UChicago symposium to honor pioneering work of W. Allison Davis

April 25-26 event to examine scholar’s legacy, diversity in the academy

There are scholars whose work has changed the course of their field of study, and others still whose work changes the course of history. The University of Chicago’s Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity, and the Division of the Social Sciences will honor one such pioneering figure when it hosts a symposium highlighting the groundbreaking work of Prof. W. Allison Davis, a scholar who affected the trajectory of scholarship at UChicago and impacted Black Americans’ lives.

The inaugural symposium, which will be held April 25-26, is free and open to the public. (Register here.)

“This is a moment for us to step back and really celebrate the brilliance and the incredible accomplishments of Professor Davis,” said Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and co-chair of the planning committee. “He had a substantive impact both in the academy and outside of the academy. But his life and his trajectory also allows us to really interrogate the impact of race and racism in shaping the work of the academy, both during his time and today.”

Davis was trained in the methodologies of the Chicago School of Sociology and Social Anthropology, and was the first Black tenured faculty member at a predominantly white university. The sheer fact of this difference meant his research was never just about academic fact-finding, and he spent his life innovating new applications of social science to challenge racial inequality in America.

His 1941 book, Deep South, provided critical support for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s efforts in the Brown vs. Board of Education case. And across his long career, Davis called out bias in the methods that social scientists adopt in the study of life success and educational achievement.

“What did it mean to be a black scholar at the University of Chicago in the 1940s?” Cohen asks — a question to be further explored at the symposium. “What did it mean to struggle to be seen and heard and to make those contributions? There's a story about the ways in which he was hired, but was sent a memo saying, ‘We can't ensure your happiness or social integration.’ His relationship to the University of Chicago was a complicated one, and we want to explore that also.”

This is a question, too, that can be asked in the opposite direction: What did it mean for the university to be home to one of the first Black tenured professors at a white-dominated school?

“The importance, his importance, from the standpoint of the academy is not only that in terms of the way in which we view him at the University of Chicago, but very much in terms of demonstrating a way in which the University has historically led the professoriate across the nation in terms of its diversity,” said fellow symposium co-chair Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., the Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Professor in the Crown Family School.

As part of the event, Cohen will chair a panel at the event called “Race and the Academy,” which will also feature Profs. Margaret Beale Spencer, Waldo Johnson and Gina Samuels. According to Cohen, each panelist — like Davis — has made deep contributions to the academy, but also can speak to the difficulties that they've encountered because of their position as Black people and their insistence on studying and centering Black people in their work.

Johnson emphasizes that Davis’s legacy underscores the wide-ranging and ongoing impact of diversity in the academy.

“Particularly at this moment, where there are a lot of calls in a wide range of spaces across the country about the importance or the utility of having a diverse campus — in terms of professors, of students, and staff — this is extremely important,” Johnson said. “His is not a name that readily comes to mind, even among the African American or other scholars of color in the way that we might think about a John Hope Franklin or a W.E.B. DuBois. So for people to recognize who he was, and the fact that he was doing this work in the first half of the 20th century, and doing this work as a faculty member at the University of Chicago is important.”

The schedule of events and speakers for the symposium is available here. The events are free and open to the public; please RSVP here.

—Adapted from a story that was first published on the Division of the Social Sciences website.