John Preston Davis in D.C.
John Preston Davis was a prominent African American author, journalist, lawyer, civil rights leader, and co-founder of the National Negro Congress--an organization that was dedicated to the advancement of African Americans all over the country during the Great Depression.


Davis grew up in Washington, D.C. attending its segregated schools and graduated from the elite Dunbar High School in 1922. He graduated from Bates College in Maine in 1926. He moved to New York City where he became involved in the Harlem Renaissance.

Enrolling in Harvard University, he earned a masters degree in journalism and a bachelor of laws degree.

In 1933 he and Robert C. Weaver established an office in Washington, D.C. to pressure the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt to insure that black people received benefits from the New Deal. They successfully fought against a wage differential and for equal access to New Deal housing programs.

The two formed the Negro Industrial League to continue the pressure and then establish the Joint Committee on National Recovery, a group of 26 organizations to continue lobbying for inclusion of African Americans in New Deal programs.

In his most well-known role, he founded the National Negro Congress in 1936—a broad based organization that included Ralph Bunche, A Phillip Randolph, the Urban League’s Lester Granger, chief counsel of the NAACP Charles Hamilton Houston and James Ford of the Communist Party.

In Washington, D.C., Davis was also active in the local Negro Congress that helped lead the fight against police brutality and assisted in organizing unions among the cleaners and cafeteria workers and the women’s auxiliary of the Red Caps union. They were one of the main sponsors of the effort to desegregate the operator ranks of the Capital Transit Company.

The organization faltered when A. Phillip Randolph pulled out in 1940 and formed his own organization, The March on Washington Movement. Davis left the National Negro Congress in 1942.

In 1944 he attempted to enroll his son Michael in a white public school in Washington, D.C. and when rejected, promptly filed suit. The school board responded by prioritizing funds for building an all-black Lucy B. Slowe school in Davis’ Brookland neighborhood.

Although Davis’ suit was denied, it helped to lay the basis for a later successful suit—Bolling v. Sharpe—that outlawed public school segregation in the District of Columbia in 1954.

Davis was working as a journalist and as a clerk for U.S. Rep Vito Marcantonio (ALP-N.Y.) at the time of attempting to enroll his son in the white school.

Davis moved to New York City with his wife and children during the course of the suit and prior to the Slowe school opening.

He would go on to found Our World magazine—a black publication similar to Life Magazine and later compile the The American Negro Reference Book covered virtually every aspect of African-American life, present and past.

Davis died in Washington, D.C. in 1973.
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