Dr. Julia Davis: She Dedicated Her Life to Teaching African American History

26, February 2013

Nearly 40 years ago something unique happened in St. Louis. In 1974 a branch of the St. Louis Public Library was named for a living person, Dr. Julia Davis. A newly built branch of the library was rededicated to Davis on February 15, 1993. She was 101 years old at the time, and passed away just a few months later. I wanted to know more about this woman who had received such a special honor.

Born in 1891, Julia Davis was educated in the St. Louis Public Schools system. She later became a teacher at some of the same schools she had attended. Among other schools, she spent more than 30 years teaching junior high at Simmons School on St. Louis Avenue, retiring in 1961. (Anyone who willingly teaches junior high already has high marks in my book.) One of her students was Chuck Berry, who spoke highly of her during her 100th birthday celebration, held at the Central Library branch downtown.

Julia DavisJulia Davis, standing on the right, poses with other teachers who were trained in black history. Photograph, 1935. Missouri History Museum.

Her passion for learning and teaching about African American history began as a young child, when she would pore over scrapbooks that her father had filled with clippings and photos of accomplished African Americans. Despite living in a community (and a country) characterized by discrimination and segregation, she was taught to be proud of her heritage, and dedicated her life to teaching others the same. But she never thought of black history as something to be taught as a separate subject; rather, she integrated the stories of African American men and women into the larger context of history, creating a more robust, honest picture of the past.

Davis told the stories of African Americans in as many ways as she could, and her work became a model for researching and celebrating the lives and contributions of African Americans. Beginning in 1941, she helped to create annual black history exhibits at the public library, and she also wrote five monographs on black history, which were published by the St. Louis Public Schools and became part of their curriculum. In 1961, she established a fund at the St. Louis Public Library to begin buying books and literature about African Americans' contribution to culture. In addition, she donated her personal collection to the library. By 1993, that collection had grown to nearly 3,000 volumes.

Dr. Julia Davis was a force to be reckoned with, not because she yelled the loudest or donated the most money, but because she knew who she was and had a clear vision and purpose. She was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things—and in doing so became an amazing example of a life well lived. Our city is a better place for her having lived and worked here.

—Katie Moon, Administrative Assistant for Exhibits and Research