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Russell Howard Davis - Cleveland's First Black Principal, Civic Activist and Historian

Bratenahl Place
Russell Howard Davis
Russell Howard Davis

Russell H. Davis was a teacher, administrator, civic activist, and historian of Cleveland’s black community. He was the first black male to serve in Cleveland’s secondary schools and the first black principal of a Cleveland school.

Russell Howard Davis was born on October 29, 1897, in Cleveland to Jacob and Rosalie Davis. His father was a black postal worker, and his mother was French.

He attended Central High School in Cleveland.  He earned a bachelor’s degree from Adelbert College of Western Reserve University in 1920.  When he applied to Case School of Applied Science, he was told, “There’s no future for you in engineering.” Despite the warning, he attended Case and received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1922 and a master’s degree in education from Western Reserve University in 1933.  As a student, Davis was an all-scholastic football player, basketball player, and track team member, the only African American on both his high school and college teams.

In World War I, Davis was in the Western Reserve University Army Training Corps. During World War II, he was chairman of the War Price and Rationing Board in the Cleveland area.

In 1943, Davis spearheaded the Welfare Federation’s Central Area Social Study, creating the Central Area Community Council. He also helped organize and was the first president of the Glenville Area Community Council and was an incorporator and executive committee member of the Neighborhood Settlement Association.

In 1951, he transferred to Rawlings Junior High School, and in 1962 became principal of the new Harry E. Davis Junior High School, named for his brother who was a noted lawyer and state legislator.

Davis retired from the Cleveland School System in 1965.

Following his retirement, Davis served as vice president of the Cleveland chapter of the Ohio Retired Teachers Association, and as Secretary-Treasurer of Seniors of Ohio, Inc.  He chaired the Seniors of Ohio nutrition committee, which conducted a study to develop a plan for implementing the federal nutrition program for the elderly.  He was appointed to the board of the Cuyahoga County Title VII Corporation, which ran the county’s nutrition program. In 1969, Davis was voted Senior Citizen of the Year by the Cuyahoga Senior Citizens Council.

In 1966 Davis ran an unsuccessful campaign for the state senate.

From 1967 to 1969, he served on the Ohio State Board of Education.  In early 1968, Bratenahl needed to obtain an exception from the state law requirement that the Bratenahl School District merge with the Cleveland School District.  Russell H. Davis was one of twenty-four state education board members who had to decide the merits of Bratenahl’s request.  At the time, he resided at Bratenahl Place in the Village of Bratenahl.

Davis became a strong advocate for the preservation of the Bratenahl School, having witnessed the quality of its education program.  He solicited votes of his colleagues on the State Board in support of the Bratenahl School Board’s position.  Council President James Davis later asserted that Russell Davis “was enthusiastic in his support of our position and he went to bat as hard as he could for us.”

In 1970, Davis was appointed to the Bratenahl Board of Education, a post to which he was subsequently elected.  He served on the Bratenahl School Board until 1974.

Davis chronicled Cleveland’s black community’s history in newspaper columns and books, writing “Memorable Negroes in Cleveland’s Past” (published in 1969) and completing a project begun by his brother, the encyclopedic “Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl Stokes, 1796 to 1969” (published in 1974).

Davis was a trustee and treasurer of Karamu House and a trustee of the Family Service Association, Garden Valley Neighborhood House, and the Maternal Health Association. He was on the advisory committee for the School of Applied Social Sciences at Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital.

He was also a member of the Ohio School Survey Committee, the men’s advisory committee of the Girl Scouts, and the Neighborhood Settlement Association.

Russell married Claire Richardson in 1923. They had a son Russell Lee born in 1924.  Tragically, Russell Lee Davis died at age eight on May 4, 1933.

Russell Howard Davis died on November 14, 1976, after a four-month illness. He was buried in Lakeview Cemetery.