Frank Marshall Davis

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Frank Marshall Davis
Born(1905-12-31)December 31, 1905
Arkansas City, Kansas
DiedJuly 26, 1987(1987-07-26) (aged 81)
Honolulu, Hawaii
OccupationJournalist, poet
NationalityUnited States
Genressocial realism
Subjectsrace relations, music, literature, American culture
Literary movementsocial realism
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Frank Marshall Davis
Born(1905-12-31)December 31, 1905
Arkansas City, Kansas
DiedJuly 26, 1987(1987-07-26) (aged 81)
Honolulu, Hawaii
OccupationJournalist, poet
NationalityUnited States
Genressocial realism
Subjectsrace relations, music, literature, American culture
Literary movementsocial realism

Frank Marshall Davis (December 31, 1905 – July 26, 1987) was an American journalist, poet, and political and labor movement activist.

Davis began his career writing for African-American newspapers in Chicago. He moved to Atlanta, where he became the editor of the paper he turned into the Atlanta Daily World before moving back to Chicago. During this time, he was outspoken about political and social issues. His poetry work was sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

In the late 1940s, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he ran a small business. He also became involved in local labor issues where his actions were tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Davis died in 1987 in Hawaii.



Early life

Davis was born in Arkansas City, Kansas in 1905. [1] His parents divorced, and Davis grew up living with his mother and step father and with his grandparents.[2] Beginning at age 17, Davis attended Friends University (1923) and later Kansas State Agricultural College, now Kansas State University (1924–1927, 1929), but didn't graduate. When Davis entered Kansas State, there were 25 other African-American students enrolled there.[3] He studied industrial journalism. He began to write poems as the result of a class assignment and was encouraged to continue writing poetry by an English literature instructor.[3] Davis pledged Phi Beta Sigma fraternity in 1925.


In 1927, Davis moved to Chicago, where he worked variously for the Chicago Evening Bulletin, the Chicago Whip and the Gary American, all African-American newspapers.[4][5] He also wrote free-lance articles and short stories for African-American magazines. It was also during this time that Davis began a serious effort to write poetry, including his first long poem, entitled Chicago’s Congo, Sonata for an Orchestra.


In 1931, he moved to Atlanta to become an editor of a semiweekly paper. Davis transformed the Atlanta Daily World[6] into a daily newspaper within two years of taking the job as the paper's managing editor in 1931. Under Davis' leadership the Atlanta Daily World became the nation's first successful black daily.

In the pages of the paper, Davis articulated an agenda of social realism (social justice), which included appeals for racial justice in politics and economics, as well as legal justice. Davis became interested in the Communist party in 1931 during the famous Scottsboro boys and Angelo Herndon cases[citation needed] and championed black activism to compensate for social ills not remedied by the larger white society. In the early 1930s, he warned against blacks accepting the Depression-era remedies being pushed by communists[citation needed] but by 1936 Davis was listed as a contributing editor to the Spokesman, the official organ of the Youth Section of the National Negro Congress, which the government had declared a Communist front organization.[citation needed]

He continued to write and publish poems, which came to the attention of Frances Norton Manning, who introduced Davis to Norman Forge. Forge's Black Cat Press brought out Davis's first book, Black Man's Verse, in the summer of 1935.

In 1935, Davis moved back to Chicago to take the position of managing editor of the Associated Negro Press,[7] a news service for black newspapers, which had begun in 1919. Eventually, Davis was named executive editor for the ANP. He held the position until 1947.

During the Depression, Davis participated in the federal Works Progress Administration Writers' Project. In 1937, he received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.[8]

While in Chicago, Davis also started a photography club, worked for numerous political parties, and participated in the League of American Writers. Davis, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and others were part of the South Side Writers group, who met regularly beginning in 1936 to critique each other's work.[9] [10] With the encouragement of authors such as Wright and Walker, Davis published in 1948 his most ambitious collection of poems, entitled 47th Street: Poems, which chronicles the varied life on Chicago's South Side.


Davis used his newspaper platform to call for integration of the sports world, and he began to engage himself with community organizing efforts, starting a Chicago labor newspaper, The Star, toward the end of World War II. In 1947, the Spokane Daily Chronicle called the paper "a red weekly" saying that it "has most of the markings of a Communist front publication."[11] The Chicago Star had a goal to "promote a policy of cooperation and unity between Russia and the United States"[12] seeking to "[avoid] the red-baiting tendencies of the mainstream press."[13]

In 1945, he taught one of the first jazz history courses in the United States, at the Abraham Lincoln School[14] in Chicago.

In 1948, Davis and his second wife, who had married in 1946, moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. In a 1974 interview with Black World/Negro Digest, Davis states that the move was because of a magazine article his wife had read.[15] During this time Hawaii was going through a non-violent revolution known as the Democratic Revolution. This revolution saw control of Hawaii's politics move from the white planters, mostly Republicans, who had controlled Hawaii's politics since the establishment of the Hawaiian Territory, to the non-white plantation workers and their descendants, who tended to vote Democratic. In Honolulu Davis operated a small wholesale paper business, Oahu Papers, which burned in March 1951. In 1959, he started another similar firm, the Paradise Paper Company.

Davis also wrote a weekly column, called "Frank-ly Speaking", for the Honolulu Record, a labor paper published by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).[16] Davis' first column noted he was a member of the national executive board of the Civil Rights Congress,[17][citation needed] The paper had been founded in 1948 by Koji Ariyoshi, and folded in 1958. Davis's early columns covered labor issues, but he broadened his scope to write about cultural and political issues, especially racism. He also included the history of blues and jazz in his columns.

He became one of the first promoters of the concept of a "raceless" society based on his belief that race as a biological or social construct was illogical and a fallacy.[18]

Davis published little poetry between 1948 and his final volume, Awakening, and Other Poems, published in 1978.

Later years and death

Davis authored a hard core pornographic novel, titled Sex Rebel: Black, which was written and published in 1968 under the pseudonym "Bob Greene",[19] and was published by William Hamling's Greenleaf Publishing Company.

Davis visited Howard University in Washington, D.C., to give a poetry reading in 1973, marking the first time he had seen the U.S. mainland in 25 years. His work began to appear in anthologies. Livin' the Blues: Memories of a Black Journalist and Poet (1992), Black Moods: Collected Poems (2002), and Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press (2007) were published posthumously.

Davis died in 1987, in Honolulu, of a heart attack, at age 81. Most sources list the date of his death as 26 July. However, the Social Security Death Index gives 15 July 1987 as his date of death, as does his college fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma.[20]

Personal life

In 1946, Davis married Helen Canfield, a white Chicago socialite, who was 19 years his junior. They divorced in 1970, and Helen died in May 1998 in Honolulu.[21] The couple had four daughters named Lynn, Beth, Jeanne and Jill and a son named Mark.

Davis was an avid photographer, and inspired Richard Wright's interest in the hobby.[22]

Legacy and impact

Kathryn Waddell Takara has made this evaluation of Davis's political legacy.

"No significant African American community existed in Hawai`i to provide Davis with emotional and moral support, and an expanded audience and market for his writing. Also, because he was still concerned with the issues of freedom, racism, and equality, he lacked widespread multi cultural support.


It can be argued that Davis escaped defeat like a trickster, playing dead only to arise later and win the race, although the politics of defeat were all around him. If society seemed to defeat him by denying him financial rewards, publication, and status, he continued to write prolifically. He stood by his principle that the only way to achieve social equality was to acknowledge and discuss publicly the racial and ethnic dynamics in all their complexity situated in an unjust society. He provided a bold, defiant model for writers to hold onto their convictions and articulate them."[23]

Davis has been cited as being an influence on poet and publisher Dudley Randall[24]

Analysis of literary work

Davis said he was captivated early on by "the new revolutionary style called free verse. Sonnets and, in fact, all rhyme held little interest for" him.[3] Davis claimed his "greatest single influence" was the poetry of Carl Sandburg "because of his hard, muscular poetry."[3]

During the middle of the 20th century, Davis set forth a radical vision that challenged the status quo. His commentary on race relations, music, literature, and American culture was precise, impassioned, and engaged. At the height of World War II, Davis questioned the nature of America’s potential postwar relations and what they meant for African Americans and the nation. His work challenged the usefulness of race as a social construct, and he eventually disavowed the idea of race altogether.

In his reviews on music, he argued that blues and jazz were responses to social conditions and served as weapons of racial integration. His book reviews complemented his radical vision by commenting on how literature reshapes one’s understanding of the world. Even his travel writings on Hawaii called for cultural pluralism and tolerance for racial and economic difference.


Selected works


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ a b c d John Edgar Tidwell, An Interview with Frank Marshall Davis Black American Literature Forum, Autumn 1985
  4. ^ [3][dead link]
  5. ^ History of African-American Newspapers
  6. ^ Atlanta Daily World Web site
  7. ^ Lawrence Daniel Hogan, Associated Negro Press Encyclopedia of Chicago
  8. ^ Jayne R Beilke, The changing emphasis of the Rosenwald Fellowship Program, 1928-1948 Journal of Negro Education, Winter 1997
  9. ^ [4]
  10. ^ [5]
  11. ^,2720766&dq=chicago-star+newspaper+davis&hl=en
  12. ^ Steven C. Tracy. Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Retrieved 2012-07-18. 
  13. ^ Bill Mullen. Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-46. Retrieved 2012-07-18. 
  14. ^ Arthur M. Vinje, Abraham Lincoln School, Summer Institute, Wisconsin Historical Images
  15. ^ Black World/Negro Digest Jan 1974
  16. ^ "Frank Marshall Davis' Blog 1949". Retrieved 2012-05-25. 
  17. ^ Honolulu Record, May 12 1949, v.1 no.41. p.3.
  18. ^ The Richard Wright Encyclopedia edited by Jerry W. Ward, Robert J. Butler
  19. ^ "Frank Marshall Davis, alleged Communist, was early influence on Barack Obama", The Telegraph (London), August 24, 2008
  20. ^ K-State Libraries
  21. ^ William Disbro, TODAYS OBITS 5-30-98 Hawaii-L Archives, May 30, 1998
  22. ^ Richard Wright: The Life and Times By Hazel Rowley
  23. ^ Frank Marshall Davis: Black Labor Activist and Outsider Journalist: Social Movements in Hawai`i, by Kathryn Waddell Takara, Ph.D.
  24. ^ Roses and Revolutions: The Selected Writings of Dudley Randall By Dudley Randall, Melba Joyce Boyd


Further reading

  • Black Literature Criticism, Gale (Detroit), 1992.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 51: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940,Gale, 1987.
  • Selected Black American Authors: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography, G. K. Hall (Boston), 1977.
  • Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1973.
Biographical and guides

External links