The Washington Post

Ellsworth J. Davis, first black photographer for The Washington Post, dies at 86

Ellsworth J. Davis, who was the first African American photographer hired by The Washington Post and who contributed to the newspaper’s coverage of history-making and daily life in the capital for three decades, died Aug. 14 at his home in the District. He was 86.

His daughter, Shana Davis, confirmed his death and said she did not yet know the cause.

Mr. Davis began his career at Jet and Ebony magazines and joined The Post in 1961, becoming, The Post reported years later, “the first black photographer hired by a major metropolitan newspaper.”

At the time, the newsroom was a scrappy place where assignments were doled out to whomever was available and ready to go. As an experienced photographer and a Washington native connected to the community, Mr. Davis helped shape the paper’s visual coverage of social unrest surrounding the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

At one demonstration in 1965, Mr. Davis stood behind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and photographed the crowd of protesters as King saw them from the stage, their eyes fixed on him and their expressions as solemn and determined as his. When King was gunned down less than three years later, Mr. Davis helped cover the riots that broke out in Washington.

Ellsworth J. Davis died Aug. 14 at 86. (Photo by Sharon Farmer)

“It was hard to snap the shutter,” Matt Lewis, a former assistant managing editor of The Post’s photo desk who also covered the events, said in an interview. “But I did it . . . even though the situation was painful, and it hurt tremendously. . . . That was my job, and more specifically, I was a black photographer. I had to do my job.

“I know without a doubt it was painful for him,” Lewis added, referring to Mr. Davis. “You have to realize what we had already come through.”

Mr. Davis photographed Washington figures including a combative President Richard M. Nixon before the press corps and Katharine Graham, The Post’s publisher and company president, during the newspaper's legal battle over the printing of the Pentagon Papers. He documented murder scenes as well as more tranquil sites around the city.

Mr. Davis was a sports photographer, too, and during at least one Army-Navy game, he raced back to the newsroom at halftime to prepare color photos for the next day’s paper. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell once analyzed an image Mr. Davis captured during an improbable and exciting play in a Washington Senators game against the New York Yankees:

“There in the front rows are a half-dozen children who fairly represent the span of ages from 6 to 16,” Boswell wrote. “In their hands, they have the usual trinkets and appendages — a boy with a scorecard and silly hat, a girl with binoculars and sports section. However, on their faces they have — taken as a group — what could be called a sense of riveted wonder. At that moment, they are being offered a lifetime gift: baseball.”

Ellsworth Joseph Davis was born Jan. 11, 1927. He graduated in 1945 from the segregated Armstrong High School, an institution he credited with preparing him for his future success.

“You couldn’t get by the assistant principal if you weren’t properly dressed. You had to have a shirt, tie and jacket if you could afford it,” he once told The Post. “When you went to school, you had to look like you were ready to learn, like you meant business.”

Mr. Davis later joined the Army Signal Corps and served in Germany in the aftermath of World War II. He became interested in photography then, according to the Exposure Group, the African American photographers association in Washington. Mr. Davis made a trade with a German photographer — picture-taking lessons in exchange for printing supplies.

Mr. Davis later worked in the State Department’s photo darkroom while studying at the Capitol School of Photography founded by Robert Scurlock and George H. Scurlock, sons of Addison Scurlock, the celebrated photographer who documented Washington’s black community over decades.

Mr. Davis began his full-time photography career at Johnson Publishing Co.’s Washington bureau as a photographer for Jet and Ebony magazines.

“I developed a way of doing things, or a way of working, when I was with Ebony,” he said, according to the Exposure Group, which gave Mr. Davis a lifetime achievement award. “Those trips down South did more to strengthen me mentally. When an assignment came up, you went right in on it . . . I knew the danger was there, but I was out there doing the job. If you thought about it, you would not have gotten anything done.”

His wife of 37 years, Beatrice Frye Davis, died in 1988. Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Paulette Tolson Davis of the District; their daughter, Shana Davis, of District Heights; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Davis retired from The Post in 1991 after spending nearly his entire career as a photographer and a short stint as a picture editor. He was credited with nurturing the photographers who worked under him, including Sharon Farmer, a former Post freelancer who during the Clinton administration became the first black director of White House photography.

“There was nothing he couldn’t shoot,” she said in an interview. “Photography allowed him the outlet not only to be himself but to depict things as a man of color who grew up in D.C.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
Most Read

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.