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PAC/VBHS Newletter Article

Harry B. Davis

Harry B. Davis, who represented Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach in the Virginia General Assembly for 26 years, was born on the family farm off Providence Road in 1893. The farm had been purchased by his grandfather Davis before the Civil War and several other family members owned farms in the immediate vicinity. Harry attended a one-room county school and then enrolled in Norfolk Academy, graduating in 1910. He subsequently attended Hampden-Sydney College. In the early 1920s he served as voting registrar for the Kempsville Magistrate Distsrict and many of the persons he processed were women becoming registered voters for the first time following ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. He also demonstrated early interest in education by contributing funds toward construction of a gymnasium for the Kempsville School. In addition to assisting his father with the family farm he became president of the Trucker Ice and Cold Storage Company of Norfolk.

In 1934 Mr. Davis became a candidate for Princess Anne County’s seat in the Virginia General Assembly, winning both the Democratic primary and general election. He was elected to a total of thirteen successive terms, usually running without opposition. His committee assignment in 1934 was to the Schools and Colleges Committee, which had become the Education Committee by the time he assumed its chairmanship in 1948. He was known as an influential legislator, who worked effectively and quietly with his many long-time colleagues.

By the 1950s Virginia was facing Supreme Court mandated integration of the state’s public schools. Virginia’s political leadership, however, endorsed the concept of massive resistance, rejecting the token integration proposal of the General Assembly’s Gray Commission, of which Mr. Davis was vice-chair. In 1958 Governor J. Lindsay Almond implemented a new statute authorizing him to close public schools rather than accept federally ordered integration. Norfolk’s public high schools were among those ordered closed by the Governor.

Within months a federal court ruled that school-closing statement was unconstitutional and Mr. Davis became vice-chair of the Perrow Commission, charged with arriving at a proposal for token compliance with federal expectation. That Perrow Comission report in 1959 included total option, and tuition grants for families electing to send children to private schools. When the bill containing elements of the Perrow proposal reached Mr. Davis’ Education Committee, members voted eight to eight and Chairman Davis cast the tie breaking vote in favor of the bill.

The legislation’s passage paved the way for a modest number of African-American children across the state to enroll in public schools, both saving public education and representing the first step toward integration. In the fall of 1959, Mr. Davis faced opposition from his own party as he sought nomination to a 14th term and his pro-integration vote was a deciding factor in his primary defeat.

In retirement, Mr. Davis remained interested in the life of his community. He and his sister Lucille sold land to the City of Virginia Beach in 1986 as the site for Woodstock Park, under an arrangement by which they gave the city a portion of the cost. The following year, Harry Davis died at the age of 94. His twenty-six year legislative career remained the longest of any Princess Anne delegate.

The Harry Davis Papers in the archives of Virginia Wesleyan College contain a valuable record of Princess Anne County attitudes and actions during the Great Depression, World War II and into the 1950s, and document the far-reaching impact of a dedicated public servant.

Stephen S. Mansfield: PAC/VBHS Newsletter excerpt, Spring 1998, Vol I Issue 3

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