Henrietta Vinton Davis was born on August 15, 1860, to Mansfield Vinton and Mary Ann Johnson Davis, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a musician, but he died shortly after Davis’ birth. Six months later, Davis had George A. Hackett as her stepfather. An influential man, he worked to protect the rights of free Blacks at a time when there were statewide and nationwide movements to enslave African-Americans and/or send them to Africa.
The new family was stable until Hackett died in the spring of 1870. Davis moved with her mother to Washington, D.C. Davis went through the public education system and became a schoolteacher. She taught in both Maryland and Louisiana for only a few years. When her mother became ill, Davis returned to D.C.
In 1878, Davis got a job as a copyist in the Office of the Recorder of Deeds in Washington D.C., becoming the first Black woman employed in that office. By 1881, Davis was appointed an assistant to Frederick Douglass. Douglass encouraged Davis to began training with a noted elocutionist, Marguerite Saxton, and by 1883 Davis was appearing on stages to recite masterpieces of western civilization and newer pieces by writers like Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Douglass was right there introducing her as “the first lady of her race.”
Davis not only recited works but also impersonated known actresses of her day. She got professional managers and started performing around the country. She added to her repertoire and began interpreting performances, not just mimicking them. By 1884 she was interacting with others on stage, marking the beginning of her career as an actress. Davis routinely performed in front of mixed-race audiences, but she was part of black troupes. Racism kept her off of the major stages of her day.
In 1893 Davis became a businesswoman in her own right. She founded a theater company in Chicago. In 1900 she helped write the five-act play "Our Old Kentucky Home" with J.E. Bruce. She starred in that drama in 1898 and toured with it for two years. We know little of her brief tour with a horribly racist show called “The Country Coon,” but it didn’t last long, and by 1901 she was back on stage doing her recitations for audiences. Starting in 1903, she returned to acting for six years but was only able to find parts in plays she helped produce.
She began traveling to the Caribbean in the late 19th century. She met and worked with local and American artists and businesspeople. But she also gained a wider view of how Black people were treated outside of the United States. It was during her travels in 1917-1918, that she met Marcus Garvey, who headed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). For more information on the UNIA, see my previous article on Queen Mother Moore.
By 1918 Davis had joined UNIA. Her abilities to speak to and act for audiences made her a wonderful model for the Garvey Movement, as the organization was also called. By 1920 she had left the stage and taken on an active management role for UNIA. She held several positions in the organization, including its first international organizer, a director of Black Star Line, the second vice-president of the Negro Factories Corporation, and the fourth assistant president-general. Among her accomplishments for UNIA was the establishment of six branches throughout the Caribbean.
When Garvey was deported to his home nation in 1927, UNIA started to decline. In 1929, Davis was made the group’s secretary general. The American and the Caribbean branches started to drift apart. Davis sided with UNIA Inc. and became their first assistant president general in 1932. Two years later she was named president of the organization and held that position until 1940.
Davis continued to speak out for the empowerment of Black Americans for the rest of her life. She died at the age of 81 on December 23, 1941. UNIA and its various offshoots continue their work to this day.