Archives of Maryland
J. Steward Davis
MSA SC 3520-14469
African American Attorney
J. Steward Davis: The Vanishing Star
J. Steward Davis, one of the most sought after black trial lawyers
in 1920's Baltimore, was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His Baltimore
roots came through his grandparents, both natives of that city.
After his graduation from Harrisburg High School, he took a two-year
course at Dickinson College, and went on to study law there, graduating
first in his class in 1916. He was the first person of color to be valedictorian
at Dickinson. He came to Baltimore, and was admitted to the bar the following
year. He began practicing by himself, although during his career he would
later partner with such notable Baltimore attorneys as W. Norman Bishop,
Warner T. McGuinn, and George W. Evans.
Soon after beginning his law practice, Davis' legal career was interrupted
by World War I, and he spent the next 18 months in the Army. He started
in France as a sergeant, and was later promoted to lieutenant and became
an instructor at Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, Kentucky.
Upon returning from the war, Davis quickly built up a thriving practice
as a trial lawyer in Baltimore. At six feet tall, and with a polished air
and winning smile, Davis made quite an impression, and sometimes drew crowds
to the courtroom. In 1921 alone he appeared in 48 cases mentioned in the
Afro-American newspaper, mostly divorces and criminal defense, including
the highly publicized capital murder case of Henry Brown, an Annapolis sailor.
Said Davis of his legal career, "The law offers a most attractive (spot)
for colored men. We get a fair show in the courts and the people appreciate
our efforts" (Afro-American Newspaper, March 11, 1921, pg. 5).
Though his legal career put him in the limelight, J. Steward Davis
worked behind the scenes in politics as a campaign organizer, and his
name never appeared on the ballot. He was the chairman of the committee
supporting W. Ashbie Hawkins' revolt against the established Republican
Party in 1920. Like other independent Republicans, Davis later switched
to the Democratic Party, and managed the Colored City Democratic campaign
for Al Smith's 1928 bid against Herbert Hoover.
Davis's described his political activism with these words, "It is time
that we look after our own political affairs, and not entrust them to
whites who are indifferent to our welfare" (Afro-American Newspaper, July
29, 1921, pg. 12). Ironically, Davis supported Herbert O'Conor's (white)
campaign for State's Attorney for Baltimore City in 1926. As Attorney General,
O'Conor would argue against the admission of Donald Gaines Murray to the
University of Maryland law school in 1935.
For most of the 1920's Davis was one of the busiest and well-respected
young lawyers in Baltimore. Everything seemed to be going his way. He
married Blanche Moore, a public school teacher, in 1920 and they soon
had two children, Suzanne and Blanche. Embraced by the legal community
and social circles, Davis seemed to have found his place in life. However
tragedy struck in April of 1929, when he vanished without a trace, never
to be heard from again.
On the morning of April 15, 1929, Davis left his home at 1202 Madison
Ave. for his office at 217 St. Paul Place. He never arrived. His family
initially concealed his absence, and the Afro-American Newspaper first mentioned
his disappearance in mid- May. An investigation by the Monumental Bar Association
revealed that he had bought a train ticket to New York City that day,
and that he stayed at the 135th St. Y.M.C.A. that night. After he checked
out in the morning, nobody saw him again.
Reasons for his disappearance abounded, but one persistent rumor was
that he had misapplied money in an administration case, and left to avoid
sanction. In a September 19, 1931, story, the Afro-American Newspaper
reported that an executive meeting of the Monumental Bar Association settled
the case quietly and swore everyone to secrecy, hoping to allow Davis to
return to his practice, but no corroboration surfaced for this story. Although
Baltimoreans wrote back claiming to have seen him in various cities in the
United States or in France, his family never heard from him again, leaving
his many friends, colleagues, and loved ones to wonder, "Whatever became
of J. Steward Davis?"
Written by Charles Madden; edited by Professor
Larry S. Gibson and Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse
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This biographical summary is in the public domain and is not covered by any claim of copyright. The Maryland State Archives asks that when this biography is used in whole or in part for any purpose that it be credited to the Maryland State Archives with a proper web citation.
October 12, 2010