Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

J. Steward Davis
MSA SC 3520-14469
African American Attorney

J. Steward Davis: The Vanishing Star

J. Steward Davis, one of the most sought after black trial lawyers in 1920's Baltimore, was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His Baltimore roots came through his grandparents, both natives of that city.

After his graduation from Harrisburg High School, he took a two-year course at Dickinson College, and went on to study law there, graduating first in his class in 1916. He was the first person of color to be valedictorian at Dickinson. He came to Baltimore, and was admitted to the bar the following year. He began practicing by himself, although during his career he would later partner with such notable Baltimore attorneys as W. Norman Bishop, Warner T. McGuinn, and George W. Evans.

Soon after beginning his law practice, Davis' legal career was interrupted by World War I, and he spent the next 18 months in the Army. He started in France as a sergeant, and was later promoted to lieutenant and became an instructor at Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, Kentucky.

Upon returning from the war, Davis quickly built up a thriving practice as a trial lawyer in Baltimore. At six feet tall, and with a polished air and winning smile, Davis made quite an impression, and sometimes drew crowds to the courtroom. In 1921 alone he appeared in 48 cases mentioned in the Afro-American newspaper, mostly divorces and criminal defense, including the highly publicized capital murder case of Henry Brown, an Annapolis sailor. Said Davis of his legal career, "The law offers a most attractive (spot) for colored men. We get a fair show in the courts and the people appreciate our efforts" (Afro-American Newspaper, March 11, 1921, pg. 5).

Though his legal career put him in the limelight, J. Steward Davis worked behind the scenes in politics as a campaign organizer, and his name never appeared on the ballot. He was the chairman of the committee supporting W. Ashbie Hawkins' revolt against the established Republican Party in 1920. Like other independent Republicans, Davis later switched to the Democratic Party, and managed the Colored City Democratic campaign for Al Smith's 1928 bid against Herbert Hoover.

Davis's described his political activism with these words, "It is time that we look after our own political affairs, and not entrust them to whites who are indifferent to our welfare" (Afro-American Newspaper, July 29, 1921, pg. 12). Ironically, Davis supported Herbert O'Conor's (white) campaign for State's Attorney for Baltimore City in 1926. As Attorney General, O'Conor would argue against the admission of Donald Gaines Murray to the University of Maryland law school in 1935.

For most of the 1920's Davis was one of the busiest and well-respected young lawyers in Baltimore. Everything seemed to be going his way. He married Blanche Moore, a public school teacher, in 1920 and they soon had two children, Suzanne and Blanche. Embraced by the legal community and social circles, Davis seemed to have found his place in life. However tragedy struck in April of 1929, when he vanished without a trace, never to be heard from again.

On the morning of April 15, 1929, Davis left his home at 1202 Madison Ave. for his office at 217 St. Paul Place. He never arrived. His family initially concealed his absence, and the Afro-American Newspaper first mentioned his disappearance in mid- May. An investigation by the Monumental Bar Association revealed that he had bought a train ticket to New York City that day, and that he stayed at the 135th St. Y.M.C.A. that night. After he checked out in the morning, nobody saw him again.

Reasons for his disappearance abounded, but one persistent rumor was that he had misapplied money in an administration case, and left to avoid sanction. In a September 19, 1931, story, the Afro-American Newspaper reported that an executive meeting of the Monumental Bar Association settled the case quietly and swore everyone to secrecy, hoping to allow Davis to return to his practice, but no corroboration surfaced for this story. Although Baltimoreans wrote back claiming to have seen him in various cities in the United States or in France, his family never heard from him again, leaving his many friends, colleagues, and loved ones to wonder, "Whatever became of J. Steward Davis?"

Written by Charles Madden; edited by Professor Larry S. Gibson and Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse

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October 12, 2010