The Lady Vanishes
Meet Henrietta Vinton Davis-one of the most amazing women you've probably never heard of
Nnamdi Azikiwe, now 47, says he’s always been interested in history, but he didn’t get serious about it until he saw Spike Lee’s biopic Malcolm X in 1993. As part of his fledgling research, he learned that the former Malcolm Little’s father was a member of an organization called UNIA, which led Azikiwe to Garvey.
“I had seen Marcus Garvey’s picture before, but I had no idea who he was until I was 27 years old,” Azikiwe says. “That made me curious about some of the history I had never learned.”
He joined the present-day UNIA and threw himself into Garveyism, reading Garvey’s Philosophy and Opinions and other seminal UNIA texts. As he read, he kept running across the name Henrietta Vinton Davis. She held numerous important positions in the organization, and she was mentioned frequently in various papers and articles, but that’s all she ever was—a mention.
“For this woman to be doing the things that she was doing amongst the men that she was doing them at the time that she was doing them—the 1920s—made me think that there was something about her that was special, but I never found anything substantial,” he says in a phone interview from his Washington home. “Every time these people do something, she’s right in the midst of it, but I had no idea who she was.”
Azikiwe researched Davis’ life in his spare time, eventually learning enough that he was able to find her gravesite, an undistinguished patch of grass.
“The first thing I thought was, I’ll put a marker here,” he recalls. “And then my second thought, No, because I could do that and nobody would know that that happened. So I decided to take a different approach and say I want to raise enough awareness about this woman so that other people see that she’s important enough that she deserves a marker on her grave.”
Azikiwe spent the early ’00s ferreting out the details of Davis’ life. In 2005, he visited Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture where, to his surprise, he stumbled across a copy of LeBouef’s play Shero. (“I did not know there was a copy there,” LeBouef says.)
It was an important moment, Azikiwe says. It meant that “somebody else recognizes that this is something substantial besides me.”
Azikiwe says at that time he wasn’t familiar with LeBouef’s work as an actor—he worked evenings during Homicide’s run and likewise missed LeBouef’s turn as ill-fated strip-club owner Orlando during the first season of The Wire. But back home in Washington, Azikiwe eventually tracked LeBouef down. Together with Azikiwe’s friend Mwariama Kamau, they formed the Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation to do what they could to raise awareness about Davis’ life and legacy. Slowly but surely, they are making progress.
In 2009, Aug. 25 was proclaimed Henrietta Vinton Davis Day in both Washington (by Mayor Adrian Fenty) and in Baltimore (by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon). On March 14 of this year, LeBouef emceed a “livication” ceremony to accompany a small exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington in honor of Women’s History Month. And on May 8, the nonprofit organization Cultural Tourism D.C. placed one of its historic markers on the front of Davis’ Washington home at 1219 Linden Place, NE. (George Hackett’s Baltimore home at 52 Forrest St., where Davis grew up, no longer stands.) And on Sunday, Aug. 8, LeBouef returns to Baltimore to co-host an event at the Eubie Blake Center honoring Davis and Baltimore-born boxing champion Joe Gans, whose life and legacy have been in a similar state of disrepair (“The Old Master,” Feature, Feb. 17).
So what is “livication”? “‘Livicated’ is how I came to it,” LeBouef says. “The first time I saw the word was on the back of a Ziggy Marley album cover—it said ‘Livicated to my father.’ So I knew right away what it was a flip on. In African cultures, nothing ever dies, that’s a European thing, so don’t use ‘dead.’ I don’t ‘dedicate’ anything to anyone.”
Though Davis spent relatively little of her long life in Baltimore, both LeBouef and Azikiwe believe the city remains important to her legacy, and to their preservation and elevation of it. There is most likely only so much more that can be discovered about Davis. William Seraile says that she appears to have left no diaries or journals. Azikiwe says he had heard that Baltimore’s Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Museum may hold some of Davis’ papers, but that he was told that such papers, if they existed, would be uncataloged and therefore difficult to find or search through. (Attempts to reach the administrators of the museum were not successful as of press time.) They hold out hope, however, that Davis may have living family members here.
“There should be some people somewhere in Baltimore who are related to this woman,” Azikiwe says.
LeBouef agrees: “I believe what’s going to happen is that Baltimore holds the key” to finding her family.
Both LeBouef and Azikiwe have families of their own to raise and other projects to attend to, but they remain committed to inspiring others with Davis’ story. “One of the things that sets human beings apart from animals is that we revere our dead,” Azikiwe says. “We track the people that came before us, whether you’re talking about genealogy or whatever. To see a person like Henrietta Vinton Davis ignored . . . ‘ignorance’ would be too gentle a word for me.”
With special thanks to Kevin Grace.
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