The Lady Vanishes
Meet Henrietta Vinton Davis-one of the most amazing women you've probably never heard of
Only three things are known about Henrietta Vinton Davis’ father. His name was Mansfield Vinton Davis, he was a musician, and he died sometime around the time his daughter was born. Henrietta’s mother, the former Mary Ann Johnson, was left a teenage widow with a child to raise. She quickly remarried, to a businessman named George A. Hackett.
According to Leroy Graham’s book Baltimore: The 19th Century Black Capital, Hackett was as well-known and respected as any black man in Baltimore at that time, with the possible exception of his friend and associate Frederick Douglass. In 1860, the year Henrietta was born, Hackett was in the thick of a fight against a piece of state legislation known as the Jacobs Bill. Put forth by Eastern Shore legislator C.W. Jacobs in reaction to John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid the year before, the bill proposed that all adult blacks in the state—including Maryland’s sizeable free black population—be deported to Africa and that all black children in the state be enslaved, including those who had been born free. Hackett rallied opposition to the bill, circulating petitions and delivering speeches. Though the legislature actually passed it, the measure failed in a statewide referendum.
Thus Davis grew up in a household where success, political engagement, and racial pride were cornerstones. After Hackett died in 1870, Mary Ann moved with her preteen daughter to Washington. Davis attended public school and went on to become certified as a teacher in Maryland. She moved to Louisiana and taught there for several years, but returned to Washington and took a job at the federal Office of the Recorder of Deeds in 1878—the first black woman employed by the office.
Davis apparently took an interest in acting and elocution. The latter was both a discipline—elocution teachers taught proper pronunciation, voice projection, breath control, etc.—and a form of entertainment, as people filled 19th-century theaters and halls to hear speakers deliver poetry, dramatic monologues, and famous speeches. Davis studied with white Washington elocutionist Marguerite Saxton as well as elocutionists in Boston and New York.
“You know how back in the day they would teach people how to walk, manners and etiquette?” LeBouef asks. “I believe it was a way to speak well in front of the public, to have a certain flair to it. If you’re gonna speak, can you reach people? That’s what elocution is.”
Scant details survive of how Davis made the leap from paper shuffling to the professional stage. But historians know that Davis’ family friend Frederick Douglass took over the Office of the Recorder of Deeds in 1881.
Soon after LeBouef discovered Davis’ story, he shared it with the creative staff at CenterStage, and the theater later commissioned him to write a play about her. Researching Davis’ life as best he could and taking dramatic license with the rest, LeBouef emerged with Shero: The Livication of Henrietta Vinton Davis. (CenterStage subsequently hosted a reading of the play, but never produced it.) In the play, Douglass happens upon Davis practicing her Shakespeare around the office and takes her under his wing.
While there’s no historical evidence to back up such a scenario, on April 25, 1883, Douglass did introduce Davis at her first public recital (including speeches from Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice) before an audience of both blacks and whites at Washington’s Marini Hall. Black newspaper The Washington Bee reported that Davis “wrapped the whole audience so close to her that she became a queen of the stage in their eyes.”
Davis’ sideline as an actress and elocutionist was soon so successful that she quit the Office of the Recorder of Deeds in 1884. (She also married her manager, an erstwhile singer named Thomas Symmons, though the marriage apparently didn’t last.) She made frequent appearances in Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Cleveland, eventually pushing out from the major East Coast cities to include tours of the West and Northwest. She added Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and others to her Shakespearean repertoire, but also recited Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dialect poem “Little Brown Baby.” She often appeared with other black actors, performing Shakespearean scenes, and starred in full-fledged productions of other works with black theater companies as well. She formed her own company to mount a touring production of a contemporary drama about the Haitian revolution entitled Dessalines, and co-wrote and played the lead role in a drama called Our Old Kentucky Home. She also began appearing outside the United States, performing in Cuba, Jamaica, and Central and South America.
In short, Davis was an international star. Despite occasional mixed reviews, her acting won praise and packed houses wherever she went. As the Buffalo Sunday Truth noted, she was “a singularly beautiful woman, little more than a brunette, certainly no darker than a Spanish or Italian lady in hue.” And yet, her African heritage kept her locked out of the mainstream (read: white) professional theater of the time. As busy as she was, her opportunities were nonetheless limited.
“She’s got her own thing, she’s traveling,” LeBouef says, but “the ‘legitimate’ circles wouldn’t let her in.”
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