Henrietta Davis
Henrietta Vinton Davis

(1860-08-25)August 25, 1860
Baltimore, Maryland, United States
DiedNovember 23, 1941(1941-11-23) (aged 81)
Washington, D.C., United States
Occupation(s)Actress, elocutionist, dramatic reader, playwright, International Organizer of the UNIA, Vice President Black Star Line
SpouseThomas T. Symmons

Henrietta Vinton Davis (August 25, 1860 – November 23, 1941) was an elocutionist, dramatist, and impersonator. In addition to being "the premier actress of all nineteenth-century black performers on the dramatic stage",[1] Davis was proclaimed by Marcus Garvey to be the "greatest woman of the Negro race today".[2][3]

Davis worked with Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), in several capacities. From its founding in 1919 until its dissolution in the mid-1930s, she held major leadership roles in the UNIA.[4] At the first international UNIA convention in 1920, she was elected as International Organizer.[5] In 1927, after Garvey was deported to Jamaica, Davis was elected and served as President-General of the UNIA, Inc. from 1934-1940.[6]


Henrietta Vinton Davis was born in Baltimore to Mary Ann Johnson and her husband, musician Mansfield Vinton Davis.[7]


Shortly after her birth, her father died. Within six months her mother had remarried to an influential Baltimorean, George A. Hackett, a member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.[8] He worked to defeat the 1859 Jacobs bill that was crafted to enslave the children of free African Americans and deport their parents from the state of Maryland. Hackett died in April 1870 after a short illness. Upon his death Mary Ann Hackett moved with her daughter Henrietta to Washington, D.C.

Educational background

Henrietta was educated in the public schools.



At the early age of fifteen, she passed the necessary examination and was awarded the position of a teacher in the public schools of Maryland.[9]

After a period of time teaching in Maryland, Davis moved to Louisiana to teach. She later returned to Maryland to care for her ailing mother. She had the certificate of the Board of Education.

Administrative Work

In 1878, while still in her late teens, she became the first African-American woman to be employed by the Office of the Recorder of Deeds[10] in Washington, D.C.; she worked as a copyist under George A. Sheridan. In 1881, noted abolitionist, civil rights activist, and Davis' family friend Frederick Douglass was appointed Recorder of Deeds.[11]

Drama and Performances

In the early 1880s, Davis began elocution and dramatic art lessons under the tutelage of Marguerite Saxton of Washington. On April 25, 1883, she was introduced by Frederick Douglass before a distinguished integrated audience.[12] She appeared in performances in New London, Connecticut; New York state, Boston, Massachusetts; and "more than a dozen of the larger cities of the Eastern and Middle States".

During the summer of 1883, Davis (under the management of James Monroe Trotter and William H. Dupree) made a tour of Boston, Worcester, and New Bedford, Massachusetts; Providence and Newport, Rhode Island; Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut; and New York City and Albany.[13]

During this time she continued perfecting her craft under Professor Edwin Lawrence of New York and Rachael Noah of Boston. She also attended the Boston School of Oratory.[14]

Her performances consisted of performing a diverse spectrum of works: from Paul Laurence Dunbar's Negro dialects to such plays as Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It; "Mary Queen of Scots"; "Cleopatra's Dying Speech"; "The Battle" by Friedrich Schiller; and "How Tom Sawyer Got His Fence Whitewashed" by Mark Twain. She is considered the first African American after Ira Aldridge to have successfully performed Shakespeare. On January 17, 1884, she appeared before a crowded house in Melodeon Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. From 1884 to 1886, she appeared in various Shakespearean and classical tragedy roles with John A. Arneaux's troupe in New York City.[15]

In 1893 Davis started her own company in Chicago, traveled to the Caribbean, and collaborated on writing Our Old Kentucky Home with distinguished journalist and future Garveyite John Edward Bruce.[16]

Throughout her entire career, Davis only performed in four full-length productions: Damon and Pythias (1884), Dessalines (1893), Our Old Kentucky Home (1898), and Henri Christophe (1912).[17]

Political activism

Davis was a supporter of the Populist Party. Later she backed the Socialist Party.[18]

UNIA-ACL Leadership

1919-1920: Founding of the Organization

While traveling in the Caribbean, Davis learned of the work of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant to the United States who founded a Pan-African movement. On June 15, 1919, she was among the guests who spoke at a meeting of the UNIA held at the Palace Casino in Harlem, New York City.[19][20]

She performed a rendition of "Little Brown Baby With Sparkling Eyes" by Paul Laurence Dunbar. As part of her presentation, she held an African-American doll, one of the earliest manufactured. Her prop had been loaned for the occasion by the Berry & Ross company. She decided to give up her career to work with Garvey and the UNIA-ACL, elected in 1920 as the UNIA's first International Organizer. She also served as the second Vice-President of the Black Star Line.[21]

At the UNIA-ACL convention in August 1920, she was one of the signatories of The Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. Among the 54 declarations made in this document are resolutions that the colors red, black, and green are to be the symbolic colors of the African race and the term "nigger" cease being used. It demanded that the word "Negro" be written with a capital "N". During the same convention, the High Potentate of the UNIA conferred upon her the title "Lady Commander of the Sublime Order of the Nile".[22]

1921-1934: Expansion of Executive Leadership

In 1921, Davis rose in rank to become the fourth assistant President-General of the UNIA-ACL. She established UNIA-ACL divisions in Cuba, Guadeloupe, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica. Unseated by Garvey in June 1923 in an effort to quell dissent in the UNIA's New York headquarters, she was reelected during the August 1924 convention. On August 25, 1924, Davis chaired the annual convention as the Fourth-Assistant President General of the UNIA. In December, she traveled to Liberia, West Africa, as the only woman in the UNIA delegation, which was seeking consent to establish a UNIA-ACL colony in Liberia. In that same year she was a member of a committee that delivered petitions to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge seeking Garvey's exoneration on mail fraud charges. In 1925, she organized a trip through the Caribbean, taking with her Maymie de Mena as translator.

At the 1929 International Convention of the UNIA, after Garvey had been deported to Jamaica, Davis was elected UNIA Secretary General. By 1932 she broke with Garvey and became first Assistant President General of the rival UNIA, Inc. In the 1934 convention she was elected as President of the rival organization.[23] She served in this role until 1940.

Death and burial

On November 23, 1941,[24] Davis died in Saint Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, D.C., at the age of 81. She was originally buried in Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C.[24] Her remains were transferred to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland, in 1959, after Columbian Harmony closed that year.


In 2014, American feminist playwright Carolyn Gage paid tribute to Henrietta Vinton Davis, along with actresses and directors Eva Le Gallienne and Minnie Maddern Fiske, when she was awarded the first Lifetime Achievement Award given by Venus Theatre, founded by Deborah Randall in Laurel, Maryland. In her acceptance speech, Gage said about Davis:

She was well aware that the classical canon was by and about white people and she embraced the work of contemporary Black playwrights attempting to write new epic plays. She produced and performed in plays about the successful slave rebellion in Haiti, and she co-wrote a musical called My Old Kentucky Home. Unlike other plantation shows, Henrietta’s play included the war, and the entire second act portrayed formerly enslaved people taking over the plantation of their former captors. Not surprisingly, her theatre company ended up broke and stranded in Denver. An opinion by some people is that, since Henrietta was so far ahead of her time, she has largely been written out of the history of Black theatre.[25]

See also


  1. ^ Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch (2003). A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge University Press. p. 87. ISBN 0521624436.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Bair, Barbara. "Facts on File History Database Center". Black Women in America: Social Activism, Encyclopedia of Black Women in America. Facts On File, Inc. Retrieved May 10, 2013.
  3. ^ Garvey, Marcus (1983). The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers: Aug. 1919 - Aug. 1920. University of California Press. p. 311. ISBN 0520050916.
  4. ^ Duncan, Natanya. "“If Our Men Hesitate Then the Women of the Race Must Come Forward”: Henrietta Vinton Davis and the UNIA in New York." New York History, vol. 95 no. 4, 2014, p. 558-583. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/nyh.2014.0002.
  5. ^ "Davis, Henrietta Vinton (1860–1941) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". www.blackpast.org. October 13, 2016. Retrieved September 2, 2018.
  6. ^ Grant, Colin (2008). Negro with a hat : the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195367942. OCLC 177014251.
  7. ^ "Davis, Henrietta Vinton (1860–1941) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". www.blackpast.org. October 13, 2016. Retrieved November 21, 2017.
  8. ^ Swift, M. (February 28, 2018). "Henriette Vinton Davis: The Diplomat". BlackThen: Discovering our history. Retrieved September 2, 2018.
  9. ^ "Henrietta Vinton Davis: Lady Commander Order of the Nile". Kentake Page. August 15, 2015. Retrieved September 2, 2018.
  10. ^ "Henrietta Vinton Davis, Tragedienne." Weekly Pelican, 24 Sept. 1887, p. 2. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B765BAD85C2138%40EANAAA-12BEB298AD0FE380%402410539-12BBC97728E3DD70%401-12D628937851BD68%40Henrietta%2BVinton%2BDavis%252C%2BTragedienne. Accessed 7 Dec. 2021.
  11. ^ Gardner, Lee (August 4, 2010). "THE LADY VANISHES Meet Henrietta Vinton Davis-one of the most amazing women you've probably never heard of". Baltimore City Paper via Archive.org. Archived from the original on July 30, 2014. Retrieved June 28, 2015.
  12. ^ Scruggs, Lawson (1893). Women of Distinction Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character. L. A. Scruggs. pp. 85–88.
  13. ^ Helen Krich Chinoy, Linda Walsh Jenkins (eds), Women In American Theatre, Saratoga, New York: Theatre Communications Group, p. 83; ISBN 1559362634.
  14. ^ Who's Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent. 1915. p. 87.
  15. ^ Hill and Hatch (2003), pp. 79-82.
  16. ^ Robson, Thomas (January 2012). "A more aggressive plantation play: Henrietta Vinton Davis and John Edward Bruce collaborate on Our Old Kentucky Home". Theatre History Studies. 32: 120–140. doi:10.1353/ths.2012.0024. S2CID 192645094. Archived from the original on December 27, 2013. Retrieved February 3, 2017.
  17. ^ Buckner, Jocelyn. "Henrietta Vinton Davis." The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Stage Actors and Acting. Ed. Simon Williams. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 142. Print.
  18. ^ Smith, Jessie Carney (2003). Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Visible Ink Press. p. 522. ISBN 1578591422. Retrieved February 3, 2017. henrietta vinton davis socialist party.
  19. ^ Garvey, Marcus (1983) [1919]. Negro World Newspaper in The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association papers. 1. 1826 - August 1919. University of California Press. p. 437. ISBN 0520044568.
  20. ^ Stein, Judith (1991). The World of Marcus Garvey: race and class in modern society. LSU Press. p. 76. ISBN 080711670X.
  21. ^ "Why The Black Star Line Failed! Officers of the Company--What the Yarmouth Cost and." Cleveland Gazette, 20 Oct. 1923, p. 4.
  22. ^ Grant, Colin (2008). Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey. Oxford University Press. p. 316. ISBN 978-0199709861.
  23. ^ Bair, Barbara (1992). "9. True Women, Real Men: Gender, Ideology, and Social Roles in the Garvey Movement". In Helly, Dorothy O.; Reverby, Susan (eds.). Gendered Domains: Rethinking Public and Private in Women's History : Essays from the Seventh Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. pp. 154–166. ISBN 0-8014-9702-7.
  24. ^ a b "Deaths". The Evening Star. November 25, 1941. p. 13.
  25. ^ "'A Theatre of Her Own': Working in Theatre as a Woman by Carolyn Gage - DC Metro Theater Arts". DC Metro Theater Arts. December 19, 2014. Retrieved September 3, 2018.

External links