Chapter One: Generational Collateral ONE Generational Collateral
Our lives are the receipts of our ancestors’ journeys—their experiences, investments, relationships, joy, pain, and tragedies.
No one could’ve anticipated how frigid it would be on March 4, 1873, the day President Ulysses S. Grant was sworn in for his second term. It was the coldest March inauguration on record, and everyone attending was likely bundled up and bracing against the negative windchill. As Grant rode in his custom presidential carriage to the White House, alongside him sat Louis P. H. Davis.
I first learned about Louis Davis from my dad. When I asked other family members about him, I repeatedly heard that his significance could be traced to his purchase of a home in Washington, DC, which would become a launching pad for future generations’ success. Ben Jr., Louis’s grandson, wrote in his memoir:
Louis Patrick Henry Davis, my father’s father, had spent his boyhood as a servant in the home of Gen. and Mrs. John A. Logan. General Logan, who later became a U.S. representative and a U.S. senator from Illinois, had participated actively in the effort to impeach President Andrew Johnson. My grandfather favorably impressed the Logan family and gradually became their son’s companion. Later, as General Logan’s protégé, he worked in the Interior Department. He thus gained a measure of economic security and was able to purchase a home at 1830 11th Street NW, where I was born.1
Even if you’re unfamiliar with Major General Logan, you may know some of the landmarks that bear his name: Logan Airport in Boston, Logan Circle in Chicago, and Logan Square in DC. He was a Civil War hero of the Union Army and became a close friend of Ulysses S. Grant, who had commanded the Union Army. After Logan retired from the military, he entered politics. Between Logan’s military prowess, renown, political swagger, and friendship with the president, he was an extremely powerful person and indispensable ally to have—particularly for a Black family in that era.
The record is unclear on when or how Louis became Logan’s servant. The term “servant” can mean many different things in a modern context, with both positive and negative connotations. Back then, it meant that the livelihood, accommodations, and tasks were solely determined by the provider. But as a servant, Louis was welcomed into the Logans’ home and paid for his labor. He was obviously well thought of and trusted, because he became the companion of Logan’s son, John A. Logan II, and was tasked with overseeing Grant’s son on occasion as well. So it was noteworthy, but no shock, that Louis accompanied the younger Logan in the carriage during Grant’s second inauguration.
Perhaps in appreciation for Louis’s years of faithful service, General Logan used his connections to secure a job for Louis in the Department of the Interior. As an assistant messenger for the Office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, he earned a salary of $720 a year (equivalent to about $22,000 today). Once he was gainfully employed, he felt confident enough to start a family of his own. He wed Henrietta Stewart on July 7, 1875, and the newlyweds lived in a six-room brick house near Howard University. In 1878, they moved to another home nearby. Over the years they had three children. On May 28, 1880, the youngest boy, Benjamin Oliver “Ollie” Davis was born.2
Louis began making moves into DC’s Black middle-class society. In the early 1880s he received a promotion to head messenger in the Office of the Assistant Attorney General, with an annual salary of $840 (around $25,000 today). Henrietta worked as a nurse, and in 1893, the dual income helped the Davises become one of the few Black families in the city to purchase their own home. With General Logan’s help, they purchased 1830 11th Street NW—a move that firmly cemented their middle-class status. The Davises owned that home for forty years, and it served as both the launching and landing pad for their family. It allowed them to send their children to school, and it provided financial, and thus familial, stability.
Even though the Davises were progressing, life after the end of Reconstruction proved increasingly difficult for Blacks, especially in the American South. Legal and social pressures, as well as threats of violence, limited Blacks’ opportunities. Public accommodations became segregated along racial lines, including in DC. It’s important to recognize that the main reason for Louis Davis’s exceptional ability to navigate these turbulent waters and accomplish things many Blacks could not imagine during that time—secure a public-service job, acquire real estate, and become upwardly mobile—was because of his powerful ally General Logan.
All these years later, I find it remarkable to contemplate how long my family’s influence—over 150 years and across a dozen presidential administrations—can be traced back through America’s history. This knowledge places me in a position of confidence in America, a country where a Black person’s citizenship is so often made to feel more like a privilege than a right. We’ve earned our right to be here as much as any other group.
During Louis’s post–Civil War lifetime, America was in a chaotic state that made many Blacks’ lives precarious. However, his story highlighted something meaningful to me: not all Black families in the early 1900s were destitute, uneducated, and unemployable. That was the impression I’d gotten from media portrayals of Blacks in post–Civil War America. And Black successes in this era weren’t something I was ever taught in school.
Learning his story was evidence that there were beautiful moments where American families of all races could have allies and support, have people looking out for them. People who were similarly pursuing the American dream.
I imagine what it must have been like to consider yourself an American family, yet at every turn, you’re reminded that you are Black—a permanent scarlet letter relentlessly bringing to mind that society considers you less than everyone else. And I think about how self-assured you would have to be in that environment, to raise your family with your head up, with dignity, in a country that your family helped build.
Yet Louis wasn’t ashamed or afraid to ask for assistance when he needed it, including from people like General Logan. For Louis to get where he wanted to go in life—and to maneuver his children even further down the path—he probably didn’t have the luxury of turning down support from powerful allies. The instinct for survival can result in strange bedfellows. Louis likely recognized the inherent unfairness of the world around him, but he also recognized that he had to shape that world to his own needs in order to achieve his goals. While he couldn’t reverse or erase centuries of racism and negativity, he could try to make amends in his own way by living an honorable life.
Louis learned the value of the mentor-mentee relationship—the exchange of expertise and enthusiasm for a common good. These rules of engagement are timeless in their effectiveness. Even as a DEI leader today, these principles are the building blocks for good politics. I can be sitting across the table from someone and disagree with them on 99 percent of the issues at hand. Yet if we can put our differences aside and respectfully engage one another, we have a better chance of compromising on the critical 1 percent on which we do agree. That’s how the needle gets incrementally moved.
In my mind, I often reenact how incredible it must have felt when Louis rode to the White House in that carriage with President Grant. I feel that this moment—one that I can only imagine was filled with excitement, serenity, or even anxiety—must have been a turning point in his life, when his energy and the exuberance of youth propelled him forward. He’d done it. He’d make a name for himself and for his future family. He’d seize every opportunity and access to every resource. He’d buy a home to provide safety and security for his children and send them to the best school district for Black kids. I love him for all of that, and not just because my life is still benefiting from it today. Louis is an inspiring example of perseverance. His ability to look ahead and stay the course into an unknown world for him and his family, with no safety net, is a seed planted in the soil around the base of my family tree.
Louis laid the foundation of generational collateral for my family. I define that term as the assets, information, knowledge, stories, experiences, DNA, health, mental and physical wellness—or, on the flip side, the pain, suffering, despair, and poverty—that is passed down to us from previous generations. The concept has become near and dear to me and gives me much more empathy and understanding toward my family’s journey.
Through his example, Louis demonstrated for others, foremost his children, what it meant to work within a system to help evolve it—to build political and financial capital. One thing I learned the most from Louis was that simply being in the room was powerful, and even though he didn’t choose to be born a servant, he was shrewd and ambitious enough to leverage his proximity to those who had both power and influence, so his family could succeed in ways that otherwise might not have been possible. He refused to back down to society—society would have to catch up with him.
Louis’s youngest son, Benjamin—affectionately known as Ollie—took these lessons to heart. Louis hoped his young son would follow in his footsteps and work for the government. Henrietta wanted her son to become a minister. Ollie had other ideas. He wanted to enlist in the Army. His desire to be a soldier blossomed at M Street High School, where he was first a cadet and then a member of a Black unit of DC’s National Guard.3
Ollie’s parents were disappointed, but saw the passion and virtue in his decision. Louis set out to do what he could to make it a reality, and he reached out to General Logan, to see if an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point could be secured for Ollie. West Point attendees were commissioned upon graduation, which meant they automatically attained the rank of second lieutenant—unlike enlisted men, who had to work their way up through the ranks.
Louis received word that, for political reasons, President William McKinley wouldn’t appoint a Black man to West Point.4
While this was devastating, Ollie wasn’t deterred and soon after opted to join the Army as an enlisted man in 1898, a plan Louis stringently disagreed with, feeling that being a private, instead of an officer, was beneath his family and his son. The pay was minimal, and the military was rife with racism. Black soldiers were relegated to “pick-and-shovel jobs,” a term to describe roles that didn’t allow for advancement through the ranks. Every day Ollie would be faced with what my family would call “indignities,” which included disrespectful attitudes, tones, and behaviors in response to his race. Indignities were something my family—including me—was taught to understand, live with, and move past with professionalism.
Ollie quickly made strides in his career. One reason was that he could read and write, unlike many of his fellow soldiers.5
As Ben shared, “His knowledge of Army regulations and administration and his willingness to work long hours made him an indispensable asset to his organization and enabled him to advance to sergeant-major in only a few months.” 6
Even if Louis and Henrietta didn’t want their son to become a soldier, through their military and political connections and familiarity, supportive parenting, and commitment to educating their children, they had positioned him to excel on any path he chose.
Last year, I discovered that I could go online and access many items in Ollie’s archives, which are cataloged at the US Army Heritage and Education Center, at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. One of the most fascinating and unexpected items I discovered was Louis’s will. Since Louis died before my dad was born, the only information I know about him is secondhand; I was excited to see a document that he himself had touched.
He left everything to his wife, Henrietta, and indicated the circumstances under which his children would inherit his estate, which included money, rail stocks, and the DC home. After his death, everything was to be divided among the children. But to me, the most interesting part about Ollie was as follows: “To my son B. O. Davis I bequeath five (5) dollars, to be paid out of my estate, he having received his full share during my life time in money and in my efforts to secure him his position in the U.S. Army.”7
Louis might have opposed his son’s chosen path, but he’d obviously played a significant role in Ollie’s launch from the landing pad of the Davis home to a successful military career.
Louis Davis, Ollie, and Ben all called 1830 11th Street NW home at some point in their lives. I once tried to visit the home, so I could see this property that has been so influential in my family story. I located the site and saw it had been rezoned for condos. There was no trace of my family home. It’s too bad the property wasn’t passed down to my dad, but the resources it provided changed my family in a way that transcends material gain. The foundation the home provided to allow future generations to flourish in a country that wasn’t sure—and sometimes still isn’t sure—how to recognize Black achievement cannot be overstated.