Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, was killed in a two-car crash in Prince George’s County on Sunday night, the union confirmed Monday.

She was 70.

Davis was driving south in the Bowie area near Route 301 and Harbor Way at the time of the accident, Maryland State Police reported. John Starr, 68, of Annapolis died at the scene, state police said. Davis was taken to Prince George’s Hospital Center, where she later died.

An initial investigation found that Starr’s car was stopped at a light and was struck from behind by Davis, state police said. Starr was a well-known Annapolis musician and teacher at a private school.

“He was a friend to all who knew him, a tireless musician,” said J. Ernest Green, a conductor in the Annapolis area.

Known as Liz to her colleagues and friends, Davis was elected to one of the city’s most powerful labor positions in 2013 and had spent the past year leading the more-than-4,000-member union through unprecedented school closures and efforts to reopen buildings during the pandemic. She had previously been a teacher for four decades, working at a half-dozen or so schools during her career.

“President Davis has been at the forefront of public education advocacy and reform,” a statement from the union read. “We are confident that her legacy will continue to shape the WTU as well as education across the District.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) held a moment of silence at her biweekly news conference Monday and called Davis “a champion.”

“I have gotten to know Liz so well and am so devastated by her tragic passing,” Bowser said.

Davis was a straight-talking and tireless old-school organizer who helped to revamp the beleaguered union when she took it over, imbuing it with a broad social-justice mandate.

Teachers frequently would get frustrated because Davis allowed everyone to speak at union meetings, making them drag into the late evening hours. She was known to give every teacher her cellphone number and told them to contact her with any issues they encountered, no matter how small.

But Davis said she believed democracy is at the core of any union and the Washington Teachers’ Union needed to have the backing of its members and public before it took any drastic measures such as a strike.

Davis was born in North Carolina. Her mother, a waitress, moved to the District when Davis was in the third grade in search of better education opportunities for her daughter. They lived in the Capitol Hill area, and Davis attended her neighborhood schools. She was a graduate of Eastern Senior High School in Northeast Washington and the University of the District of Columbia.

The first time she stood up to D.C. school administrators was in the 1960s. Davis, then a teenager, staged a walkout at Eastern High to protest the lack of African American history and culture in her school’s curriculum. Hundreds of students joined her. And it worked, she said. The curriculum changed.

“That was the beginning. It was exciting. It was exhilarating. We were organizing,” Davis said in an interview in February. “Even though my heart was pounding, I did it. I did not think it was possible.”

This was the first of many fights she led against the school system, which she believed failed to provide a strong education for all low-income students of color.

She was hired to teach drafting at Jefferson Middle School soon after college. It was a course typically taught by men, Davis said, and the principal was furious when she arrived her first day. He sent her to the school system’s human resources department because he wanted a man assigned in her place.

But Davis kept showing up to work. Eventually, she recruited girls to take the class even though they typically took electives like sewing.

“That whole move to get those girls into those classes excited me,” Davis said. “It was more than just about teaching. It was teaching students how to advocate for themselves.”

Davis said she was often transferred because she was so outspoken.

She was one of the union’s loudest and fiercest critics of Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who led the school system from 2007 to 2010 and enacted a teacher evaluation system that led to the firing of hundreds of teachers.

Davis was still fighting to overhaul that teacher evaluation system at the time of her death. She believed the union did not do enough to fight Rhee and she organized teachers on her own. She unsuccessfully ran for union president several times before winning in 2013.

Davis was a regular at community meetings, often sitting in the back of packed meetings and participating like a regular attendee.

“What made Liz so powerful is that she knew who she was and she pushed for what she thought was right,” said Eboni-Rose Thompson, the Ward 7 State Board of Education representative. “She was a teacher and she believed in teachers and she fought for what she believed in. She was a fighter.”

Perhaps one of the most high-profile challenges of Davis’s career came in the past year in the battle with city leaders over how to reopen schools during the pandemic. She negotiated with the city while representing union members who often fiercely disagreed with one another. She was under pressure from city leaders and many parents, who felt she was preventing school buildings from reopening at a time when it was believed children could safely be in schools. At the same time, many teachers felt she wasn’t doing enough to push the city to reopen schools in a way they felt was safe.

But Davis said in an interview that she was confident in her leadership and felt she had properly taken the pulse of her teachers and the broader school community.

When dozens of teachers who were their schools’ union representatives called for a vote in late January that was a step toward a strike, Davis pushed to make sure every teacher participated in the vote. The teachers ultimately voted against authorizing the strike, though not before the city took legal action to try to prevent them from doing so.

Davis, who never revealed how she voted, publicly reminded her members the consequences of going on strike. Decades ago she said she participated in a strike, which is illegal in D.C., and said she and other teachers had to forgo their paychecks.

She studied the Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike of 2012 and believed that was a model for the labor movement and grass-roots organizing. She said she bought her own union leaders books on that strike.

“You need the pulse of the PTOs and the churches. And I have all those connections,” Davis said. “The community is what the Chicago teachers had behind them.”

After news of Davis’s death, tributes poured in from teachers, city leaders and local education advocates.

“Ms. Davis worked passionately toward our shared goal of doing what’s best for students and staff, and I appreciated how she would end our conversations with a reminder of the importance of our distinctive roles to the success of education in the District,” Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said. “This loss is unimaginable.”

Police said the crash is still under investigation. The union said a memorial will be planned.

Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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