American National Biography Online
Davis, Frances Elliott (28 Apr. 1882-2 May 1965), public health
nurse, nurse-educator, and community advocate, was born in Shelby,
North Carolina, the daughter of an unlawful interracial marriage
between Darryl Elliott, a part African-American Cherokee sharecropper,
and Emma (maiden name unknown), the daughter of a plantation
owner and Methodist minister. Darryl Elliott fled the state early
in Frances's life, leaving her to be raised by her mother. Both
parents had died by 1887, after which Davis was raised in a succession
of foster homes. At the age of twelve she was sent to Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, where she lived under the guardianship of the Reverend
Mr. Vickers. In the Vickers household she was regarded more as
a domestic helper than a ward; consequently her early formal
education was pursued on a sporadic basis. Determined to succeed,
she possessed the intrepidity to upgrade her reading skills on her own.
In 1896, at the age of fourteen, Davis was granted permission
by the Vickerses to seek outside employment and had the good
fortune to have her services retained by the Joseph Allison Reed
household. Taking an interest in Davis, the Reeds assumed the
role of patrons and helped her to flee to Knoxville, Tennessee,
two years later when the Vickerses demanded she resign her position.
The Reeds continued their sponsorship by financing her education
to the end of normal school. By 1905 she had secured the prerequisites
for normal school training at Knoxville College, from which she
graduated in 1907 at the age of twenty-five, and, on the advice
of Mrs. Reed, she undertook a teaching career to maintain her
Pursuing her early dream "to be a nurse and help little children,"
Davis worked one year at a hospital built at Knoxville College
until she had to resign as a result of ill health. Temporarily,
she assumed a teaching post in Henderson, North Carolina, instructing
third and fourth graders at the Henderson Normal Institute. Having
saved sufficient funds for the training program, Davis applied
in 1910 to the Freedmen's Hospital Training School for Nurses
in Washington, D.C. Anxious that her application not be denied
on the basis of age, she changed her birth date from 1882 to
1889 and started her training at the age of twenty-seven years.
In 1913 the District of Columbia administered exams to the graduating
students on the basis of their race, with the exam for the white
nurses considered the more rigorous. Davis demanded a chance
to write the other test and became the first African American
in the district to write and pass the exam.
From 1913 to 1916 Davis held various positions, first as a private
duty nurse, then in 1914 she accepted the position of nursing
supervisor at Provident Hospital, an all-black hospital in Baltimore,
Maryland. During the summers of 1916 and 1920 she acted as a
camp nurse for a community-based camp for needy mothers and young
children in the Washington, D.C., area. While at Provident, Davis
made an application to the American Red Cross, where, under the
tutelage of M. Adelaide Nutting, head of the nursing department,
she became the first African American to attend its approved
program at Teachers College, Columbia University. To compensate
for her inexperience in the public and rural health areas she
took a field placement in July 1917 at Lillian Wald's Henry Street
Settlement House in New York City.
Completing her training, Davis was assigned by the American
Red Cross Town and Country Nursing Service to Jackson, Tennessee,
which had specifically requested the services of an African-American
nurse. In addition to using her midwifery skills, she conducted
preventive medicine classes in basic sanitation and prenatal care.
In April 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Davis's
race precluded her from joining the Army Nurse Corps, which refused
African-American applicants until after the war. While her white
colleagues automatically were awarded their American Red Cross
pins, allowing them to transfer to the corps, Davis's pin did
not arrive until 2 July 1918 and was inscribed with a "1A." The
letter A designated the wearer as "Negro," indicating that she
was the first African-American Red Cross nurse. The A system
remained in effect until 1949. Davis's involvement with the war
effort was indirect in that she nursed soldiers in training at
Chickamauga, Tennessee. Unfortunately that same year Davis succumbed
to an influenza epidemic that left her heart permanently damaged.
Davis's talents as an educator, community-based nurse, and administrator
were recognized, and for the remainder of her career her services
were in constant demand. In 1919 while serving as director of
nurses training at John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital in Tuskegee,
Alabama, she accepted a proposal from Dunbar Hospital in Detroit,
Michigan, that she be responsible for organizing the first training
school for African-American nurses in Michigan. The following
year, she also accepted a staff position with the Detroit Visiting
Nurses Association, an affiliation that she would hold for many years.
In 1921 Davis took a leave of absence to marry William A. Davis,
of Detroit, a professional musician who performed in a band as
well as offering private lessons. Their only child was stillborn
in 1922, and in 1923 Davis resumed her career. She returned to
Dunbar determined to upgrade the training program for nurses.
Although she was able to garner funding from Senator James Couzens,
a Michigan philanthropist, hospital physicians refused to accept
monies that would only benefit nurses. Disgusted with their tactics
Davis resigned her position in March 1927. She left Dunbar to
accept a position with the Child Welfare Division of the Detroit
Health Department, where she directed prenatal, maternal, and
child health clinics.
In 1929 Davis was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for
pursuit of a B.S. in nursing at her alma mater, Teachers College;
however, she was forced to withdraw from the program as a result
of ill health. When she and William returned to Michigan, they
moved to Inkster, a predominantly African-American community
outside of Detroit.
During the height of the depression Davis devoted her time to
running a commissary at the Ford Motor plant that distributed
food to the inhabitants of Inkster. She had also petitioned Henry
Ford to act as a patron, in which capacity he paid the utility
bills, provided clothing, and supplied the means for repairing
homes. In return recipients were able to earn a wage through
helping to improve the physical appearance of Inkster. She also
organized projects that qualified youths for National Youth Administration
grants, which also created a wage mechanism. In 1932 Davis resigned
her position with the Detroit Health Department to devote her
time to the commissary.
In 1935 Davis returned to work for the Visiting Nurses Association,
where she remained for five years, while at the same time serving
as a member on the Inkster school board. After leaving the VNA
she established a day nursery in Inkster. This nursery was such
a success that it attracted the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt,
who demonstrated her support by soliciting funds for the center.
In 1940 Davis left the day nursery center to assume a position
at Eloise Hospital in Wayne County, Michigan, where she remained
until 1951, when illness forced her to take a leave of absence.
Once recuperated, she chose to remain at home to nurse her husband,
who died in 1959.
Scheduled to be honored at the American Red Cross convention
on 11 May 1965, Davis died on 2 May, in Mount Clemens, Michigan.
Her Red Cross pin was presented to the convention officials to
be entered into their historical collection.
An excellent article on Davis is "Frances Elliott Davis," in
American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Vern L. Bullough
et al. (1988), pp. 76-77. Also see Darlene Clark Hine, Black
Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing
Profession, 1890-1950 (1989), pp. 134-36, and "Frances Reed [Elliott]
Davis," in Dictionary of American Nursing Biography, ed. Martin
Kaufman (1988), pp. 81-83. Reference to Davis's career with the
American Red Cross is in M. Elizabeth Carnegie, The Path We Tread:
Blacks in Nursing Worldwide, 1854-1944 (1995).
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Dalyce Newby. "Davis, Frances Elliott";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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