Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 52/Ned Davis

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Ned Davis[edit | edit source]

Ned Davis, born August 13th of 1897 in DeWeese, South Carolina, was an African-American beauty shop owner in the 1930s. He was interviewed for the Federal Writer's Project in 1939 by Cora Lee Bennett.[1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Ned Davis, alias Invictus, was born on August 13th of 1897 in DeWeese, South Carolina where he grew up an only child after the death of his two-year-old brother. Davis' father was a sharecropper, a typical occupation for black men during this time, and his mother died when he was just three years old. After his mother died, Davis was taken care of by his grandmother. His father eventually remarried, and he moved the family to Desmond, South Carolina. There, his stepmother put him in school where he only reached the third grade. Not going farther than that was common of the time, as African-Americans had limited access to education due to the racial segregation of the South during the early 20th century[2]. Living with his stepmom, he observed her digging roots and sending the grease to the mothers of children whose hair would not grow. It was from this recipe that Davis later derived his secret hair grower that would yield much success for his beauty enterprise. Not long after discovering his step-mother's hair formulas and recipes, his father left his wife, and the two Davis men moved back to rural Latonia. There weren't many options for this family. Davis' father needed money, and sharecropping was one of the only options for black people, merely several decades removed from Slavery.[2][1]

Later Life[edit | edit source]

Ned Davis’ father was a sharecropper, and Davis spent much of his time growing up working for white families. His first experience with this was when a woman his father was sharecropping for hired him to take care of her child in exchange for meals. When his father went to a different farm, Davis worked taking care of the new family's son, making a dollar per month. Later in life he worked for a construction company where he made half of what he really earned. Sometimes he was working for free.[1]

Later in life, Davis met his wife, Ila May Brevard, who was a servant. Davis and his wife moved to West Virginia where Ila took a course in Beauty Culture. Davis, inspired, went back to his hometown to collect all the herbs his stepmother used and began experimenting with them, cultivating different formulas. Davis wanted to make beauty accessible to black people and create a business that served his own race. Eventually, Davis applied for a patent for his hair grower and was selling it on a small scale.[1]

He put every penny he had into his business and Davis finally opened a parlor in Latonia. It was a taxing feat, but Davis made the most out of what he had, which wasn't much. His shop didn't even have running water to wash clients' hair, but he made do with a water cooler and sprinkler. He perfected his straightening methods, finger curling methods, and made sure to keep up with the latest hair style trends. When the "bob" was the latest and greatest, he created his Caravan Touch Up - a product for smoothing down straight hair. Eventually, his hair product line grew to include the Caravan Pressin' Oil and Caravan Shampoo.[1] A beauty salon such as Ned Davis' being established and ran by a man was rare in this female-dominated market, and people visited his shop out of mere curiosity.[1][3]

In 1993, his salon became the first black beauty school approved by the state, and from 1933-1938, 100 students finished his school. Later, there were six other Caravan Beauty Salons, averaging 55 heads per week. However, Davis felt that his beauty school was only appealing to the vain side of his race. Himself only having received a third-grade education, Davis took it upon himself to fill the gaps of the existing education system by creating The Servants Clinic, taking the place of his beauty school, to educate working class black people on how to get jobs and support themselves in the midst of the Jim Crow Era.[1]

Davis’ biggest goal in life was to make a meaningful and significant contribution to his race the best he could, considering the time. His final remarks of his interview were, “I’m a race man th’ough  and th’ough.”[1]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Black Entrepreneurship in the Early 20th Century[edit | edit source]

During the Jim Crow Era, specifically in the 1930s as the United States faces the Great Depression, black communities became cut off from white communities. Because of white people's intolerance of black people, white-owned businesses refused to serve black customers. Though horrific and destabilizing in many ways, this opened up an opportunity for enterprising black entrepreneurs, like Ned Davis, to create viable businesses of their own, for their own communities.[3]

In 1900, thanks to the likes of Booker T. Washington, the National Business League was established to promote economic self-help for black people. Washington advocated for economic development as the best path to racial advancement and the means to deconstruct Jim Crow America.[3] Ned Davis, based on his interview, appreciated the same goals and efforts.[1]Rodney D. Green, an economist at Howard argues further that, “Encouragement of financial education at all levels continues unabated, as reflected in widespread efforts to present such education as a solution to Black business failures.”[4]

With the rise of black entrepreneurs came the rise of the black female beauty culture that Ned Davis eventually found his place in. Black women, initially trained as agents to sell what are called "beauty systems," or lines of hair and cosmetic products, opened beauty shops of their own to create safe spaces to do their work as "beauty culturists." Madame CJ Walker, who sold hair growth products aimed at the Black beauty market, is recorded as one of the first self-made millionaires in the US by the Guinness World Records.[5]

"Separate but Equal" Public Education During Jim Crow in America[edit | edit source]

Ned Davis in his interview said, "I firmly believe that present day education does not fit a Negro to make his way in the world.” Ned Davis was observing, and experiencing, what education was in Jim Crow America.[1] Sonia Nieto, Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, published a journal to the Harvard Educational Review about how the education system in the U.S. has historically failed people of color. "Separate but equal" was the prominent doctrine of Jim Crow. This doctrine was rationalized by the, though backwards, very popular sentiment that black students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were genetically and culturally inferior. According to this opinion, black students' failure to achieve academically was due to their "deficits" that included their genetic makeup, poorly developed language skills, and inadequate parenting.[6] Thomas N. Maloney from the University of Utah also discusses the Jim Crow "separate but equal" doctrine in the public school system of the South. White schools got most of the resources, increased teacher salaries per-pupil, smaller class sizes, and more funding. The result of this very unequal and inequitable education: a sharp decline in the quality of schooling for African American children, and thus, less Black children going to school.[2]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Folder 293: Bennett and Northrop (Interviewers): A Race Man Th'ough and Th'ough.” Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/681/rec/1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Maloney, Thomas. “African Americans in the Twentieth Century”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. January 14, 2002. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/african-americans-in-the-twentieth-century/
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Braden, Donna R. “Black Entrepreneurs during the Jim Crow Era -- The Henry Ford Blog - Blog.” The Henry Ford, 2018. https://www.thehenryford.org/explore/blog/black-entrepreneurs-during-the-jim-crow-era.
  4. Green, Rodney D., and Sue E. Houchins. “Black Progress through Business Improvement: Two Articles by Joseph R. Houchins, 1900–1989.” The Review of Black Political Economy 44, no. 3–4 (January 2017): 393–401. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12114-017-9253-1.
  5. Jahangir, Rumeana. “How Does Black Hair Reflect Black History?” BBC News. BBC, May 31, 2015. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-merseyside-31438273.
  6. Nieto, Sonia. "Public Education in the Twentieth Century and Beyond: High Hopes, Broken Promises, and an Uncertain Future." Harvard Educational Review 75, no. 1 (Spring, 2005): 43-64. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/212304103?accountid=14244.