Davis was born October 14, 1902 in Washington, D. C. He graduated as class valedictorian from Williams College, earned two master’s degrees from Harvard University, and was the first African American to earn a Ph. D. from the University of Chicago.
In 1948, Davis became the first African American to become a tenured professor at a major White university when he joined the Department of Education at the University of Chicago. Davis was known for groundbreaking field studies, such as “Children of Bondage” (1940) and “Deep South” (1941), which used anthropological techniques to explore how race and social class influenced education and learning among children.
In 1994, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor.