IN ALL HER GLORY: The Honorable Henrietta Vinton Davis, Lady Commander Order of the Nile
“WE MUST CANONIZE OUR OWN SAINTS, CREATE OUR OWN MARTYRS AND ELEVATE TO POSITIONS OF FAME AND GLORY BLACK WOMEN AND MEN WHO HAVE MADE THEIR DISTINCT CONTRIBUTION TO OUR HISTORY.” AFRICAN FUNDAMENTALISM BY MARCUS GARVEY
The Honorable Lady Henrietta Vinton Davis was a Shakespearean actor, elocutionist, dramatic reader, and public speaker. She was proclaimed by Marcus Garvey to be “the greatest woman of the [African] race”. 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 Order of the Nile. In addition to raising funds for a fitting memorial to her life, we also intend to sponsor performances of a play entitled “Shero: The Livication of Henrietta Vinton Davis” written by Actor Clayton Lebouef, produce a biopic on her life 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 resources in order to bestow a fitting memorial upon her. Nothing less is due a woman of her stature.
On August 15, 1860, Henrietta Vinton Davis was freeborn in Baltimore, Maryland 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 George A. 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. The intention of that 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. He was also a member of the Board of Directors of The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company of Baltimore City, the only African American Shipbuilding company in the United States which was co founded by Hackett’s friend Isaac Myers. 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 with Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi among the distinguished list of attendees and an eulogy conducted by Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne. The ceremony was followed by a mile long procession of carriages and marchers across the city of Baltimore from west to east. Hackett was interred in what was then Laurel Cemetery (bulldozed in the 1950s for a shopping mall, some graves including Hackett’s were moved to Johnsville, Maryland).
A year later Henrietta moved with her mother south to Washington, DC. In 1875, at the early age of fifteen, Miss Davis 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 woman 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 on April 25, 1883, before a distinguished integrated audience at Marini’s Hall 714 E Street, NW in Washington, DC (ironically, a site now occupied by the FBI Building). 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 married T. Thomas Symmons, who became her manager. During 1885 Henrietta formed the Davis Miller Concert and Dramatic company.
In 1893, African Americans were prevented from taking part in the Chicago World’s Fair. Undaunted, she started her own company in Chicago and produced William Edgar Easton’s play “Dessalines”. She subsequently traveled to the Caribbean on a tour of that region. During that same time she collaborated on writing a play entitled “Our Old Kentucky Home” with distinguished journalist and future Garveyite John Edward Bruce.
She and Symmons divorced sometime in 1899.
The early part of the 1900s was the beginning of a change in the career of Henrietta Vinton Davis. Although still in demand after over twenty years as a performer, she had to contend with younger competition. Additionally, audiences were willing to accept less “distinguished” entertainment in the form of minstrel shows. As a result, she was no longer as unique a drawing card as in her early career. She came to involve herself more with community service work in the form of performing in fundraisers for churches and schools, as well as, returning to teaching. 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 that time.
In 1919 she accepted Garvey’s invitation to speak at the Palace Casino in Harlem, NYC. At first it may seem that she was boldly giving up her career to work with Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. But closer analysis reveals that she may actually have stepped into the role for which she had been preparing her whole life. Her stepfather George Hackett was a member of every African American fraternal organization in Baltimore. Furthermore, she headed her own fraternal organization in the early 1900s, The Knights and Ladies of Malachite with influential African American attorney Laudros Melendez King of Washington.
In time Davis became the UNIA-ACL’s first International Organizer, a director of the Black Star Line and the corporation’s Vice-President. On the 1920 maiden voyage of BSL flagship, S.S. Yarmouth (later renamed the S.S. Frederick Douglas) she was the ranking member of the UNIA and member of the board of the Black Star Line. As such she was essentially in command of the vessel carrying a cargo valued in excess of $5,000,000. At stops in Cuba, Jamaica, Panama and other ports throughout the Caribbean and Central America they were greeted with cheers and fanfare.
On April 20, 1920 a meeting of the Black Star Line was held in New York anticipating the return of the SS Frederick Douglas. Garvey invoked the crowd to cheer rapturously when he proclaimed Davis to be “the greatest woman of the Negro race today” in his remarks. At the UNIA-ACL August 1920 convention she was a signatory of the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. Among its 54 declarations are resolutions designating Red, Black and Green the symbolic colors of African people, condemning the word “nigger” to henceforth cease being used and insisting the word “Negro” be thereafter written with a capital “N”.
Davis rose in rank to become Fourth Assistant President-General of the UNIA-ACL in 1921. On August 27, 1921, during that year’s UNIA convention, the Potentate Honorable Gabriel Johnson bestowed upon her a Knighthood with the title “Lady Commander Order of the Nile” for her distinguished success as leader and organizer of the UNIA. Lady Davis established UNIA divisions in Cuba; Guadeloupe; Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands; Port au Prince, Haiti; Trinidad, Jamaica and throughout the United States. 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.
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. She chaired the August 25th, 1924 convention meeting as Fourth-Assistant President-General of the UNIA. When the Holy Piby was published that year, she, Robert Lincoln Poston and Garvey are cited as the “Apostles” working as a delegation for the redemption of Africa. At the 1929 International Convention of the UNIA she was elected UNIA Secretary General. By 1932 she broke with the UNIA-ACL and became first Assistant President-General of the rival UNIA, Inc. under Lionel Francis. In the 1934 convention Lady Davis was elected President of the rival organization.
On November 23, 1941 Henrietta Vinton Davis 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 in Washington, D.C. after a service at the A.S. Pope Funeral Home.
Unmarried, childless and at an advanced age for the time, no marker was placed at her grave site when the cemetery was subsequently relocated to Landover, Maryland and renamed National Harmony Memorial Park. She remained relatively unrecognized until July 1983 when an article entitled “Henrietta Vinton Davis and the Garvey Movement” by Professor William Seraile was published in the journal Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. Nearly a year later, acknowledgment of her contributions increased with the publication of the book “Shakespeare in Sable” written by Professor Errol Hill. In 1994, actor Clayton LeBouef received a commission to write a play on her life entitled “Shero: The Liviciation of Henrietta Vinton Davis.” Initial planning for the UNIA website in 1998 included a “Hall of Heroes” recognizing unsung UNIA Heroes and Sheroes intended to include her. Research resulted in the realization Lady Davis lay in an unmarked grave. Thoughts of placing a marker there were supplanted by the query “if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” What point would there have been in marking a grave when few people know the significance thereof?
We know at least 100 people with 100 dollars each will read this article. Among them, who will have the force of will to consolidate their energy and place a plaque marking the grave of “the greatest woman of the African race?” This is a chance to make history. Accomplish what you will!!!