James Weldon Johnson Lecture Series - “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”: An African Diasporan Interpretation presented by Dorothy Davis

Tuesday, September 18, 2018 10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.

James Weldon Johnson wrote the lyrics to the song, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, in 1899 as a statement about the African American experience at that time. It has since become dubbed as the unofficial Negro National anthem. The lecturer, Dorothy Davis, will provide an African Diasporan interpretation of the lyrics by discussing the life of her father, Griff Davis: a pioneer African-American photographer, journalist and diplomat.

An Atlanta, Georgia native, Mr. Davis grew up on Spelman College’s campus. During the 1940s, he was a reporter for the Atlanta Daily World, the oldest continually published African American newspaper in the country. After an interruption for military service as a photographer in the Buffalo Soldier 92nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in Genoa, Italy during World War II, he graduated from Morehouse College in 1947. His college mates included Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Romeo Horton, founder of the first Bank of Liberia, the African Development Bank and ECOWAS. He studied writing with Langston Hughes, a Visiting Professor to Atlanta University at the time, and became lifelong friends. Mr. Davis became Ebony’s first Roving Editor in 1947.

In 1948, he was the only African American accepted into the Class of 1949 at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Upon graduation, he worked as an international freelance photojournalist with the Black Star Company and as a stringer correspondent for the New York Times. Between 1949 and 1952, Mr. Davis made three separate trips to Liberia as a freelance photojournalist documenting its culture, development and lifestyle through photography and journalism. His stories appeared in Saturday Evening Post, Der Spiegel, Life, Fortune, Ebony, Jet and an assortment of other publications.

 In 1952, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service as an Information Officer. In this capacity, he witnessed, documented and participated in the formation of President Harry Truman’s Point Four Program--that later became USAID--during the simultaneous dawn of the Independence Movement in Africa and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. By the time his tour ended in Liberia in 1957, he had photographed 7,000 images of Liberia.

 For the rest of his career he was an official photographer for the U.S. Information Service and served in many capacities with USAID: Tunisia from 1957-1962, Nigeria from 1966-1971 and at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. from 1973-1983. After retiring in 1985 to Atlanta he worked with the International Visitor Leadership Program. In 1993 he received the Candle in the Dark Bennie Mays Trailblazer Award from Morehouse College. He left a legacy of 55,000 photographic images, written documentation and memorabilia of emerging African nations.


The lecture will incorporate his photography and some of his writing along with the observations and insights of his daughter.

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History Department




African Studies Minors Africana Studies history