Davis As An African American Last Name

There were 352,769 black Americans with Davis as their last name in the 2010 U.S. Census. This was 32% of the total number with that name in the country.

This article looks at:

  • 19th and early 20th-century black census numbers for the name
  • notable African American people named Davis
  • early black military records and how to find them

Davis Before The Civil War

The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.

In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. It was left blank to denote white, b for black, or m for mulatto. The third term is the language of the time. I will use mixed in the rest of this article.

If you are researching your black Davis ancestors in census archives, be sure to search under both categories. Do not rely on the census taker recording the category correctly.

1850 Federal Census

There were 2,183 people named Davis who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 832 were recorded as mixed.

Because they are in the main federal census, these are free citizens.

There was a total of 106,811 free citizens named Davis that year.

1860 Federal Census

The 1860 federal census recorded 2,074 people named Davis as black, and 1,073 as mixed.

That is out of a total of 131,822 free citizens.

Of course, census-taking would change after the Civil War.

After The Civil War

1865 – newly freed family in Richmond,Virginia

The 1870 census was the first after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. At last, all African Americans are included.

Those who were omitted in 1860 because they were enslaved are now in this census. Here are the numbers.

34,021 people named Davis were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 4,845 as mixed.

The increase is clear. The overall total (all Americans) was 198,733.

The 1880 census recorded 51,339 as black and 7,914 as mixed out of a total of 253,577.

Now we jump to the end of the 19th century – or the beginning of the 20th.

Davis In The 1900 And 1940 Census

In 1900, the mixed category was dropped. However, not all enumerators followed those instructions. I have found a small number of records where “m” was still used in the box for color.

I will focus here on the black numbers.

The 1900 census recorded 85,684 people named Davis as black within a total of 357,734.

There were 130,783 people named Davis recorded in the 1940 census as black within a total of 578,837.

Historic Black Figures With The Davis Surname

These are some notable African Americans through history with Davis as their last name.

David Davis

  • Born: 1820s
  • From: Kentucky

Daniel Davis was a slave in Kentucky hired out to work as a cook on a steamship. He escaped to freedom in Ohio in 1851 but was grabbed by slave catchers in Buffalo.

His trial was one of the first under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. This law of 1850 required that all captured fugitives were returned to their owners even when caught in free states. Law officials and unofficial “catchers” who caught fugitives were paid a bounty. 

The plight of David Davis was covered extensively by the newspapers of the times. Buffalo’s black leaders hired a lawyer to represent him.

For several decades, the town of Buffalo had been an important part of the Underground Railroad. Locals harbored fugitives from the South and helped them get across the Niagara River to St Catherines, Ontario.

But the Fugitive Act of 1850 had been signed into law by President Millard Fillmore, a native son of Buffalo. It’s a credit to the town that the judge on the Davis case refused to comply with the Act.

Instead, he issued a write of habeas corpus. This means that he questioned whether Daniel’s detention was legal. The people who captured him were obliged to appear in court and present proof that they had the authority.

This put a pause to the slave catchers returning with their captive to Kentucky. They may have won their appeal but Daniel Davis wisely didn’t hang around to find out. The delay gave him the opportunity to escape to Canada and freedom.

Other accounts from fugitives named Davis

William Still was on the committee of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia. They helped fugitives pass through from the South to safety further North.

Still kept substantial notes on the fugitives and he published these notes in a book in 1872. We’ve collected excerpts on this website and there are several for people named Davis.

William Henry Davis

  • Born: 1872
  • Died: 1951
  • From: Louisville, Kentucky

After working as a legal clerk and running a shoe store in Louisville, William Davis moved to Washington DC.

He earned a PhD in pharmacology in 1902 and eventually opened a drug store. He also founded a night school for black adults.

Davis worked for the War Department under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

He ensured that the families of black soldiers received the benefits to which they were entitled.

Other notable black pioneers in pharmacy include:

Other notable African Americans in Louisville

Here are some other notable figures who were born or lived in Louisville:

Arthur Willis Davis

  • Born: 1875
  • From: Marion Alabama

Arthur Willis Davis went to public school in Marion, Alabama, and became determined to become a doctor.

He took a degree in science from Talladega College. He qualified as a medical practitioner in 1903 when he completed his studies at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

Davis was won of the earliest generations of black doctors in the South. He opened a successful practice in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

You can read more about his accomplishments in our separate bio of Dr. Arthur Willis Davis of Alabama.

Davis In Black Military Records

You may be surprised at the amount of genealogy information available from military records.

Here are some examples of the Davis surname from three different military services:

  • Black civil war sailors
  • Buffalo soldiers
  • Tuskegee Airmen

Black Civil War Sailors

The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.

The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.

You can search the database on the National Parks website.

One of the earliest entries for the surname concerned Charles Davis from New York City, New York. He enlisted in 1861 aged 45.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Cook. His naval rank was Seaman.

A seaman in the Navy is a sailor who is not an officer.

One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted in 1865. C.H. was aged 16 and was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Drummer. His naval rank was 1st Class Boy.

“1st Class Boy” was the rank given to young men who enlisted when they were under eighteen.

Buffalo Soldiers

Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.

One of the earliest entries for Davis was in 1867. Charles Davis was a Recruit in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in 1867 at Fort Gibson, Connecticut.

One of the last entries was in 1914. Horace Davis was a Corporal in the Ninth Cavalry that year.

If you want to do your own research, there is a free index of these military records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.

Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.

Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.

Alfonza Davis graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant from the Tuskegee Institute in 1943. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Alfonza was from Omaha, Nebraska. His combat credits said: 

Downed a MA-205 on July 16, 1944

John Davis came from Kansas City, Kansas. He trained as a fighter pilot and graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1944. His combat credits said: 

Downed 1 Me-109 on March 31, 1945