July 20, 2014 will be the 100th anniversary of the founding of the organization named the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. As that date approaches, scholars and the general public are taking an increased interest in its history. As such, it is imperative that research into the personalities who built the UNIA-ACL and their lives become well documented and researched.
The social, political, economic and cultural benefits of knowing the practical background of the UNIA-ACL is an essential aspect of such research. To date only a handful of the members of the UNIA have had their lives documented. The Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation is committed to improving the general public’s awareness of one of the builders of the UNIA, Henrietta Vinton Davis. Miss Davis is notable, primarily, as the first African American woman of the stage. At present, there is no marker on her grave at Harmony Memorial Cemetery in Largo, Maryland. The Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation is commited to erecting a memorial to the life and legacy of the Honorable Henrietta Vinton Davis, Lady Commander of the Order of the Nile.
Survey of the Problem
Professor William Seraile and world-renowned scholar of Caribbean Theatre Dr. Errol Gaston Hill were the earliest to examine the life of Henrietta Vinton Davis. Professor Seraile contributed his paper, ‘Henrietta Vinton Davis and the Garvey Movement’, to the July 1983 issue of the Journal “Afro-Americans in New York Life and History”. Dr. Hill explored her life in chapters of two of his books, “A History of African American Theatre” and “Shakespeare in Sable”. He reviewed the theatrical accomplishments of Lady Davis in great detail.
The works “Race First” and “The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project” by Dr. Tony Martin and Dr. Robert Hill respectively, provide additional insight into the activities and contributions of Lady Davis to the UNIA-ACL. However, the foregoing efforts still leave many questions unanswered, in particular regarding her early life and personal experiences. In addition, there is a tendency for her to be overshadowed by Marcus Garvey in any appraisal of the UNIA.
To some it might seem that Lady Davis was only a bit player in the UNIA-ACL when looking at most accounts. However, she could never, in fact, fit such a role. From the moment Frederick Douglass introduced her on the stage in her 1884 debut at Marini’s Hall three years before the birth of Marcus Garvey, till her death in 1941, she held the spotlight whenever she engaged the public. The benefits to young people of such an inspirational example as a woman of her stature are immeasurable.
Communities of color are rarely the focus of cultural development at a scale similar to that in the wider society. The Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundaton intends putting in place programs which not only resolve that issue, but implement a means by which art is a catalyst for social change.
At present, no local nonprofit organization or government agency exists to address the issue of people of African descent being overlooked in history. Most history books focus on a limited group of people. Much attention is bestowed upon those who conform to the status quo, while those who boldly seek to define a new reality are rarely, if ever, acknowledged. Lady Davis represents the fresh, original, independent ideas for implementing permanent solutions to improving living conditions for people of African ancestry. The Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation intends to deliberately contribute to the marketplace of ideas the life, legacy, works, words and deeds of a magnificently phenomenal woman as a contribution to a broader view of people of African ancestry. The foundation documents its research with the intention of mobilizing stakeholders to erect a monument to the legacy of Lady Henrietta Vinton Davis. The Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation will educate the general public on her life by producing plays, publishing books, producing documentary videos and conducting symposiums. The resulting fully informed community would value the meaning behind the experiences she lived. Additionally, the proceeds from the activities of the foundation will be used to fund programs encouraging artistic creativity in the arts in communities where the need is greatest.
As a nonprofit organization legally incorporated in the District of Columbia, the organization will budget, plan and prioritize its activities and resources in order to spread awareness of the life of Lady Davis.
The best practices of other initiatives will be integrated into the design and implementation of the foundation’s efforts. For instance, a search is currently underway to locate and archive Lady Davis’ personal papers in the same manner as has been done for Marcus Garvey.
The proposed Board of Directors will consist of 9 people:
- One attorney familiar with the requirements related to the operations of a 501c3 nonprofit.
- One accountant with relatively the same experience and background as the attorney.
- Three people with experience in theatre arts such as producing, writing plays and directing, etc.
- Two people who are capable of conducting the research necessary to document the life and legacy of Lady Davis.
- Two people with an educational background that will assist in facilitating material designed in a manner that will be best suited and appealing to school age youth.
Volunteers organized into the following committees will lead the operations:
- Fund raising,
- Outreach/Public Relations,
- Education, and
The Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation is focusing its initial efforts on placing a marker at the grave of Lady Davis in Harmony Memorial Cemetery in Largo, Maryland by August 8th, 2008. The current estimated cost of the marker is approximately, $5000. An additional $25000 is being sought to cover the costs of events held in her honor such as a banquet, seminar, performance of the play Shero during the weekend of the unveiling of the marker, videographer and photographer. One outgrowth of recording the events for posterity will be to augment the information available for the production of a documentary video on her life. At present the foundation is seeking donations to cover that amount in full.
The foundation has identified a play entitled “Shero: The Livication of Henrietta Vinton Davis” conceived and developed by actorvist Clayton Lebouef. The foundation is seeking grants to finance the production of the play both as a vehicle to increase public awareness of Lady Davis’ life and as a fund raising mechanism. The foundation is conducting necessary research to publish a biography on the life of Lady Davis as well. A portion of proceeds from the sales of the biography and documentary video will go towards furthering the work of the Foundation.
While seeking funds to finance operations, the foundation is venturing into employing every means necessary to participate in events providing the opportunity to increase public awareness of the foundation and its mission. An Internet site has been deployed at http://HENRIETTAVINTONDAVIS.WORDPRESS.COM that the foundation is maintaining. Another project of the Foundation is to produce a presentation suitable for school aged children as the primary teaching tool on Lady Davis’ life and make that available via the World Wide Web, as well. A symposium is being developed presenting an overview of Lady Davis’ life. The foundation is also seeking sponsors for such events in publicly accessible venues. Furthermore, venues are being pursued for readings of the play “Shero”. These readings will dramatically present the life of Lady Davis, as well as, enlighten persons active in the theatrical field as to her significance for people of African ancestry while fulfilling the mission of the Foundation.
During the next six months, The Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation intends to focus on the following activities to build the capabilities of the organization:
- Recruit a Board of Directors and committee members.
- Identify an attorney and accountant to provide guidance regarding legal, bookkeeping, and tax issues.
- Complete necessary filings with the District and federal government.
- Form partnerships with nonprofits and government agencies that have expertise and resources related to the Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation’s mission.
- Create an initial budget and operating plan.
- Develop specific criteria for producing “Shero: The Livication of Henrietta Vinton Davis” as a traveling play.
- Identify and document long term activities, as well as, strategies necessary for their implementation.