W. Harry Davis, Sr.
[April 12, 1923 – August 11, 2006]
Mr. Harry Davis, Sr., longtime civil rights leader and activist, accomplished executive and devoted family man, was surrounded by his four children as he passed away early in the morning of August 11, 2006, at the age of 83, approximately one year after he suffered a recurrence of lymphoma that first came upon him 21 years prior. He leaves behind a legacy of promoting not only equal rights for African Americans, but tolerance for difference among all. His fighting spirit first became apparent at the young age of 2 when he was struck with polio. He also overcame struggles with early poverty and segregation, and was a key figure in desegregating Minneapolis public schools. His commitment to quality education for all led him to serve on the Minneapolis School Board for 21 years. For 60+ years, he has been an outstanding leader in Minneapolis with far reaching effects beyond city and racial borders.
Mr. Davis had a lifelong connection to Phyllis Wheatley and considered it his second home. The Wheatley had been a part of his life since its founding in 1924 when he was just 18 months old. Mr. Davis spent much of his youth learning and developing at Phyllis Wheatley. Later, he contributed as an adult through coaching athletics such as boxing with the Golden Gloves, basketball, football and baseball, and serving on the board of directors for 30 years. Mr. Davis started coaching boxing at Phyllis Wheatley in 1943, and during the years roughly from 1945 until 1960, Phyllis Wheatley dominated the Golden Gloves, winning the majority of team championships among the upper midwest region for Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. He had a special relationship with Ms. Gertrude Brown, first head resident of Phyllis Wheatley, who nurtured him throughout his youth until her departure to Washington, D.C. in 1937.
Beyond Phyllis Wheatley, Mr. Davis was largely involved in the American civil rights movement. He became the first African American to run for Mayor of Minneapolis in 1971 as a DFL endorsed candidate. He had a long career at the Star Tribune from 1973 until he retired in 1987, where he held positions of Assistant to the Publisher, Assistant to the Vice President for Public Affairs, Assistant Vice President for Public Affairs, Assistant Vice President and Manager of Employee Services, and Vice President Cowles Media, Inc. Prior to the Star Tribune, he was the founding chief executive for the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis, and prior to that worked for Onan Corporation as Production Foreman and later Employee Services Manager. He earned numerous civic service awards (at least 79). He headed the local NAACP and chaired the local effort for the War on Poverty. A graduate of North High School, he attended the University of Minnesota, and achieved a Honorary Doctor of Law degree from Macalaster College. He had a spirit of overcoming that stayed with him throughout his life, inspiring him, along with encourgement from his grandchildren, to write his autobiography Overcoming, which was published in 2002.
W. Harry Davis Sr. was born on April 12, 1923 to Elizabeth (Libby) Jackson and Lee Davis. Harry was preceded in death by his beloved wife of 61 years, Charlotte. He is survived by their children: Rita Lyell (Joey), Harry Jr. (Bobbi), Richard (Michelle), and Evan (Blythe). Grandchildren: Corey, Ramar, Charlotte, Nasstasha, Rekia, Chloe, Jaylyn, Juwan, Myles, Angelina, Mikayla, Melik and Jaliya. Great grandchildren: Joshua, Keyon, Kierra and Isaiah.
Phyllis Wheatley Community Center wrote the following to the family of W. Harry Davis Sr.:
Dear family of W. Harry Davis, Sr.:
We share in your sorrow on the loss of W. Harry Davis Sr. and would like to pay a richly deserved tribute to the memory of a highly esteemed former Board Chair, and treasured leader and friend of the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center. It is difficult to find words to express our deep regret at the loss of Harry Davis. His lifelong connection to our center was perhaps the greatest of anyone to pass through our doors. We are so proud that Phyllis Wheatley was to him a second home, a part of his life since its founding in 1924 when he was only 18 months old, and that his early memories include his mother taking him in his carriage to Phyllis Wheatley when he was three or four years old. It is quite an accomplishment to have an association with a nonprofit organization that is established at a very early age and maintained throughout one’s life; Phyllis Wheatley Community Center is indeed very special and exceptional because of the great people such as he that have impacted the organization. The relationship that our center has had with this remarkable leader, civil rights activist, loving and devoted family man, and friend means a great deal to us as we build upon decades of effort to better the lives of children and families in our community. Harry Davis never stopped giving back all he felt he received from our center; we lost an extraordinary friend and ambassador, and we know that so many others were deeply touched by his life and share in this tremendous loss.
Harry Davis was a great leader not only to our organization, but throughout our city of Minneapolis and beyond. He leaves behind a legacy of promoting not only equal rights for African Americans, but tolerance for difference among all people. His fighting yet gentle spirit first became apparent at the age of two when he struggled with polio, and will never be silenced. His accomplishments have far reaching effects beyond city and racial borders. He exemplified what the name of our organization stands for: hope, faith, courage and ambition. His becoming the first African American to run for the Mayor of Minneapolis is just one example of how he embodied these qualities.
Our organization has been providing services to the community for 81 years, all of which Harry Davis has been a part. We greatly appreciate all that Harry Davis has contributed to Phyllis Wheatley, first as a child learning and developing, and later as an adult coaching athletics and guiding the center as a prominent board member for 30 years. He largely shaped the notorious days of the Golden Gloves that was so close to his heart, and as you know, led the Phyllis Wheatley team to win many championships. It is not surprising that he had a special relationship with Gertrude Brown, first head resident of Phyllis Wheatley, for certainly she recognized in him an extremely wonderful individual. Despite all of his challenges in overcoming polio, early poverty and segregation, he never lost his optimistic attitude or that twinkle in his eye. He had an incredible gift of making people feel special and encouraging others to believe in themselves and their dreams. We are so grateful that he was able to publish his book Overcoming before his death to help us stay close to this outstanding man, and are thankful for the chapter he devoted to Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.
On behalf of Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, we want to thank you for designating our organization as a recipient of memorial gifts, and extend our deepest heartfelt sympathy and prayers to you on the loss of your loved one, Harry Davis. He was a man who cherished his family and is an inspiration to us in this capacity as well. While we no longer will be blessed to have Harry Davis in body, we will forever hold the important lessons he taught us, and his spirit will always be felt at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.