until his thirtieth year, spending parts of the years 1861, 1862, 1863 in Chillicothe. During these years he mastered the fundamentals of an English education. He moved back to Columbus in the fall of 1863. On December 18th of that year Mr. Davis enlisted in the Union "Light Guard", called "Lincoln's Body Guard", at Columbus. He served in the army eighteen months and was discharged at Camp Todd Barracks, Washington, D. C., June 24, 1865. He then returned to Columbus and after remaining there about a month went to Cincinnati, after which he ran on a boat from Gallipolis to Charleston for about four weeks.

About this time the people of Malden, under the wise guidance of Lewis Rice, a beloved pioneer minister, better known among the early Negroes of the State as Father Rice because of his persistent efforts in behalf of religion and education, had decided to establish a school for the education of their children. Mr. William Davis thereupon abandoned his work on the boat and became the teacher of this private school at Malden, in 1865. This school was established in the home of Father Rice. As the school had to be conducted in the very bedroom of this philanthropist, it was necessary for him to take down his bed in the morning and bring in the benches, which would be replaced in the evening by the bed in its turn. The school was next held in the same church thereafter constructed, and finally when it ceased to be a private institution, in the schoolroom provided at public expense as one of the schools of the county.

About the only white person who seemed to give any encouragement to the education of Negroes at Maiden was General Lewis Ruffner. It seems, however, that his interest was not sufficient to provide those facilities necessary to ease the burden of this pioneer teacher. Yet when we think that out of this school came such useful teachers as William T. McKinney, H. B. Rice, and one of the greatest educators of the world, Booker T. Washington, we must conclude that it was a success[.]

Mr. Davis's reputation as a teacher rapidly extended through the Kanawha Valley. He was chosen by the board of education of Charleston to take charge of its Negro school in 1871, when it was just a two-room establishment. In this field, however, Mr. Davis had been preceded, as mentioned above, by noble workers in behalf of the Negroes. Building upon the foundation which other Negroes had laid, he soon had a school of four instead of two rooms, and before he ceased to be principal, it had sufficiently increased to have a well graded system, standardized instruction, and up-to-date methods.

Mr. Davis' early assistants in this work were Charles P. Keys, P. B. Burbridge, Harry Payne, James Bullard, and William T. McKinney. He received some cooperation from a few white persons, the chief one of whom was Mr Edward Moore, a native of Pennsylvania who was the father of Spencer Moore, now a bookseller in the city of Charleston. Mr. Edward Moore taught a select school for Negroes and helped the cause considerably. Mr. Davis served about twenty-four years in all as principal, although he was a member of the teaching staff for a much longer period, having served forty- seven years altogether.

Because of the unsettled policy of the Charleston public schools they changed principals every year or two, to the detriment of the system and the student body. Rev. J. W. Dansberry served for a while as principal, and H. B. Rice, who entered the service as an assistant in 1888, became principal some time later, serving about four years. Mr. Davis, who had been demoted to a subordinate position, was then reinstated, but not long thereafter came Mr. C. W. Boyd, who had rendered valuable service in Clarksburg and had later found employment in the public schools of Charleston. He succeeded Mr. Davis as principal. At the close of one year, however, Mr. Rice was reinstated and served for a number of years, at the expiration of which Mr. Boyd became principal and remained in the position long enough to give some stability to the procedure and plans of the system and to secure the confidence of the patrons of the schools. Some of the valuable assistants serving during this period were William Ross, Miss Blanche Jeffries, Mrs. Fannie Cobb Carter, and Byrd Prillerman, whose career as a teacher includes a short period of service in the Charleston public schools.

African Americans

West Virginia Archives and History