A memorial service will be held for Charles A. Davis, journalist, founder of one of Chicago’s first African American-owned public relations agencies, commercial real estate developer, and noted civic and social leader at 6:00pm, Friday, September 23, at Church of the Good Shepherd, 5700 S. Prairie Avenue in Chicago. Mr. Davis died peacefully at his home in Chicago’s North Beverly community on Sunday, June 12 under the care of his family and in the presence of his daughter.
Mr. Davis was born on September 29, 1922 in Mobile, AL the fourth of five children of Robert and Clara Mae Davis. His family moved to Chattanooga, TN in 1924 when his father was assigned to open an Atlanta Life Insurance Company office there. His father died in 1930 and his mother in 1931, both from tuberculosis, and Davis and his siblings were sent to live in Chicago with their maternal grandfather Charles Robert Williams, a Pullman porter.
Mr. Davis graduated from DuSable High School in 1939 and began working that year as bellhop at Bronzeville’s Grand Hotel where he came in contact with many notable African Americans including the NAACP’s Walter White, Roy Wilkins, W.E.B. DuBois, and Dr. Metz Lochard of the Chicago Defender. Later, he worked briefly as a Pullman porter on the Milwaukee Road line before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and serving as technical sergeant in the Pacific (Philippines). Despite qualifying for officer candidate school he was denied a recommendation because of his race and was removed from his clerical job training and reassigned to the laundry instead.
Mr. Davis had joined the Church of the Good Shepherd (United Church of Christ) in 1934. There he met his future wife Rosalie Dorsey, whom he married in 1943. Davis eventually became trustee and assistant treasurer of the church and remained a member throughout his life.
In 1946, with army discharge in hand, he accepted an invitation to join the Chicago Defender as a reporter. He was soon assigned a weekly sports column, and later became managing editor, city editor, publicity director, and advertising director. During this time he resumed his college studies, which had begun at Chicago’s Central YMCA College and Bluefield State College in West Virginia, by studying political science at Chicago’s Roosevelt University from 1953 to 1955. He also began to direct his attention to the growing civil rights movement.
In 1959, he left the Chicago Defender to establish his own company, Charles A. Davis Associates, Inc., which he created to fill a need for public relations services including publicity and advertising, research and marketing, and conventions management for minority clients. Baldwin Ice Cream, the Chicago Urban League, and United Air Lines were among the many small businesses, nonprofit organizations and large corporations serviced by the firm. Davis was accredited by the Public Relations Society of America in 1971. In 1962, Davis became executive director of the National Insurance Association, a trade association of 47 Black owned insurance agencies, and provided his public relations expertise to the group for more than twenty years.
During the 1960s, diverse groups of Chicago civil rights activists struggled to overcome disunity while confronting public school segregation. With Chicago Urban League president Edwin C. “Bill” Berry and others, Davis helped organize the various groups into the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). After carrying out several marches, sit-ins, and street demonstrations the CCCO lost cohesion amid accusations that certain members including Davis were secretly colluding with school officials and the mayor. However, working with Dr. Martin Luther King during King’s Chicago visits had convinced Davis by then that he could accomplish more by fundraising and promoting the minority business community. He resigned from the leadership of CCCO shortly thereafter.
Davis continued his entrepreneurship activities by launching the Jayson Building Corporation, the Phoenix Real Estate Group (a commercial development in Englewood), and the Adco Association (a shopping center at 87th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway). In 1970 Davis worked with several colleagues, including George Brokemond, to organize a new bank in the Gresham neighborhood that would serve a community abandoned by white residents and their banking institutions. Highland Community Bank eventually grew into one of the Chicago region’s largest minority-owned banks and Davis remained on its board of directors for over 30 years.
Mr. Davis served for decades on boards of organizations including the NAACP Southside Chicago Branch, the Chicago Urban League, the Chicago Renewal Society, and several local foundations. Through these board networks, and his appointments to local public commissions such as the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, the Chicago Economic Development Corporation, and the Cook County Comprehensive Health and Hospitals and Allied Medical Services Governing Commission, Davis built relationships with corporate CEOs, bankers, and elected officials whose support for minority enterprises and nonprofits he cultivated. In the early 1970s he worked with Chicago Urban League president James Compton to form Chicago United, a metropolitan organization with a mission to leverage equal opportunity in employment, education, housing, and health care. Davis lobbied at the city, county, and state level in support of these causes.
Mr. Davis was a strong supporter of Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign and participated in several Washington administration initiatives including the Communications Task Force, and the Chicago Economic Development Commission. Davis also served on the Illinois Board of Governors of State Colleges and Universities. He was Chairman of the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce, founding board member of the Chicago Military Academy Charter School in Bronzeville, and a member of the Mary Herrick Scholarship Fund for DuSable High School Students board. Davis was also a member of the National Conference for Community and Justice, and the Economic Club of Chicago, and director of the Executive Service Corps of Chicago. He followed in his father’s footsteps by pledging Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and was active in a number of social organizations including the Frog’s Club, Druids, the Chicago Assembly and the Sunshine Boys.
Davis was a longtime supporter of the South Side Community Art Center and the Black Creativity Gala at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. He was an avid reader and African American history buff and authored two books, “On My Own”, a memoir, and “A Cleansing Flame, A History of the Civil War”. He created the Chicago Africa Study Tour Group and led family and friends on trips throughout the United States and destinations around the world including Alaska, Argentina, Benin, Brazil, China, the Caribbean, Egypt, Ivory Coast, India, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal and South Africa among others.
In 2004, the City of Chicago designated the block of 24th Street between Michigan and Wabash Avenues, the location of the Chicago Defender building, as honorary Charles A. Davis Street. Davis received an honorary Doctor of Humane Services degree from Governor’s State University in 1975, its first granted. He was a Frontiers International “Chicagoan of the Year” in 1991 and was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame in 1994. His many other honors include the NAACP Freedom Fund Award, Mary Herrick Fund Lifetime Achievement Award and awards from the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, Western Electric Company, Chicago Economic Development Corporation, Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce and Chicago Insurance Association.
Mr. Davis was preceded in death by his wife of 65 years, Rosalie, his brothers, Warner and Robert, and sister Marguerite. He is survived by his sister, Clarice Durham, son Charles A. Davis Jr. (Betty), daughter Daphne Davis LeCesne (Theodore), five grandsons Charles A. Davis III (Lena), Robert H. Davis (Monique), Tremaine Davis, Adrian LeCesne (Biyan), Maxwell LeCesne, three great granddaughters Indigo Henry Davis, Kamilah Rose Davis and Amber LeCesne, a nephew Mark Durham (Octavia), niece Helene Dorsey Montgomery, nephew Donald Dorsey (Harriet); two great nieces Malaika Durham Tyson (Sean), and Maya Durham Rayner (Ivan), and a host of cousins and close friends.