The Honorable Lady Henrietta Vinton Davis was a Shakespearean actor, elocutionist, dramatic reader, and public speaker. At a meeting of the Black Star Line Shipping Company on May 1, 1920 she was proclaimed by Marcus Garvey to be “the greatest woman of the Negro race” (sic). She is currently lying in an unmarked grave in National Harmony Memorial Park in Largo, Maryland.
The Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation is committed to increasing the general public’s awareness and erecting a memorial to the life and legacy of the Honorable Henrietta Vinton Davis, Lady Commander of the Nile. In addition to raising funds for a memorial, we also intend to sponsor performances of a play entitled “Shero: The Livication of Henrietta Vinton Davis” written by Actorvist Clayton Lebouef, and publish her biography. Hopefully, after reading this brief synopsis of her life you too will be inspired to add your name to the list of those who consolidated their energies in sufficient degree to bestow a fitting memorial upon her. Nothing less is due a woman of her stature.
Henrietta Vinton Davis was freeborn in Baltimore, Maryland on August 25, 1860, to Mansfield Vinton and Mary Ann (Johnson) Davis. Her father, who was a pianist, died shortly thereafter.
Six months later in 1861, her mother married influential Baltimorean George Alexander Hackett. A coal yard operator and former livery stable owner, Hackett is one of the most prominent Africans in Baltimore at that time. His lobbying efforts are credited with swaying public opinion among the citizens of Maryland to defeat the 1859 Jacobs Bill and invoke support for the passage of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The intention of the Jacobs bill was to deport from Maryland all adults of African ancestry and enslave all free African children. It was considered a response to the raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown. Captain Hackett died in April of 1870 after voting despite warnings to the African community in Baltimore against doing so. He was given an elaborate funeral at Bethel AME Church. Addresses were delivered by Bishop Daniel A. Payne and Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi. The ceremony was followed by a procession across the city of Baltimore from west to east. Hackett was interred in what was then Laurel Cemetery. A year later Henrietta moved with her mother south to Washington, DC.
In 1875, at the early age of fifteen, Henrietta passed the necessary examination and was awarded the position of a teacher in the public schools of Maryland. Subsequently, she went to teach in the state of Louisiana. Upon returning to Maryland to care for her ailing mother Miss Davis bore the certificate of the Board of Education. In 1878, she became the first African employed by the Office of the Recorder of Deeds in Washington, DC under General George A. Sheridan as a copyist. Within a year of Frederick Douglass’ 1881 appointment as Recorder of Deeds, Henrietta began her dramatic education under the tutelage of Miss Marguerite E. Saxton of Washington.
The Honorable Frederick Douglass introduced Miss Davis in her first appearance as an actress April 25, 1883, before a distinguished integrated audience at Marini’s Hall 714 E Street, NW in Washington, DC. In September of 1883 she traveled to Louisville with Frederick Douglass and others to appear at the National Negro Convention. She performed “The Battle” by Schiller and responded to encores with a selection from the Merchant of Venice. That year she appeared in New London, Connecticut, New York State, Boston and “more than a dozen of the larger cities of the Eastern and Middle States.” During the summer of 1883 Miss Davis, under the management of James Monroe Trotter (Father of William Monroe Trotter the first black member of Phi Beta Kappa) 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, Albany and Saratoga, New York. On January 17th, 1884 she appeared before a crowded house in Melodeon Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. During this time she marries T. Thomas Symmons who became her manager. During 1885 Henrietta formed the Davis Miller Concert and Dramatic company. In 1893 she started her own company in Chicago and produced William Edgar Easton’s play “Dessalines”. She also traveled to the Caribbean on a tour of that region and collaborated on writing a play entitled “Our Old Kentucky Home” with distinguished journalist and future Garveyite John Edward Bruce. She divorced Symmons sometime in 1899.
During 1912-13 she toured the Caribbean with singer Nonie Bailey Hardy and managed the Covent Garden Theater in Kingston, Jamaica. She learned of the work of Marcus Garvey during her travels. In 1919 she accepted Garvey’s invitation to speak at the Palace Casino in Harlem, NYC. Boldly giving up her career to work with Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, Lady Davis becomes the UNIA-ACL’s first International Organizer, a director of the Black Star Line and its second Vice-President. At the UNIA-ACL August 1920 convention she is a signatory of the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. Among the 54 declarations it makes are resolutions making Red, Black and Green the symbolic colors of the African race and a call for the word “nigger” to cease being used. It additionally demands the word “Negro” be written with a capital “N”. She rose in rank to become Fourth Assistant President-General of the UNIA-ACL in 1921. Lady Davis established UNIA divisions in Cuba; Guadeloupe; Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands; Port au Prince, Haiti; Trinidad and Jamaica. Although in June 1923 she was unseated by Garvey in an attempt to quell dissent in the UNIA’s New York Headquarters, she was reelected during the August 1924 convention. August 25th, 1924 she chaired the convention meeting as Fourth-Assistant President-General of the UNIA. As the only woman in the UNIA delegation seeking consent to establish a UNIA colony, Lady Davis traveled to Liberia, West Africa in December of 1923. In 1924 she was part of a committee which delivered petitions to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge seeking commutation of Marcus Garvey’s sentence for mail fraud. At the 1929 International Convention of the UNIA she was elected UNIA Secretary General. By 1932 she breaks with the UNIA-ACL and became first Assistant President-General of the rival UNIA, Inc. under Lionel Francis. In the 1934 convention she won election as President of the rival organization.
On November 23, 1941 she ascended to join the ancestors in Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, DC at eighty-one years of age. She was buried on November 26 in Columbia Harmony Cemetery after a service at the A.S. Pope Funeral Home. During the 1950s Columbia Harmony moved from its location on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington, D.C. to its current location in Largo, Maryland. There has never been a marker on her grave. Until now.
Donations to assist with the laying of a marker can be made at www.ladydavis.org