Arthur P. Davis has been an astute observer of and participant in the history of African Americans in America -- particularly in Washington and New York. During his 42-year career as professor of English at Howard University, he inspired some of America's most eminent black scholars and authors, including LeRoi Jones, Spottswood Robinson, Paula Giddings and Houston Baker. One of eight children, he was the first black to graduate with a PhD in English from Columbia University. He is the author/editor of five books, including The Negro Caravan, written with Sterling A. Brown and Ulysses Lee, a landmark work in African American literary scholarship.

At 82, Davis remains active, articulate and full of a gentle self-confidence that comes from a strong family background, a sense of history and a long and productive life in academia. He is now professor emeritus at Howard. Fair-skinned and balding, he is still attractive and easily gives the impression that he was a ladies' man when he was young. He has had a decades-long battle with Dr. Montague Cobb, his friend and Howard University colleague, over who is more handsome. oming here as I did in 1944, I witnessed the early beginnings of the civil rights movement taking place in Washington. Gradually, one by one, walls were breaking down. We still have a long way to go, but we have made considerable progress since those days.

The middle class among us has improved greatly economically. They are now able to send their children to the best schools in America, and they do!

My grandfather believed highly in education. He felt, like so many ex-slaves, that education was the great balm of Gilead, that it was the panacea for all things. I was told by my late cousin that his most stringent accusation was to call a person ignorant! He felt that Negroes should take advantage of education, because it was the only thing that could solve their problems, and in one sense he was right.

My grandfather was not a field-hand slave. He was a slave like Frederick Douglass; that is, he was a slave without a master in that he had skills of his own that he was allowed to use. In return, he paid his mistress or master a certain amount of money.

He had money in the bank. He had a boat of his own, which he used to take visitors sightseeing from the Hygeia Hotel -- then a very fashionable Tidewater hotel in the Hampton Roads area. He was, even though a slave, a very well-known citizen of Hampton. His name was William R. Davis. He had been taught by a master to read and write, which was unusual, to say the least. At one time he did a most unprecedented thing for a slave; he sued the master of his wife and children. The old master had left them free but the young master contended that his father was not in his right mind when he freed them. And my grandfather sued -- a most unheard-of thing in pre-Civil War Virginia! He had $1,600 in the bank, and he used this money to sue for his family's freedom. He won! But it was a Pyrrhic victory because there was no law, no precedent in the state of Virginia that would allow the verdict to be implemented. As a consequence, his wife and children were not freed until the Union army under General Benjamin Butler came to Hampton in 1861.

My father didn't really know anything about slavery because he was 6 years old when Butler brought freedom to the slaves. He stood with his mother on the banks of Hampton Roads and watched the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack. And when my father went to school he was taught by the officers of Butler's army under the "Emancipation" oak tree until a school was built for the newly freed children.

E. Franklin Frazier, the late eminent sociologist who used to be here at Howard, once told me that many middle-class Negro families such as my family began with the same pattern that my family had; that is, you had a strong slave ancestor who had a well-knit family even though in slavery.

My father finished Hampton Institute in its second class, the class of 1872, three years before Booker T. Washington graduated. He was the only one in his class who didn't become a teacher. Instead, he went and learned a trade {as a plasterer} and became a master of that trade in every sense.

He had finished Hampton as the youngest student in the school, and yet he was salutatorian. He insisted on excellence. Six of his eight children went to Hampton Institute -- Hampton was an agricultural and trade school then. At Hampton I was valedictorian of my class, and at that time Columbia College was seeking to be what it has definitely become -- a national school. If you lived in California or Virginia, it was seemingly easier for you to get a scholarship to Columbia than if you lived in New York, because the university wanted that spread. So I received a scholarship to Columbia College, but I couldn't go straight to Columbia from Hampton because Hampton did not offer languages. I therefore came to Howard for one year, in 1922, to take a language.

At that time, Washington was for me a highly circumscribed Northwest section of Washington. Howard University on Georgia Avenue was one limit. Many middle-class Negroes lived in LeDroit Park, a section near Howard. The center of Negro life in those days was U Street at 14th. The Howard Theater was another center of a different sort. I did not get to see, for instance, Connecticut Avenue until I came back here to teach over 20 years later. In those days, the only "white" restaurant that served Negroes was at Union Station. The moving pictures here were segregated, even more segregated than they were in Virginia. In Virginia, you could go to the better theaters and sit in the balcony, but here, in those days, you had to go to the Negro theaters for most shows -- the Lincoln or the Republic and, of course, there was the Howard Theater for vaudeville and for Negro actors.

Although it was a rigidly segregated city, Washington was perhaps the most highly sophisticated city for Negroes in the country. Many black citizens had stable jobs in the government; there was an excellent public school system, and Dunbar High School, in those days, was one of the best high schools, black or white, in the United States, on the basis of turning out scholars. The Howard Theater also was a revelation to me, a small-town boy. I used to see many of the old acts. I'm afraid to give dates because some of them might not have been as old as I think they were, but I know I saw Butterbeans and Susie and Peg Leg Bates, the tap dancer. As a matter of fact, I used to go to the theater about once a week. It couldn't have cost much because otherwise I couldn't have gone.

When I went to Columbia College, I found that Harlem was a revelation to me. I had never seen the great number of Negroes I found there -- Negroes from the West Indies, Africa, South America and all sections of this country. The New Negro Renaissance was in full swing -- it was 1923. In my books, I have said that the New Negro Renaissance ran from circa 1910 to circa 1940. I use 1910 because that was the year in which the NAACP really came into existence; Crisis {magazine} was first published with {W.E.B.} Du Bois as the editor. I used 1940 as the end of the Renaissance -- that's longer than most scholars give. But in that year, Richard Wright's Native Son -- which was a new kind of black book, one that began a new literary era -- was published. Alain Locke's New Negro came out in 1925, and that was a sort of manifesto of the Renaissance.

I lived on 133rd Street between Eighth and Seventh avenues, and I could go around the corner on 132nd Street to the Lafayette Theater and the Tree of Hope, and around there would be actors like Bojangles and Ethel Waters. Florence Mills lived on my block. Bessie Smith at one time lived next door to my brother's apartment on 133rd Street and was his patient; 135th Street was then the center of black Harlem. You must remember that Sunday was a special day in Harlem in those days. After church, Harlemites promenaded, dressed in their best clothes, and many of them wore morning clothes. Harlem was a very clean city then, with broad, clean avenues. Any young Negro boy in Harlem in those days would have had to be most insensitive not to have felt the kind of magic that was in the air! In other words, it was great to be a young Negro and alive on the streets of Harlem! Almost every other person you met was writing a book or writing poetry. You could go out on the street anytime and see Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and other young writers who became nationally known. And you could go to parties and see Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Walter White and James Weldon Johnson. I remember the first time I danced with the lady I married. I met her at the Cosmos Club over in Brooklyn; Paul Robeson and Walter White were there that evening.

When I enrolled in Columbia College, I intended to become a physician, but I came to find out that the classes in science necessary to go into medical school were all in the afternoon. I had a job. I had to work in order to earn my room and board even though I had a scholarship, and my job was in the afternoon. So therefore, I had to give up going into science, and instead I began taking a major in philosophy. Why philosophy? I think because it sounded difficult, and I wanted something to challenge me. I finished with an AB in philosophy, but I found, after looking over the field, that only one Negro school in America at that time had a fully developed department of philosophy; that was Howard University. In that department, there was Dr. Alain Locke, who was a Rhodes scholar. I felt that Howard didn't need another philosophy teacher. I realized I needed a subject more in demand, one by which I could make a living.

After I received my undergraduate degree, I left Columbia for one year to teach at North Carolina Central College, which had first been called North Carolina College for Negroes.

I returned to Columbia that next fall and did two things: I registered for an MA degree and got married to Clarice Winn, a librarian in the New York Public Library.

I turned to English for my MA. As soon as I got my MA, immediately I had offers of two or three positions. I accepted one at Virginia Union in Richmond, staying there for 15 years.

I took my MA in 18th-century English literature, and therefore it was easier to go on and take my PhD in 18th-century English literature. When I was in England studying for my PhD, I had a Rockefeller Fellowship, my second. I got my PhD in 1942.

I came to Washington to stay in 1944. Mordecai Johnson was then doing what the white schools are doing now -- wherever he would see a professor he thought was good, whether he was in Alabama or Virginia or elsewhere, he would try to bring him to Howard. And so I was invited to come to Howard as a full professor, which of course in those days did not happen often. Usually you had to work up from an instructor to a full professor, and that often took a working lifetime!

I am thankful that, by chance, I ended up in the field of English, because I don't think any other field would have been better for me. I hate to use a cliche', but teaching is really one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have -- to have been a college teacher whom students remember with affection and respect.

When I came to Howard in 1944, Howard had the finest, the most impressive cadre of black intellectuals to be found anywhere in the world. When you became a full professor at Howard University in liberal arts in 1944, your highest salary was $4,000 a year, and that was as high as you could go in the academic world. Alain Locke was here, E. Franklin Frazier was here, Ralph Bunche was here. You had Jim Nabrit in the law school, you had Bill Hastie, you had Charles Eaton Burch in English, you had Sterling Brown in English, Rayford Logan in history, you had David Blackwell in mathematics and others. Howard, as I have said, had a most impressive faculty in those days, and it still does.

As in all schools, you had politics. There were many professors who disliked Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard. But Mordecai, of course, was a great president. He was also big enough to ignore the McCarthy threat of those years.

But I never played politics. I never cared one tinker's damn about any kind of politics! I vote, that's about all. I am a good old-fashioned Democrat. I think the most anti-Negro president we've had in a long time is the man who's now in the White House, and his attitude has been an example for many white Americans.

May I drop back to my father? Every day in our home we had supper at 6. Dinner was at 12. Every day in that dining room, my father read the newspaper from front page to back page, every damn thing in the newspaper! And, of course, it never occurred to us to say we didn't want to hear that kind of coverage. But, he read it, editorializing, as it were, as he read. Every day we heard a tirade against Woodrow Wilson! All Negroes of my generation were taught to dislike Woodrow Wilson. It was Woodrow Wilson, we were told, who turned Princeton back into an all-white school. And of course, when he became president he put in certain discriminations here. So, I was reared to dislike Woodrow Wilson intensely and also all Democrats. My father became a Democrat under Franklin Roosevelt, but all Negroes practically were Republicans before then. I have considered it ironic that my father's grandson should be Princeton's first black professor.

In the '40s, Washington was beginning to change. There was an embryonic breaking-down of the discrimination and segregation in the theaters, the restaurants and in all public places. People like Mary Church Terrell were doing great work, they were sitting in, and these sittings-in came to Washington before the ones that we know of in Greensboro.

Washington is not fully integrated now, but Washington is a whole lot more integrated than it was in 1944. You have blacks in positions now, positions that when I came here I never dreamed blacks would have. You have blacks holding high positions in corporations. You have a black mayor. You did have more men in the State Department, but I can't say now, under Reagan.

The middle-class blacks now can send their children to the best schools in America. That doesn't mean that all the students at Howard are poor or undertrained; it just means that a considerable number of the students who used to come to Howard are now going to white schools. The students we get now show the same weaknesses that all graduates of public schools show, not because they're black, but because of the problems of public education.

Blacks are now in positions that a man my age never dreamed they'd be in, in my lifetime. We have made tremendous progress, but there are still spots of prejudice that show up, and sometimes they're not very subtle. We do not have 100 percent, and I doubt there will be 100 percent integration for a long, long time. ::