A Column from the Roanoke Weekly Press

John H. Davis (d. 1896)

John H. Davis was an African American entrepreneur and newspaper publisher who advanced with the economic boom created by Roanoke's establishment in the 1880s and then lost much of his wealth in the financial panic of 1893. It is unknown whether Davis was born free or into slavery, but in 1869 he owned property in Lynchburg. In January 1879 he purchased land in the Roanoke County community of Big Lick, soon to become the railroad center Roanoke. His business holdings expanded over the next thirteen years, ultimately solely owning thirty lots, the four-story Davis Hall, and the Roanoke Weekly Press published in the Davis Building. Davis attended two state conventions as a supporter of the Readjuster Party, and had two failed bids for city council. At his peak, his real and personal property valued between $50,000 and $75,000. Davis's holdings shrank rapidly during the economic bust of the mid-1890s, and he died in 1896. MORE...

 

Early Years

Davis was born of mixed-raced ancestry probably during the 1820s. His mother may have been Vina Roane, who resided in his household in 1880, but his birthplace and his father's name are unknown. He may have been the freeborn John Davis who was about twenty-seven years old in March 1847 when his name appeared in a Lynchburg register of free blacks or the John Davis, formerly the slave of M. Omohundro, who was enumerated with his wife, Ann, among the city's black population in 1865. Davis married Ann Eliza Stuart, a tobacco stemmer, sometime between April 1, 1863, and July 27, 1870, when the couple lived near Lynchburg, in Campbell County. Most likely they did not have children.

Career and Land Acquisition

In 1869 Davis purchased a city lot and worked as a grocer. By 1874 he was also operating a saloon. Davis bought additional properties, but in 1874 he had to cover his debts by placing in trust three lots along with buildings, a $1,000 life insurance policy, and the furniture from his household, store, and barroom.

Davis had moved to Roanoke County by 1876 and in January 1879 purchased a house and lot in the town of Big Lick. By 1880 he had opened a saloon, and between then and 1883 he acquired other properties, including another house and lot in Big Lick and forty-five acres of land in Roanoke County. Davis arrived on the eve of an economic boom. In 1881 the Norfolk and Western Railroad Company chose the site for a junction with the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and transformed the town into an industrial and commercial center. Big Lick, renamed Roanoke in 1882, became an independent city in 1884 and by decade's end was widely proclaimed as the Magic City of the New South.

Davis supported the Readjusters, a biracial political coalition led by former Confederate general William Mahone that had emerged during the state debt controversy in the 1870s. As a leader in the black community, Davis represented the Ninth District at the Readjuster-Republican State Convention in Richmond in April 1884. He was selected as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, but did not attend. In May of that year Davis ran for the city council on the Republican ticket in the Democrat-dominated Second Ward but garnered only 6 percent of the vote. In 1885 black Republicans in the ward bolted when white leaders disregarded their request that Davis be nominated for the council and proceeded to nominate him anyway. Although he finished third in a five-candidate field, he received the highest vote total of the three Republicans in the ward race. That July, Davis attended the party's state convention in Richmond and afterward corresponded with Mahone about elections in Roanoke. In April 1892 he won election as a delegate to the Republican State Convention that met in Roanoke the following month. That year he also served as president of the city's Harrison Republican Colored League.

By 1890 Davis had opened a real estate office and had become president of the Roanoke Land and Building Association. That year he acquired a lot in the Gainsboro neighborhood, where he built Davis Hall, a four-story frame building that included rented commercial space on the ground floor and meeting halls and lodging on the upper floors. By 1892 Davis owned property in all five of the city's wards, totaling thirty lots, and jointly owned one other property, all together valued at $30,000. By April of that year Davis had become second vice president of the Fostoria Land and Improvement Company, a business based in Fauquier County and whose other officers included a former American minister to Liberia, a former Virginia congressman and first president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), and other nationally prominent men.

In 1891 Davis began publishing a daily newspaper called the Press that supported the Republican Party. Housed in the Davis Building, his Press Publishing Company also specialized in books, pamphlets, circulars, letterheads, and other print jobs. By April 1892 the Roanoke Weekly Press was appearing on Saturdays, and it continued publication for several years. A vigorous opponent of lynching and an outspoken critic of courts that handed down harsher penalties for blacks than for whites, Davis decried the high mortality rate among African Americans and called for better schools. Between 1891 and 1893 he built the Davis Hotel, a two-story frame building that included a grocery and a restaurant on the first floor. It may have been about this time that he founded the Davis Industrial School to train young black men in useful skills. By 1893 Davis also was operating a drugstore, one of the earliest black-owned establishments of its kind in southwestern Virginia, and had employed Isaac D. Burrell, who later became a prominent physician and pharmacist.

Later Years

Davis joined other area dignitaries on the speaker's platform in the town of Salem in January 1893 during a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, at which the featured orator described him as the "colored capitalist of Roanoke." At the height of his business success, Davis held real and personal property valued at between $50,000 and $75,000. As a result of the financial panic of 1893, however, he lost both the hotel and Davis Hall. Beset by lawsuits, in 1895 he owned only two lots valued at $4,080 and also was delinquent on his taxes.

Davis died of stomach cancer at his Roanoke home on July 19, 1896. His body lay in state at Davis Hall and was interred with Masonic honors in the family graveyard adjoining Gainsboro's African American cemetery. His remaining property was sold at public auction. Davis Hall evolved into a dance hall and burned in 1900. Isaac Burrell purchased the hotel in 1897 and there for many years operated his well-known pharmacy.

Time Line

  • 1820s - John H. Davis is born. He is of mixed-race ancestry, but his parents' names and his birthplace are unknown.
  • April 1, 1863–July 27, 1870 - Between these dates, John H. Davis and Ann Eliza Stuart, a tobacco stemmer, marry.
  • 1876 - By this year, John H. Davis lives in Roanoke County.
  • January 1879 - John H. Davis purchases a house and lot in Big Lick.
  • 1880 - By this year, John H. Davis opens a saloon.
  • 1880–1883 - John H. Davis acquires properties, including a second house and lot in Big Lick, and forty-five acres of land in Roanoke County.
  • 1884 - Roanoke becomes an independent city. Its economic prosperity through the end of the decade earns it the name the "Magic City."
  • April 1884 - John H. Davis represents the Ninth District at the Readjuster-Republican State Convention in Richmond. He is elected to attend that National Republican Convention in Chicago, but does not attend.
  • May 1884 - John H. Davis unsuccessfully runs for city council as a Republican in Roanoke's Second Ward.
  • May 1885 - John H. Davis unsuccessfully runs for city council as a Republican in Roanoke's Second Ward after black leaders nominated him despite lack of support from white leaders.
  • July 1885 - John H. Davis attends the Republican state convention in Richmond, after which he corresponds with party leader William Mahone about Roanoke elections.
  • 1890 - By this year, John H. Davis opens a real estate office and is president of the Roanoke Land and Building Association.
  • 1890 - John H. Davis acquires a lot where he builds Davis Hall, a four-story mixed use building.
  • 1891 - John H. Davis begins publishing a daily newspaper called the Press that supports the Republican Party.
  • 1891–1893 - John H. Davis builds the Davis Hotel in Roanoke, a two-story building that includes a grocery and a restaurant.
  • 1892 - By this year, John H. Davis owns property in all five of Roanoke's wards, valued at a total of $30,000.
  • April 1892 - John H. Davis is second vice president of the Fostoria Land and Improvement Company, a prominent organization based in Faquier County.
  • April 1892 - John H. Davis's daily publication becomes weekly and is called the Roanoke Weekly Press.
  • May 1892 - John H. Davis is a delegate to the Republican State Convention in Roanoke.
  • 1892 - John H. Davis serves as president of Roanoke's Harrison Republican Colored League.
  • 1893 - By this year, John H. Davis operates a drugstore in Roanoke.
  • January 1893 - John H. Davis joins area dignitaries on the speaker's platform at Salem's Emancipation Celebration, where he is described as the "colored capitalist of Roanoke."
  • 1895 - By this year, John H. Davis suffers financial losses in the Panic of 1893 and his assets fall from $75,000 to $4,000.
  • July 19, 1896 - John H. Davis dies of stomach cancer in his Roanoke home. His body lies in state at Davis Hall and he is interred in the Gainsboro neighborhood cemetery.

References

Further Reading
Dotson, Rand. Roanoke, Virginia, 1882–1912: Magic City of the New South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007.
Thornbrough, Emma Lou. "American Negro Newspapers, 1880–1914." Business History Review 40, no. 4 (Winter 1966): 467–490.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Gunter, D. W., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John H. Davis (d. 1896). (2015, June 11). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Davis_John_H_d_1896.

  • MLA Citation:

    Gunter, Donald W. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John H. Davis (d. 1896)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 11 Jun. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: June 8, 2015 | Last modified: June 11, 2015