February 5, 2020

From Slavery To Freedom: Athens Teacher Minnie Davis

Guest Pub Notes

Photo Credit: Tracy Lynn Barnett

To commemorate Black History Month, the members of Reconstructing Black Athens are looking backward into Athens’ past, to ordinary locals living in extraordinary times. Opening our monthlong series is a formerly enslaved woman turned educator: Minnie Davis. 

In 1860, the U.S. Census reported that 11,218 individuals inhabited Clarke County. Nineteen were free people of color. The better-off white residents of the county held the other 5,660 African-American men, women and children in bondage. Minnie Davis was one of these enslaved people. Born in 1859 near Penfield, she was the daughter of Aggie Crawford and James Young. Her enslaved parents, however, had no legal claim over their own flesh and blood. At any moment, slaveholders could sell, lend out or relocate their human property, splitting enslaved families in the process. 

Owned by John Crawford, Davis was brought to Athens and spent much of her childhood here. Like most enslaved children, she spent her days working—tending crops, toting tools, pulling weeds, hauling water. In a 1938 Works Progress Administration interview from which the following quotes are drawn, Davis recalled that despite performing such odd jobs, she “never got any money in slavery.” Time for play was sparse. “The only game I can remember playing as a child was a doll game,” mused Davis. She did not get to have a doll; instead, she was forced to be the doll: “The Crawford children would use me for the doll.” 

Her mother, Aggie, wanted more—for herself, for her daughter, for her family. In the midst of a Civil War over slavery, white Confederates asked the “Lord… [to] drive the Yankees back,” while Aggie prayed, silently to herself, “Oh, Lord, please send the Yankees on and let them set us free.” Her prayers were answered on Apr. 9, 1865, when the Confederacy surrendered. Union victory ensured slavery’s legal abolition. Freedom, though, arrived gradually across the South. In Athens, “on the day we learned of the surrender, the Negroes rallied around the liberty flag pole that they [had] set up near where the city hall is now.” Raising their voices in song, they proclaimed, “'We rally around the flagpole of liberty, the Union forever, Hurrah! Boys, Hurrah!'” The following day, enraged whites chopped down the flagpole.

Reconstruction, the decade following the Civil War, did not bring social or political equality for African Americans living in the South. Instead, it brought economic depression, limited employment opportunities and Ku Klux Klan violence. Yet freedom had its benefits. Denied a formal education in slavery, Davis took full advantage of freedom’s offerings by enrolling at the Knox Institute, a school for black children opened by the Freedmen’s Bureau in the spring of 1868. After graduating, she continued her education at Atlanta University before returning to Athens to teach in local, segregated schools. Over the course of her 40-year career, Davis instructed numerous African-American children. An articulate and opinionated woman, she thought often “of Abraham Lincoln; he did a good deed for my race.” She deemed Booker T. Washington, a well-known proponent of black accommodation and industrial education, “a man of brilliant mind, but… radically wrong in many of his views pertaining to [the] education of the black race. He lectured here once, but I didn’t bother to hear him speak.”

Her husband, Samuel B. Davis, published The Athens Clipper, a local newspaper catering to the emerging black middle-class community. After his death, she ran the paper for a few years before selling it.

Fortune had not favored the family, and by 1938, Davis, now an ailing widow, and her nephew, Ed, lived in a “small house might best be described as a ‘tumble-down shack’” on Billups Street, not far from Ebenezer Baptist Church West. “Once I had a nice home, beautifully furnished,” Davis remembered, but “my possessions have gotten away from me during my continued illness.” Davis, however, had made a lasting impression on the community. Prior to her retirement, the Banner-Herald reported: “Mrs. Minnie F. Davis, the only one of the [teacher’s] corps who was with the city schools when they began in 1886, on account of illness, will probably retire. She has served faithfully and efficiently… These… are among the most efficient teachers in the colored system.” 

In 1938, Davis remarked, “I would be teaching now if it were not for my bad health.” Indeed, Davis’ heath was not good; she died just two years later from a dislocated hip and pneumonia on Feb. 13, 1940. A simple granite stone marks her final resting place in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, an African-American burial ground located off Fourth Street in East Athens. 

Recently, members of UGA’s Department of History have begun researching the lives and deaths of Athenians buried in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery. We invite community members to contribute photos, documents, leads or memories of the approximately 3,500 individuals whose final resting place is there. Please contact Tracy Barnett: