Lawrence Arnette Davis Sr. (1914–2004)
Lawrence A. Davis Sr. served as president of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N) from 1943 until his resignation in 1973. During his tenure, he oversaw the school’s 1972 transition from college to university status as part of the University of Arkansas System. The merger entailed a name change to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), and Davis served one year as UAPB’s first chancellor. During his long tenure, Davis, whom Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) residents and students at AM&N affectionately called “Prexy,” was among the most prominent heads of a historically black college (HBC) in the country. He was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1996.
Lawrence Arnette Davis was born on July 4, 1914, in McCrory (Woodruff County) to Virgil Davis and Prawnee Davis. He was an only child and, for most of his childhood, lived with his maternal grandmother, Emma Janie Brown. He attended public schools in McCrory until eighth grade, when he went to Pine Bluff to attend Merrill High School. He graduated as valedictorian in 1933.
Davis attended AM&N, graduating magna cum laude in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in English. After his graduation, the college employed him as a teacher, registrar, and cashier until he left in 1939 to pursue graduate study at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. After completing an MA in English, he returned to Pine Bluff and resumed his employment as registrar at AM&N. He advanced rapidly to become assistant to college president John Brown Watson and then to become dean of administration.
After Watson’s death, Davis was a member of a three-person committee that headed the college until Davis was chosen as president in 1943. Only twenty-nine years old, he was the youngest college president in the country. The United States was in World War II at the time, and consequently enrollment was low. After the war, Davis oversaw record growth, and enrollment reached 2,200 by the 1948–49 term.
Davis married Rachel L. Johnson of Prescott (Nevada County), and they had four children, including Lawrence A. Davis Jr., who served as chancellor of UAPB from 1991 to 2012.
The national African-American press took notice of Davis’s rapid rise to the presidency at AM&N and of the school’s achievements during his administration. Early achievements for the school included gaining accreditation as a four-year college and a $1.5 million building program that expanded the campus’s physical plant. The North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accredited the school as a four-year institution in 1950. Davis completed a doctorate in educational administration at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1960.
The 1960s were a difficult time for the heads of HBCs who had to navigate the civil rights movement and student activism without angering political leaders who set funding for their colleges. Davis’s selection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as commencement speaker in 1958 upset some Arkansas legislators. The following year, legislators gave Davis a chilly reception when he lobbied for AM&N’s funding, and they cut the college’s appropriation. Perhaps because of that experience, when some students joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963 and participated in demonstrations, Davis expelled several of them.
Presiding over the college during the merger with the University of Arkansas System was also an ordeal. Students, alumni, and African Americans statewide opposed the merger. They were proud of “their” college and feared the merger meant the institution would lose its unique identity. In Pine Bluff, students and community members held large demonstrations in protest. Davis himself became the target of criticism from both supporters and opponents of the merger while state legislators moved it forward. Despite the difficulty, Davis remained at the school as the first chancellor of UAPB.
After a year as chancellor, Davis resigned and took a position at the R. R. Moton Foundation in New York City for one year. He then returned to higher education as president of Laney College, a two-year institution in Oakland, California, from 1974 to 1982. He spent his retirement years in California.
Davis died on June 5, 2004, and is buried in Pine Bluff. His many awards and accolades included honorary doctorates from two HBCs: Lane College in 1948 and Morehouse College in 1950.
For additional information:
“Biography, Lawrence Arnette Davis.” Office of Public Relations, AM&N College. On file at University Museum and Culture Center. University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
“Lawrence A. Davis Sr., 89, Ex-AM&N President, Dies.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 7, 2004, p. 2B.
“Lawrence A. Davis Obituary.” On file at University Museum and Culture Center. University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
McGee, Holly Y. “It Was the Wrong Time, and They Just Weren’t Ready: Direct-Action Protest in Pine Bluff, 1963.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 66 (Spring 2007): 18–42.
Morgan, Gordon D. Lawrence A. Davis: Arkansas Educator. Millwood, NY: National University Publications Associated Faculty Press, 1985.
Kevin D. Butler
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Last Updated: 08/26/2020