Throughout the 2023-24 academic year, Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School will celebrate our 90th anniversary! Here, we introduce our community to “90 Faces of LBC” each week. Keep up with all the news and events of our 90th year, read stories and more at lbc.edu/90.
Dr. Abraham Davis (’49) | 2023 LBC Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award
Over a century of life, Dr. Abraham Davis Jr. (’49) has made an indelible impact on the world around him. For his longstanding commitment to higher education, Lancaster Bible College has named this educational pioneer the recipient of the 2023 Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award.
The first male African-American student to graduate from Lancaster School of the Bible, Dr. Davis celebrated his 100th birthday on May 14, 2023, in Harrisonburg, Va. Even though he will be unable to visit his alma mater in person, the LBC campus community will honor him during a chapel gathering this academic year.
Davis worked from the 1960s through the 1980s in Christian institutions of higher education to bring multicultural awareness and diversity into curricula and campus communities. Near the end of his career, from 1980 to 1985, Davis served at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., as the college’s first director of the Cross-Cultural Center, the precursor to EMU’s current Multicultural and International Student Services.
At a 2015 EMU chapel service honoring Dr. Davis and his groundbreaking work, Philip Watson, a then-student representative of EMU’s Diversity Taskforce, spoke of Davis’ scholarly accomplishments and thanked him for the role he played at the college nearly 35 years earlier.
“He is one of the unsung heroes of EMU,” Watson said. “His accomplishments paved the way for many of the programs and organizations that are active today, such as the Black Student Union, Latino Student Alliance and International Student Organization. Without people like Dr. Abraham Davis being one of the first to pioneer cultural change at Eastern Mennonite University, many of these organizations would not exist today.”
In an interview from his home later in life at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, where he often sang and led worship services, Davis shared that at EMU he was tasked with “ethnically integrating the curricula in the various departments. … The curricula was prevailingly ethnocentric at the time, from the white perspective only. I spoke in chapel, bought books and films for the library, spoke in classes, invited other black professors and musicians to campus from around the country.”
While Davis joked that he might have chosen a more practical major than rhetoric, he is sure of one thing: his professional choices were driven by a hunger to know more about the Bible.
Raised in South Carolina under Jim Crow restrictions and trained as a carpenter, Davis’ parents, neither of whom attended high school, encouraged him to seek further education. But it was his acceptance of Christ at age 22 while stationed with the U.S. Army in Marseilles, France, and his subsequent baptism in Okinawa, Japan, in 1946, that changed his life.
“After I became a Christian,” Davis recalled, “I became much more interested in people than in building things.”
Blessed with a baritone voice and a flair for performing, Davis wasn’t sure “what direction the Lord wanted me to go.” Perhaps a singer. Or preacher. Or something else altogether. For a time, he trained as a teacher with the Child Evangelism Fellowship in Santa Monica, Calif.
Eventually, though, using the GI Bill, Davis pursued studies at Lancaster School of the Bible and then Houghton College in New York, where he graduated in 1955 with a degree in classical Greek and minors in speech and art. He earned a master’s degree from Temple University in speech correction in 1956 and a PhD from Indiana University in 1971.
Before arriving at EMU in 1980, Davis had taught a wide variety of subjects at several universities, including South Carolina State College for Negroes (now South Carolina State University); Houghton, where he was also debate coach; Indiana University; and Messiah College, where he rose to the post of dean of the Philadelphia campus.
During the EMU service honoring him, Eric Payne, then a teacher at Fort Defiance High School and an assistant coach with the EMU women’s basketball team, shared that he had been inspired by Davis and his work for many years.
Payne called Davis a mentor even though the two just missed each other on the EMU campus. When he arrived at EMU in 1986, a year after Davis closed his career there, Payne struggled with the campus culture. Even though Davis wasn’t physically present, Payne found traces of the professor, of his eloquent rhetoric and his incisive cultural criticism, in the chance discovery of an article Davis had written containing these lines:
“… [M]any if not most are not motivated to intensify or dilute the ethnocentricity in curricula to the adaptive methods of teaching, testing and advising according to the needs of select international and national minorities. However, I am still willing to rap and dilute this hypothesis with faculty and students whenever and wherever they desire individually or collectively.”
As he read the article, Payne recalled feeling that someone “got it.” The chance discovery drew him to seek out Dr. Davis when he retired to Harrisonburg a few years later, and they stayed in touch for several more.
Today, students like Payne, Watson and countless others carry on a legacy that was sustained and energized by Davis and his work in higher education.
Watson perhaps summed it up best: “I thank God for Dr. Davis.”
Parts of this article are reprinted with permission from a 2015 Eastern Mennonite University story by Lauren Jefferson about Dr. Abraham Davis’ life and work.