“All we have to do is trust that spirit in us to become our best persons,” says the retiring global education leader. – Dr. Josephine Davis
If there is ever a biography of Josephine Duncan Davis, Ed.D, it may well take several volumes. The Waycross, GA native has broken barriers in education all over the United States, and traveled the world in the process. She’s witnessed the dawn of democracies first-hand. She has been an innovator at every institution where she has been a senior academic leader, including Fort Valley State University, and left lasting legacies that have made each institution better. At Fort Valley State University alone, she played a critical role in helping transform the institution from a college to a university, created international study opportunities, and led the launch of the faculty Senate during more than 20 years of service to FVSU— reasons why she has been afforded the rare honor of being named an emeritus faculty member. The Washington, DC-based organization Quality Education for Minorities in Science named her a “Giant in Science.” But that is just one chapter in the incredible novel that is her life.
She’s lived a life that requires courage in the face of new challenges, some of which had never been overcome by African-American women before her. That courage comes in part from her belief in the Bible’s Romans 8th chapter, 31st verse, which she included in her high school yearbook profile and is still her creed today, “If God is for you, who can be against you?”
When she came to Fort Valley State College during the tenure of President Oscar Prater to be vice president of Academic Affairs, Davis helped lead the efforts to convert the college from the quarter system to the semester system in preparation for its evolution into a university. She also helped tailor the general education curriculum to meet specific outcomes. She submitted the proposal to create the Faculty Senate to the Board of Regents at a time when there had been no faculty governance process in FVSU’s hundred-year history. She presided over the initial organization and operation of the Senate upon its creation, and coming full circle, led the Senate for the two years leading up to her retirement.
While at FVSU, Davis was chosen by her colleagues at other Georgia institutions to chair the group of vice presidents of Academic Affairs throughout the University System of Georgia. She was also named the John W. Davison Teacher of the Year at FVSU, and led the Quality Enhancement Plan development in concert with the university’s most recent reaffirmation of Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation. She played a leadership role in the creation of tenure policies, Research Day, and the integration of critical thinking into the core curriculum. During her tenure as vice president, FVSU opened its first Office of International Studies and welcomed its first Fulbright scholar through the Fulbright Foundation fellowship which supports student international travel and work.
At her core, Davis is a mathematics professor. She is passionate about helping young people reach their potential, she says, because she knows what their ancestors endured before them. “There is something in us as a people that’s greater than what we often want to acknowledge about ourselves,” she tells her students. It troubles her sometimes to see her students work against what she believes is innate in them. Before she can even begin to teach students mathematics, for example, she often has to spend time helping build their confidence and validate their abilities. “All we have to do is trust that spirit in us to become our best persons,” she said.
The designation of Faculty Emeritus is one of the highest honors awarded to any Fort Valley State University professor. Dr. Davis will permanently retain her affiliation with the university and be called upon to provide advice and guidance. She will also receive administrative support and participate in academic ceremonies.
There are those who grow up in small towns who rarely dream past the outskirts, but a young Josephine was exposed to other places and cultures early on. Travel was in her blood. Her father’s mother was an apostle minister who traveled widely. Her grandmother’s great aunt was a Holiness bishop who traveled to Japan and China even in the 1930’s, collecting artifacts that Davis would marvel at when visiting her relatives. Her father worked for the railroad and considered himself an explorer, and made sure that his family traveled the country, often staying with family members because there were no hotels which would serve African-Americans.
Davis came of age determined to be a global citizen. During high school in Waycross, she came across an Ebony magazine with the image of two Spelman University students on the cover who were Merrill fellows. The Merrill Fellowship provided funds to help college students travel internationally, and Davis modeled her collegiate trajectory on receiving that experience. She enrolled at Spelman, and not only received the Merrill fellowship, but also traveled to east Africa with Crossroads Africa, one of the precursors of the Peace Corps. She met John F. Kennedy, Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, and Julius Nyerere, who helped Tanganyika (Tanzania) achieve independence and then served as its first leader. She helping to build a dining hall for a Lutheran mission and lived with the Maasai people, whom she was alarmed to discover drank blood from cows.
Davis used her Merrill fellowship to travel to Europe. She started in England, and from there, traveled to Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, and other areas. Along the way, she joined a Quaker work camp north of the Arctic Circle in Finland and hiked through Russia. She got degrees in France from the Universite de Besancon and the University of Leon.
After graduating from Spelman with a degree in mathematics, Davis went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame-Southbend and a doctorate in mathematics from Rutgers University where she wrote a dissertation exploring “A Unit of Functions of a Single Variable for Capable but Poorly Prepared College Freshmen.” Her early career began at Albany State University, in Albany, GA where she met her husband Gordon Davis, Jr., a Macon native who was an executive with the Boy Scouts of America. Originally an instructor and later graduate school dean, Davis would eventually be awarded the “Woman of the Year” distinction by Albany’s Chamber of Commerce.
Davis was selected as a fellow of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which invested thousands of dollars in her to help her grow as a person as well as a professional. She traveled extensively throughout the world. After her fellowship was completed, she asked herself, “So what?” Faced with the opportunity to pursue new options, she decided to move to a new area and work with students from new types of backgrounds. That decision led her to accept a job at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University (SCSU) as vice president of academic affairs.
The cold weather in Minnesota was a bit of a shock, and Davis recalls once getting out of her car to pump gas and not being able to get back in the car because the lock had frozen. At SCSU, she was particularly engaged in their international education initiatives, through which she oversaw programming that took her to Denmark, France, Germany, Costa Rica, Japan, and China. She recalls that her passport had so many stamps on it that she was stopped at an entry port in Frankfort, Germany under suspicion of carrying drugs from country to country. She also inspired the creation university’s multicultural literary arts magazine.
While working at SCSU, Davis had the opportunity to visit a university program housed in an Alnwick, England castle where the Duke of Northumberland lived. She was an afforded a rare audience with the duke, who gave her a tour of the castle and showed her gifts from all over the world alongside volumes of books the royal family had collected on Africa, where England once had many colonies. Representing America, Davis remembered laughingly, she gave the duke a bottle of bourbon, a product native to the United States. The duke didn’t meet with many people, she said, but ironically wanted to meet her because of her Southern heritage. “He was really fascinated with Gone with the Wind,” she said.
After her tenure at SCSU, where she served for a time as acting president, Davis was appointed president of York College in Jamaica, New York, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. She was the first African-American woman to lead a four-year institution in CUNY’s history. While at York, she was asked to serve as a citizen ambassador by the South Korean ambassador. Davis was chosen in part to help strengthen cultural understanding and relationships between African-Americans and South Koreans, groups between which racial tensions had reached alarming levels. She visited the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea, met with government officials, visited industries and universities, and ultimately negotiated scholarships for minority students to study in South Korea.
Also while at York, she was became a leadership fellow for the American Council on Education, asked to mentor Sibusiso Bengu, the director of Fort Hare University in Alice, South Africa. Fort Hare University counts Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela among its alumni. In fact, Dr. Davis’s work with the university coincided with the election of Mandela as South Africa’s first black president and the dismantling of the country’s official apartheid system. She helped Fort Hare University transition its academic programming from the constricted apartheid-era Bantu education, geared to reinforce racial discrimination, into a model which represented the free exploration of intellectual growth higher education is meant to enable. All of this occurred against the backdrop of South Africa’s transition to democracy, characterized in one facet by violent, life-threatening clashes between races, tribes, and political parties, and in another by awe-inspiring images of people eagerly waiting in long lines to cast the first votes of their entire family lineage and of Mandela being triumphantly sworn-in as the first freely-elected president under a new Constitution. Bengu became the first minister of education in the new government.
The transformation of Fort Hare University was critical to the ability of the institution to produce competent professionals at the most basic level. Davis helped Afrikaners (the white ruling class of South Africa at the time) to understand more about black people, and in the process, she learned about the Afrikaners as well. After Fort Hare’s successful initiatives, many South African universities followed to create comparable models.
“The experience was just unearthing and unnerving, “Davis said. “With Bantu education, they took away all of the science and math from the children. So by the time the indigenous Africans got to the university level, they couldn’t major in anything that required a scientific background. What they were allowed to learn did not prepare them for the competitive careers of the 21st century. It started in elementary school, and they learned a culture that was not their own. They learned in the Afrikaans language, and they learned what [the Afrikaners] wanted them to. So it was bone chilling to see the long-term damage that denying people an education can have on the future of a country.” Davis also notes that there was a parallel between the underfunding of historically black colleges in South Africa and the underfunding of historically black college and universities in the United States.
During her career, Davis made lifelong impressions on countless students, including two artists who literally created their own impressions of her. One of the SCSU students was the wife of a protestor during the Tiananmen Square uprising for democracy in China, threatened by the Chinese government for his participation. Davis helped the student move her husband and baby out of danger by bringing them to the United States. The husband turned out to be a prominent artist and, as thanks to Dr. Davis, painted a larger than life portrait of her. At CUNY, she helped enroll a Nigerian artist, who subsequently became further notable through work with the Nigerian embassy in New York. He also painted a portrait of Davis, this time set against the backdrop of the marches of the civil rights movement.
Davis came to Fort Valley State University so that she and her husband could be closer to their families. Of her many experiences, Davis says that she is proudest of having simply “been fair and adherent to the highest morals and integrity in decision-making in each leadership position I held in the face of adverse consequences.”
Davis considers herself a global citizen, having traveled the world, walked the pyramids, and seen most of the seven “wonders of the world.” She is an active member of the Links, Inc., an international organization of professional women of color committed to enriching, sustaining, and ensuring the cultural and economic survival of persons of African ancestry through programming efforts in youth services, the arts, and health and human services, among other areas. She has been a Links leader at both the local and national levels, elected president of both the Albany and Fort Valley chapters and as the national recording secretary. She was the organizer and first dean of the organization’s Scott-Hawkins Leadership Institute, which prepared dozens of members aged 21-45 for leadership roles in the Links and other black women’s organizations.
Her most fascinating trip, she says, was to take the “slave trek” through West Africa, through Nigeria and Ghana on the continent’s Gold Coast, learning about the breathtakingly horrid experiences African slaves underwent preparing to embark for the Middle passage. One of her most profoundly life-changing moments came when she had slave chains placed around her neck, the weight of which immediately caused her to sink to the ground. She walked Benin’s “Trail of Tears,” and visited Senegal’s infamous “Door of No Return,” where many Africans left the continent to face the terror of bondage which would endure through generations of their progeny. The stench from death and defecation in the castles where slaves were tortured persists to this day, she says.
Only two continents are not represented in Davis’s passport—Australia and Antarctica. She’ll use her retirement to knock at least one of those continents off the list, as she has already made travel plans for Australia. She’ll also organize international travel for her church and continue consulting in mathematics education through Quality Education for Minorities, an organization through which she has helped to integrate competitive mathematics into secondary education curricula in Nigeria, South Africa, and Burkina Fasso.
Davis’s immediate plans also include exercising more rigorously, working with community groups, and developing new hobbies to include quilting and painting.
Clearly, there are more chapters in this book yet to be written.