Henrietta Vinton Davis, August 25, 1860 – November 23, 194, was an African-American elocutionist, dramatist, and impersonator.
In addition to being “the premier actor of all nineteenth-century black performers on the dramatic stage”, Davis was proclaimed by Marcus Garvey to be the “greatest woman of the Negro race today”. She has come to be considered the physical, intellectual, and spiritual link between the abolitionist movement of Frederick Douglass and the African Redemption Movement of the UNIA-ACL and Marcus Garvey.
Henrietta Vinton Davis was born in Baltimore to musician Mansfield Vinton and Mary Ann (née Johnson) Davis. Shortly after her birth her father died. Within six months her mother had remarried to an influential Baltimorean, George A. Hackett, a member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and worked to defeat the 1859 Jacobs bill crafted to enslave the children of free Africans and deport their parents from the state of Maryland.
Hackett died in April 1870 after a short illness. Upon his death Mary Ann Hackett moved with her daughter Henrietta to Washington, D.C., where Henrietta received her public school education. At the early age of fifteen she passed the necessary examination and was awarded the position of a teacher in the public schools of Maryland.
After a period of time teaching in Maryland, she went to teach in the state of Louisiana. She later returned to Maryland to care for her ailing mother bearing with her the certificate of the Board of Education. In 1878, and only in her late teens, she became the first African-American woman employed by the Office of the Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D.C. under George A. Sheridan as a copyist.
In 1881 Frederick Douglass was appointed Recorder of Deeds.
Within a year Davis began her elocution and dramatic art education under the tutelage of Miss Marguerite Saxton of Washington. On April 25, 1883, she was introduced by the Honorable Frederick Douglass before a distinguished integrated audience. She went on to appear in New London, Connecticut, New York state, Boston, and “more than a dozen of the larger cities of the Eastern and Middle States”.
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During the summer of 1883, Davis (under the management of James Monroe Trotter 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 .
During this time she continued perfecting her craft under Professor Edwin Lawrence of New York and Rachael Noah of Boston. She also attended the Boston School of Oratory.
Her performances consisted of a diverse spectrum of works from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s Negro dialects to such works as Romeo and Juliet, As you like it; “Mary Queen of Scots”; “Cleopatra’s Dying Speech”; “The Battle” by Friedrich Schiller; and “How Tom Sawyer Got His Fence Whitewashed” by Mark Twain. She is considered the first African American to have made an attempt at Shakespearean delineations after Ira Aldridge. On January 17, 1884, she appeared before a crowded house in Melodeon Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. From 1884 to 1886, she appeared in various Shakespearean and classical tragedy roles with John A. Arneaux’s troup in New York City.
In 1893 she started her own company in Chicago, travelled to the Caribbean, and collaborated on writing Our Old Kentucky Home with distinguished journalist and future Garveyite John Edward Bruce.
During this period she was a supporter of the Populist Party. Later she backed the Socialist Party.
1919-1920, under Garvey
While traveling in the Caribbean, Davis learned of the work of Marcus Garvey. On June 15, 1919, she was one of the guests who spoke a meeting of the UNIA held at the Palace Casino in Harlem, NYC.
She performed a rendition of “Little Brown Baby With Sparkling Eyes” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. As part of her presentation she held an African-American doll, one of the earliest manufactured. Her prop had been loaned for the occasion by the Berry & Ross company. She decided to give up her career to work with Garvey and the UNIA-ACL, becoming the UNIA‘s first International Organizer, a director of the Black Star Line and the second Vice-President of the corporation.
At the UNIA-ACL convention in August 1920, she was one of the signatories of The Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. Among the 54 declarations made in this document are resolutions that the colors red, black, and green are to be the symbolic colors of the African race and the term “nigger” cease being used. Furthermore, it demands that the word “Negro” be written with a capital “N”. During the same convention the High Potentate of the UNIA conveyed upon her the title “Lady Commander of the Sublime Order of the Nile”.
1921-1934, leadership and independence
In 1921, Davis rose in rank to become the fourth assistant President-General of the UNIA-ACL. She established UNIA-ACL divisions in Cuba; Guadeloupe; St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica. Unseated by Garvey in June 1923 in an effort to quell dissent in the UNIA’s New York headquarters, she was reelected during the August 1924 convention. On August 25, 1924, she chaired the convention meeting as the Fourth-Assistant President General of the UNIA. In December, she traveled to Liberia, West Africa, as the only woman in the UNIA delegation seeking consent to establish a UNIA-ACL colony in Liberia. In that same year she was a member of a committee that delivered petitions to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge seeking Garvey’s exoneration on mail fraud charges. In 1925, she organized a trip through the Caribbean, taking with her Maymie de Mena as translator. At the 1929 International Convention of the UNIA she was elected UNIA Secretary General. By 1932 she broke with Garvey and became first Assistant President General of the rival UNIA, Inc. In the 1934 convention she was elected President of the rival organization.
On November 23, 1941, she died in Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., at the age of 81. She was originally buried in Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Her remains were transferred to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland, when Columbian Harmony closed in 1959.
Photo: 1) Henrietta Vinton Davis from Women of distinction: remarkable in works and invincible in character. (Raleigh, N.C. : L.A. Scruggs, 1893.). 2) Amy Jacques Garvey, Henrietta Vinton Davis and Marcus Garvey. 3) Henrietta Vinton Davis on front steps of the Negro World Newspaper as part of delegation presenting petitions.