Cephas Davis Speaking in the Senate

Cephas L. Davis (ca. 1839–1907)

Cephas L. Davis represented Charlotte and Mecklenburg counties in the Senate of Virginia for one term (1879–1880). Born into slavery, he became free at the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865). He spent much of the 1870s as a pastor and teacher in Mecklenburg, though it appears controversy drove him from the ministry temporarily. In 1879 he ran for the state senate as a Republican, winning narrowly in a three-way race. Davis later joined the Readjuster Party, saying that the new party's members treated him as an equal. He did not seek reelection, but he remained involved in local politics. In 1887 he moved to North Carolina, where he taught school, and served as a principal and pastor. Davis spent his final years in Philadelphia, where he died in 1907. MORE...

 

Early Years and Ministry

Davis was born about November 1839 into slavery in Christiansville (later Chase City), in Mecklenburg County. He was the son of Cephas Davis and Annie (sometimes noted as Frances) Davis. Most likely he gained his freedom at the end of the Civil War. His contemporaries' comments and recollections suggest that Davis may have attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) or the Richmond Theological School for Freedmen (later Virginia Union University), but his name does not appear in the records of either school. In 1869 and 1870 he taught former slaves in Maryland for the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHM).

In August 1871, as a licentiate of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, in Washington, D.C., Davis delivered the introductory sermon at the first annual meeting of the Bluestone Colored Baptist Association in Mecklenburg County. Ordained a minister in August 1873, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, in Chase City. The following year he accepted additional pastorates at Bluestone Baptist Church and Clarksville's Mount Zion Baptist Church. Davis served as clerk of the Bluestone Association in 1874 and 1875 and during the latter year also acted as moderator pro tempore. In August 1878 he again preached the opening sermon at the association's annual meeting.

Davis taught in Mecklenburg for the ABHM in 1871 and 1872. About 1878 he sought a position at a local school that the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.'s Board of Missions for Freedmen had recently established. Citing reservations about Davis's moral fitness, the schoolmaster declined to recommend him. After his rejection, Davis sponsored a resolution at a Bluestone Association meeting that threatened to excommunicate from the church all parents who permitted their children to attend the school. To restore the parents' confidence in the school, a fellow minister presented the association with evidence that Davis had fathered several children out of wedlock and asked that he be expelled from the ministry. Surviving minutes of the association do not list Davis as a pastor in 1880 or 1884, although he attended the annual meeting in 1880 and in that year was invited to preach on church government.

Political Career

In 1876 Davis sought a vacant seat in the Senate of Virginia. He dropped out of the race late in September, but his outrage at what he considered the illegal nomination of a black Readjuster compelled him to reenter the contest as an independent candidate. His name did not appear on the ballot in November, however. In June 1879 Davis won the Republican nomination for a seat representing Charlotte and Mecklenburg counties in the Senate. Described as a "jet black Radical" by the Charlotte Gazette on October 30, 1879, Davis received 1,052 votes out of 2,629 cast in the November election to defeat a Conservative and a Readjuster. Like many other African Americans, Davis initially had suspicions about the Readjusters, a biracial coalition led by former Confederate general William Mahone that sought to repudiate a portion of the state's massive antebellum debt; but by mid-November 1879 he seemed ready to join the Readjusters when he wrote to Mahone asking for his support "should there be any further steps taken to deprive me of the office."

Davis had to borrow money for the fare to Richmond, but Readjusters arranged his lodging at one of the city's hotels. Early in January 1880 a Richmond restaurant denied Davis and his two companions service. He unsuccessfully invoked the Fifteenth Amendment and, as recounted in the Richmond State on January 12, 1880, told the white proprietor that he was tired of hearing the term Confederate and that the old guard should become accustomed to taking a "back seat."

During his single Senate term that lasted from December 3, 1879 to March 9, 1880, Davis held the lowest-ranking seats on the Committees on Privileges and Elections, on Banks, and on Immigration. Early in December he proclaimed himself a Readjuster and declared on the Senate floor that other party members treated him as an equal. His attitude mirrored that of many other black politicians, whose support enabled Readjusters to consolidate their power through use of patronage and concessions on such key issues as repealing the poll tax. Davis may also have found the party's promise of better schools attractive.

His own efforts included introducing a resolution to establish a college for African Americans at Chase City. A Charlotte County newspaper chided Davis for opposing the $1 capitation tax designated for schools, but his objection arose most likely because voters were required to present their receipts for the fee at the polls. He and other black members of the General Assembly helped elect Mahone to the U.S. Senate. In February 1880 Davis voted in favor of a bill that disavowed part of the state debt.

Davis did not seek reelection. He remained Mahone's ally and continued to correspond with him about political matters. Davis also made several pleas for appointments to office or for money to help stave off financial embarrassment. In January 1883 he resigned, or was replaced, as deputy collector of internal revenue in nearby Halifax County. Davis still enjoyed local support, however, and in May he won election as a Mecklenburg County justice of the peace. In that year supporters floated his name for the House of Delegates race, but by August his candidacy had faded.

Later Years

Early in 1884 Davis was jailed for failing to pay a fine following his conviction for resisting a police officer. In May he successfully petitioned for his release so that he might request a new trial. Davis's application to have the verdict set aside was rejected, and, because he had not satisfied the fine, the court issued another writ against him.

In 1877 Davis and a man who may have been his brother acquired 1.5 acres in Chase City, and in 1882 he purchased a town lot. On March 15, 1886 both properties were sold at public auction. By the next year Davis had moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he taught school and served as principal of the Normal Theological Institute for the 1892–1893 academic term. In 1890 he mounted an unsuccessful congressional campaign. He was very likely the C. L. Davis who served as moderator of the Rowan Baptist Association in 1890 and as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Charlotte, from 1893 through 1897.

Information regarding Davis's final decade remains elusive. In May 1898 the Washington Post announced that on June 23 he would call to order a Colored Republican League of Virginia meeting in Charlottesville. By 1902 Davis had moved to Philadelphia, where he served as the president of a social organization. In 1904, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that an African American minister with the same name was arrested for falsely collecting money for an Alexandria-based school. In his final day, Davis suffered from dementia and died on May 26, 1907, at a Philadelphia hospital of arteriosclerosis. He was buried at Merion Memorial Park, near Philadelphia in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Time Line

  • ca. 1839 - Cephas L. Davis is born enslaved in Mecklenburg County.
  • 1869–1870 - Cephas L. Davis teaches former slaves in Maryland for the American Baptist Home Mission Society.
  • 1871–1872 - Cephas L. Davis teaches in Mecklenburg County for the American Baptist Home Mission Society.
  • August 1871 - Cephas L. Davis delivers the introductory sermon at the first annual meeting of the Bluestone Colored Baptist Association, in Mecklenburg County.
  • August 1873 - Cephas L. Davis is ordained as a Baptist minister and pastors Bethlehem Baptist Church, in Chase City.
  • 1874 - Cephas L. Davis pastors Chase City's Bluestone Baptist Church and Clarksville's Mount Zion Baptist Church.
  • 1874–1875 - Cephas L. Davis serves as clerk of the Bluestone Association.
  • 1875 - Cephas L. Davis acts as moderator pro tempore for the Bluestone Association.
  • October 1876 - Cephas L. Davis seeks a seat in the Senate of Virginia as an independent after dropping his candidacy as a Readjuster.
  • October 1876 - Cephas L. Davis's name does not appear on the ballot for Senate of Virginia.
  • 1877 - Cephas L. Davis purchases 1.5 acres in Chase City with a man who may have been his brother.
  • 1878 - Cephas L. Davis's is rejected for a teaching position with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.'s school for freedpeople because he allegedly fathered children out of wedlock. Davis retaliates by discouraging parents from sending their children to the school, and the Bluestone Association considers expelling him from the ministry.
  • August 1878 - Cephas L. Davis preaches the opening sermon at the Bluestone Association annual meeting.
  • June 1879 - Cephas L. Davis is nominated for the Senate of Virginia as a Republican from Mecklenburg County.
  • November 1879 - Cephas L. Davis wins election to the Senate of Virginia as a Republican from Mecklenburg County.
  • December 3, 1879–March 9, 1880 - Cephas L. Davis serves one term in the Senate of Virginia, where he joins the Readjuster Party.
  • 1880 - Cephas L. Davis attends the Bluestone Association annual meeting and preaches on church government, although he is not listed in the Association's minutes as a minister.
  • January 1880 - Cephas L. Davis is denied service at a Richmond restaurant and unsuccessfully invokes the Fifteenth Amendment to gain entry.
  • 1882 - Cephas L. Davis purchases his second lot of property in Chase City.
  • January 1883 - Cephas L. Davis either resigns or is replaced as deputy collector of internal revenue in Mecklenburg County.
  • May 1883 - Cephas L. Davis wins election as a Mecklenburg justice of the peace.
  • 1884 - The minutes of the Bluestone Association annual meeting do not list Cephas L. Davis as a minister.
  • Early 1884 - Cephas L. Davis is convicted for resisting a police officer, fails to pay the fine, and is jailed.
  • May 1884 - Cephas L. Davis successfully petitions for release from jail in order to request a new trial. His application to withdraw the verdict is denied, and the court issues a second writ against him for the outstanding fine.
  • March 15, 1886 - Both of Cephas L. Davis's properties in Chase City are sold at public auction.
  • 1887 - By this year, Cephas L. Davis lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he teaches school.
  • 1890 - Cephas L. Davis unsuccessfully runs for U.S. Congress from North Carolina.
  • 1892–1893 - Cephas L. Davis serves as principal of the Normal Theological Institute in North Carolina.
  • 1893–1897 - Cephas L. Davis is likely the "C. L. Davis" that serves as the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • May 1898 - The Washington Post announces that Cephas L. Davis will call to order a Colored Republican League of Virginia meeting in Charlottesville.
  • 1902 - By this year, Cephas L. Davis lives in Philadelphia.
  • March 20, 1904 - The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that an African American minister named Cephas L. Davis is arrested for falsely collecting money for an Alexandria-based school.
  • May 26, 1907 - Cephas L. Davis dies in Philadelphia after suffering from dementia. He is buried at Merion Memorial Park in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

References

Further Reading
Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
Moore, James T. "Black Militancy in Readjuster Virginia, 1879–1883." Journal of Southern History 61 (1975): 167–186.
Moore, James Tice. Two Paths to the New South: The Virginia Debt Controversy, 1870–1883. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Gunter, D. W., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Cephas L. Davis (ca. 1839–1907). (2015, May 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Davis_Cephas_L_ca_1839-1907.

  • MLA Citation:

    Gunter, Donald W. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Cephas L. Davis (ca. 1839–1907)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 May. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 1, 2015 | Last modified: May 21, 2015