The saying is to whom much is given, much is expected.
Well for William Harry Davis, though little was given, he gave as if he was given the world. Though Davis died nearly six years ago, because of what Davis gave to the residents of his beloved Minneapolis, his legacy will endure generations.
W. Harry Davis' children with students from North High's "Polar Producers." From left to right: Teaniya Gross, Harry Davis, Jr., Diane Boyd, Evan Davis, Rita Lyell, Richard Davis, Devon Vance and Michael Stevenson, Jr.
Davis, born April 12, 1923 in Minneapolis, MN, was an activist, boxing coach, civic leader and businessman. Diagnosed with polio at the age of three, Davis’ life experience taught him a lot about people, opportunity and being at a “disadvantage.”
“If you saw him, you would never know he had polio,” said Harry Davis, Jr., Davis’ eldest son.
Davis learned of the harshness of life early on. He attended Michael Dowling School for Crippled Children, but because he was African American, he had to commute by taxi because he was not allowed to ride the segregated school bus. Later in life when he was able to ride the bus, his brother, Leland Davis, had to carry him from home to the bus stop.
A graduate of North High (1941), Davis refused to let polio hold him back and became a championship boxer for the school’s boxing team.
Known for his integrity and power of fighting for the oppressed, Davis immersed himself in politics. In 1949, Davis worked with then senator, Hubert Humphrey to desegregate the Minneapolis hotels.
“We can work in the hotels, we can drive people there, but we can’t stay there, it makes no sense,” said Davis, Jr., recalling his father’s words.
In 1967, after large-scale disturbances in several major U.S. cities, the largely African American neighborhood around Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis witnessed urban unrest. After several buildings were set on fire, Davis worked with then Mayor Arthur Naftalin to resolve tensions between community members and the police.
Two years later Davis became the first African American to serve on the Minneapolis School Board. Davis served on the board for 21 years.
In 1971 Davis also became the city's first African American mayoral candidate; nominated by Walter Mondale and endorsed by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
Davis later served on the United States Olympic Boxing Committee helping to lead the team to several victories in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. That team included Evander Holyfield, gold medalist Tyrell Biggs, and alternate Mike Tyson.
Legacy in Education & Mentoring Program
Education was at the core of Davis’ efforts. Though Davis was mentoring young men in the boxing ring, he was teaching them the ABCs of boxing and of life.
“Dad coached boxing from 1943until 1959,” said Davis, Jr. “During this time he coached or mentored around 800 men. Not one kid was arrested, incarcerated or charged with a crime. Those men became fathers and mentors and several became ministers, and politicians.”
Davis’ legacy in education is continued through the North High W. Harry Davis Mentoring Program. This program pairs freshmen students with one-on-one community mentors. The mentors remain with the students throughout their high school careers. Mentors work with the students regarding academic achievements, social issues and community engagement. This year 54 students were involved in the program.
“Back in October we got the blessing from the Davis family and we brought in Deanna Smith to help bring in mentors and the number is growing,” said Scott Redd of the Minneapolis Public Schools. “I’ve never had such an easy time recruiting.”
Davis, Jr. said it was easy for his family to get behind the mentoring program.
“A lot of parents drop their kids off to have the school raise their children,” said Davis, Jr. “I work for Hennepin County and believe me, our children are under siege. Once you get in the county system, it’s over with.”
North High Principal Shawn Harris-Berry also sees the importance of this program.
“The students who participate in this program need to know and hear the history of how the program has been developed,” said Harris-Berry. “Every child should have someone in their life that is successful that supports them. That should not be determined by birth right; every child should have that.”
“(My father) took all the negatives and turned them into positives,” said Davis, Jr. “Being the first one (in the family) to graduate from high school and having a mother focused on education is his legacy. Mentor one person because that one person snowballs. Mentoring by example is a strong asset.”