Civil rights activist and professional boxer W. Harry Davis spoke to a group of 6th-grade students at Lake Harriet Upper Campus, 4912 Vincent Ave. S. on March 27. Davis is a renowned spokesperson for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and a longtime School Board member.
Davis came down with polio at the age of 4. Now 82, Davis is battling cancer and walks with a cane. “See kids,” he said, lifting up his cane. “These days, I need a prop to get past things.”
Davis is visiting the school as part of the class chapter on Minnesota History. Lake Harriet Principal Marsha Seltz said that Davis' oral history is important. “Here is someone of color who grew up in Minnesota and his childhood was very unique compared to most children at Lake Harriet,” said Seltz. “The obstacles he overcame in becoming very successful and the strength of his family are important to education.”
Being a part of the polio epidemic is just one way in which his life and struggles differ from kids' lives today. Davis wasn't allowed much treatment for polio because he's black. However, his mother, descended from slaves, had been informally trained in medicine and knew to bathe his legs in oil and alcohol daily for two years.
Davis eventually overcame the paralysis with his mother's treatment and help from a doctor. He became a professional athlete, taking after his father, Lee Davis. His father was a pitcher in a Negro Baseball League and played on Minor League teams. Davis Jr. played football, basketball and baseball. Later, he won a Golden Glove award in boxing. He still wears the title's ring on his finger, which he lifted up for the kids to see.
Growing up, Davis lived in a “settlement house,” where multiple families lived. At the settlement house, the Minneapolis NAACP recruited youth to speak out against inequities. The organization preached the virtues of running for elected positions. That's how Davis came to admire such renowned activists as Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and Cecil Newman. He later became a junior president of the NAACP in high school.
Davis said that although the student population at his school was split evenly between whites and blacks, there were no black teachers. He said he didn't have any other black role models and, instead, depended on his five older siblings for guidance or advice. He learned from their successes and mistakes.
One lesson that stuck with him through the years is to seek clarity. He encouraged students, “Don't be afraid to raise your hand and ask questions. That's how you learn,” Davis said.
In another effort to help the students learn, Davis and a friend, fellow Minneapolis Rotary Club member Frank Taylor, arranged for the class to receive a set of his book, “Changemaker: W. Harry Davis” by Davis and edited by Star Tribune writer Lori Sturdevant.