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African-American educator William H. Davis was born in Columbus, Ohio, on November 27, 1848. According to family tradition, his maternal grandfather was a station agent on the Underground Railroad there. At age 15, he enlisted in the Union Army and served in a Light Guard company that helped protect President Abraham Lincoln, known as Lincoln’s Body Guard.

After the Civil War, Davis settled in Malden, about 10 miles east of Charleston. Malden was an important center of African-American history and culture because of the large number of Blacks who worked in the town’s salt works; in addition, many newly freed slaves from the South were migrating to Malden, and the Kanawha Valley in general.

The new state of West Virginia designated that schools must be segregated, but funding was often lacking or nonexistent, so Black leaders often established their own schools in communities. At the request of the Rev. Lewis Rice, at age 18 Davis became a teacher for Malden’s Black children.

In 1868, he divided his school into primary and secondary departments. Davis’ most famous pupil at Malden was a young Booker T. Washington, who would become the nation’s most prominent Black educator. In a 1930s ceremony at Tuskegee Institute, Davis was credited for a large part of Washington’s early education and lauded as an example of how teachers can change people’s lives.

About 1870, Davis moved from Malden to Charleston, married Hallie Ann Lewis, and became principal of the city’s Black grade school, serving in that position for 24 years. He was also an active member of the African Zion Baptist Church in Malden and the First Baptist Church in Charleston.

He was so well-respected that in 1888, Charleston’s Black community nominated Davis as an independent candidate for that year’s gubernatorial election — the first (and, to date, only) African-American to be so honored in West Virginia history.

William H. Davis retired from teaching in 1913 and died at his longtime home on Court Street in Charleston on March 24, 1938, at age 89. He was buried in the city’s Spring Hill Cemetery, attired in his Union army uniform.

This Article was written by Stan Bumgardner

Last Revised on January 14, 2021


Ernest Everett Blevins. “William H. Davis — WV’s first black candidate for governor.”. Charleston Gazette-Mail, 11 February 2017.

Dave Tabler. "A Forgotten Piece of West Virginia History" on 22 February 2011.

Carter G. Woodson. Early Negro Education in West Virginia. Institute: The West Virginia Collegiate Institute, 1921,

West Virginia State Archives “Obituaries for William H. Davis".

Cite This Article

Bumgardner, Stan "William H. Davis." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 14 January 2021. Web. 29 May 2024.


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