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Educator John Warren Davis (February 11, 1888-July 12, 1980) was president of West Virginia State College (now University) from 1919 to 1953 and molded it into one of the strongest Black colleges in the country.

Born in Milledgeville, Georgia, Davis held degrees from Morehouse College, studied at the University of Chicago, and was awarded honorary degrees from a number of institutions including Harvard University and the University of Liberia. From 1914 to 1917, Davis served as registrar and faculty member at Morehouse, and from 1917 to 1919, he was the executive secretary of the 12th Street Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Washington.

Upon his 1919 arrival at what was then called West Virginia Collegiate Institute, Davis found that only 12 of the 28 faculty members had college degrees and only 27 of the 297 students were in college courses. He immediately set about strengthening both faculty and curriculum, and in 1927, the North Central Association fully accredited the institution. This made it one of four Black colleges in the United States to be accredited and the first public college in West Virginia to be accredited. In 1929, it became West Virginia State College.

A part of the genius of Davis’s presidency was that he placed West Virginia State College on the national scene. He enrolled it as a member of national organizations and was personally active in national educational circles, particularly in associations such as the Conference of Presidents of Land Grant Colleges for Negroes, the American Teachers’ Association, and the North Central Association.

Under Davis’s leadership, the college acquired and managed Washington-Carver 4-H Camp in Fayette County, established a field artillery ROTC program, and operated a Civilian Pilot Training Program which trained Black fliers, several of whom became Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. West Virginia State College developed a record for excellence which attracted faculty and students from across the country. The institution’s facilities expanded through the construction of 12 new buildings and enrollment more than tripled.

As he aged, Davis emerged as one of the nation’s foremost spokesmen in matters of Black higher education. He became an adviser to presidents and in 1952 accepted a U.S. government appointment in Liberia. Retiring from West Virginia State College in 1953, Davis continued his government service until 1954 after which he accepted an appointment with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

John Warren Davis died in Englewood, New Jersey.

This Article was written by Ancella R. Bickley

Last Revised on March 22, 2021


Harlan, John C. History of West Virginia State College. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1968.

Stoner, John C. "John W. Davis," in , Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History. vol. 2. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

John W. Davis Papers. Drain-Jordan Library, West Virginia State University.

Cite This Article

Bickley, Ancella R. "John Warren Davis." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 22 March 2021. Web. 15 June 2024.


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