An Evening with W. Harry Davis

by Phil Johnson

At 81, Harry Davis, author and veteran Minneapolis civil rights leader, retains the energy of a man who was a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth. His stories about his personal life and about the people and institutions of the African-American community in Minneapolis riveted the group gathered at the home of Carolyn and Glenn Ayres to meet the author. His intelligence, understanding, and deep love of this community shine through Harry Davis.

He survived polio as a boy, served on the Minneapolis School Board (Chair as of 1974), and ran for mayor of Minneapolis in 1971. During the campaign, he and his family were frequently subject to racial threats. His autobiography, Overcoming, captures much of the colorful history of civil rights in Minneapolis.

Arthur Nafalin, Mayor of Minneapolis in the 1960s said: “Harry was willing to be a human bridge between black and white when this city really needed one. I shudder to think what might have happened if that bridge had not been there.”

Davis told about the Women’s Christian Association that provided funds for the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House which was at the center of his life and the heart of the community. The WCA also initiated the public protest necessary to pressure the Dykman Hotel in Minneapolis to provide accommodation for Marian Anderson in 1939 when she performed at the Minneapolis Auditorium. When the Dykman management finally agreed open a room to her, they requested that Ms. Anderson “enter the hotel in back and ride the freight elevator to her room. …the members of the Women’s Christian Association…would have none of that. Then the great Dyckman Hotel backed down and made Marian Anderson a guest, the same as any other” (Overcoming, p. 75).

Overcoming, 2002, was edited by Lori Sturdevant and published by Afton Press. Those who were present will long remember this gracious, honest, friendly man. Harry Davis’ story is rich, well told, and an important part of our history.