Born, raised, and laid to rest all here in St. Louis, Julia Davis lived a life of an average St. Louisan, but her impact on the city and its people was anything but typical. Born in 1891, Davis grew up in the city, received her education from the St. Louis Public School system, and then went on to teach for the district at Simmons Junior High School on St. Louis Avenue for 30 years until her retirement in 1961.
From a very young age, Davis was drawn to two things: teaching and African American history. As a small child she loved reading through the scrapbooks that her father had filled with clippings and photos of accomplished African Americans. Davis developed a sense of pride and curiosity about her heritage.
Davis is pictured here (back row, standing) alongside her colleagues:
Not only did she pursue this interest, but she encouraged her students to do so as well. Because of her teaching gift, Davis told the stories of African Americans in as many ways as she could. Her work became a model for researching and celebrating the lives and contributions of African Americans.
“These were things that weren’t even mentioned in our textbooks. It was certainly a source of pride in self to find out that, even if our history books didn’t mention it, we had made contributions to our country.” - George Hyram, student of Davis in the 1930s
Making young African American students realize the impact and importance of their predecessors was an effort she dedicated her life to. Davis created create annual black history exhibits at the public library and wrote 5 books on black history published by the St. Louis Public Schools used as part of their curriculum.
Davis had a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian.
*Lady Boss Status*
Chuck Berry, the famed local musician, was one of Davis’s students and realized immediately that the kind of antics for which he had been noted just a few years earlier would no longer be acceptable in her classroom. At her 100th birthday celebration, Berry said, “She’s a Baptist, but she was like a Catholic nun in the classroom . . . She taught in the avenue of perfection; we tried to come close.”Berry remembered Davis as being one of his most influential teachers. (I hope he invited her on stage at one of his shows...)
Julia Davis was invited to speak at the 40th Anniversary celebration of the Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing on November 13, 1959. The Homer G. Phillips Hospital was an exclusively black hospital in the city of St. Louis and was considered by many to be the most tangible achievement of St. Louis’ black community. To many, the hospital had become the most widely known symbol of success for the African American community.
Because of the symbolic nature of the institution, it was only fitting that Julia Davis was selected to give the keynote address. Davis crafted an uplifting speech that looked to the future of healthcare through technology and spiritual healing.
Here is a copy of the speech she gave:
But perhaps most influential of all of all, Davis drew attention to the “human race” and looked for a healing of racially inscribed wounds through the forging of connections between fellow St. Louisans and to the nation and nations beyond.
The St. Louis Public Library broke with tradition by dedicating a branch in honor of a living person. On February 14, 1993, the new Julia Davis Branch was officially opened on Natural Bridge Road.
Wanna Know More?
Katie Moon wrote a series on Julia Davis on the Missouri History Museum blog “History Happens Here.”
The Julia Davis papers are housed at the The State Historical Society of Missouri on the campus of University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The Julia Davis Branch library has a small archive of material related to Davis.
Check out the National Register of Historic Places Inventory: Nomination Form on Homer G. Phillps Hospital, St. Louis, MO. Photographs above: by Mary M. Stiritz in March 1982. Courtesy of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc. featured in the nomination form.