The Lady Vanishes
Meet Henrietta Vinton Davis-one of the most amazing women you've probably never heard of
Clayton LeBouef has a very clear memory of when he first encountered Henrietta Vinton Davis. It was 1992, not long before he won the role of Baltimore Police Col. George Barnfather in TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street. LeBouef was a Washington, D.C.-based actor performing in a CenterStage production of Shakespeare’s little-produced Pericles. Rehearsals were over, and opening night loomed.
“A lot of actors give gifts before the show opens—you know, break a leg and all that,” LeBouef, now 56, recalls. “And this guy named Carlos Gonzales put a book on my desk.” It was a copy of Errol Hill’s 1984 Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors.
Hill’s book includes an entire chapter on Davis. Born in Baltimore in 1860, she moved to Washington, D.C., as a girl, and as a young woman launched a career as an actress and elocutionist. For more than 25 years, she criss-crossed the United States and the Caribbean, performing everything from Shakespeare—she is purportedly the first African-American woman to do so—to the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and winning acclaim from audiences and press, both black and white alike. And then, approaching her 60th birthday, she traded acting for activism and put her skills to use in the service of Marcus Garvey, his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and the causes of black nationalism and pan-African liberation. Though she eventually fell out with Garvey, she devoted her life to black nationalist causes until her death in 1941.
“I was reading, and that chapter . . . how do I not know this?” LeBouef says in an incredulous whisper during an interview in a City Paper conference room. “I live in D.C., I’m an actor . . . and never even to have heard her name. And I got so deep into this lady.”
LeBouef has been deep into her for nearly 20 years now, and he isn’t the only one to have stumbled across her story and come away humbled and inspired. But those who stumble across her story remain rare. Despite not one, but two historically significant careers and her widespread fame at one point, Davis died in proverbial obscurity and was soon all but forgotten. The handful of scholars and amateur historians who have researched her life and legacy have discovered no living family members. Davis’ grave in Prince George’s County’s National Harmony Memorial Park remains unmarked.
Even that last fact might remain obscure but for Nnamdi Azikiwe. An amateur historian from D.C. who had stumbled across Davis’ story as part of his research on UNIA, he bothered to visit Harmony Memorial one rainy day around 1999. “It was just me and a friend of mine,” Azikiwe recalls. “And we’re out there walking the cemetery looking for her grave, and come to find out there’s no marker there.” A computer systems analyst by profession, he was in the middle of various UNIA-related projects, but after that day, “all the other things I was doing, I stopped,” he says. “It seemed like a horrendous error had happened. Nobody knew who she was, and it seemed like someone needed to resolve this.”
Azikiwe, LeBouef, and others have been working to do just that. And their years of efforts to uncover more information about Davis’ life and gain more recognition for her legacy are converging in Baltimore.
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