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Gordon J. Davis

Lawyer and civic leader Gordon J. Davis was born in Provident Hospital on August 7, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois to William Allison Davis and Elizabeth Stubbs Davis. Davis grew up on Chicago’s South Side—the African American Woodlawn neighborhood and then the University of Chicago Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood— it was there he gained a life long passion for jazz, the arts and civic involvement. He received his B.A. degree from Williams College in 1963, and his J.D. degree from Harvard Law School in 1967.

Upon graduation, Davis moved to New York City and worked as special assistant to Mayor John Lindsay. He served on the New York City Planning Commission from 1973 until 1978, when he was appointed by Mayor Edward I. Koch as New York City’s first African American commissioner of Parks and Recreation. During his service as commissioner, Davis was instrumental in rebuilding New York’s parks system following the City’s near bankruptcy, and the founding of the Central Park Conservancy, the Prospect Park Alliance and the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation. In 1983, Davis resigned as Parks commissioner and joined the law firm of Lord, Day & Lord. He began serving as counsel to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts that same year. In 1990, he became the Founding Chairman of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Davis left private practice in 2001, when he was selected to be the president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Subsequently, Davis returned to private practice at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae and then Venable LLP as a senior partner. Davis’ clients included the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the organization overseeing the rebuilding of the Ground Zero site, the New York Public Library, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the United States Tennis Association, Amtrak and the American Museum of Natural History.

Davis has served on the board of directors of Lincoln Center, the New York Public Library, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Modern Art, the NY Public Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Francis W Parker School.

He has received the Medal of the City of New York for Exceptional Service, honorary doctorate degrees from Williams College and Bard College, the 100 Black Men public service, award, the Frederick Law Olmsted Medal and designation as a Founding Director by the Central Park Conservancy, and was named one of “America’s Top Black Lawyers” by Black Enterprise magazine. In 2010, Davis was appointed to the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Davis lives in New York City with his wife Peggy Cooper Davis, the John E R Shed Professor of Law and Ethics at New York University Law School. Their daughter Dr. Elizabeth Cooper Davis is a professor of theater at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.

Gordon J. Davis was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on July 17, 2014.

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Interview Date



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Middle Name



Francis W. Parker High School

Hyde Park Academy High School

Williams College

Columbia University

Harvard Law School

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Favorite Season




Favorite Vacation Destination

Oak Bluffs

Favorite Quote

Black People Are Just As Good As White People, Actually, They're A Little Better.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York



Favorite Food

Fried Chicken, Watermelon

Short Description

Lawyer and civic leader Gordon J. Davis (1941 - ) a partner with the law firm of Venable, LLP, was the first African American commissioner of Parks and Recreation for the City of New York, as well as first African American president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.


Venable LLP

LeBoeuf Lamb / Dewey LeBoeuf

Lincoln Center Inc.

Lord Day & Lord

New York City Parks Department

New York City Planning Commission

Mayor's Office, New York City

Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Gordon J. Davis narrates his photographs, pt.1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Gordon J. Davis narrates his photographs, pt.2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Gordon J. Davis narrates his photographs, pt.3</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Slating of Gordon J. Davis' interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Gordon J. Davis lists his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Gordon J. Davis talks about his mother's family history</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Gordon J. Davis recalls the untimely death of his maternal uncle, Frederick Douglass Stubbs</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Gordon J. Davis talks about his mother's education and his parents' marriage</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Gordon J. Davis compares his experience at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts to his father's</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Gordon J. Davis recounts his confrontation with the dean of freshman at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Gordon J. Davis describes his childhood neighborhood of Hyde Park in Chicago, Illinois</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Gordon J. Davis details his father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Gordon J. Davis talks about his paternal grandfather's civil service career being derailed by President Woodrow Wilson's racist policies</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Gordon J. Davis cites publications that include his paternal family history</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Gordon J. Davis talks about his father's time and legacy at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 13 - Gordon J. Davis talks about his paternal family's educational achievements</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 14 - Gordon J. Davis explains his father's bitterness toward Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 15 - Gordon J. Davis describes his father's experiences at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts and his Natchez research</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 16 - Gordon J. Davis talks about his father's second marriage to Lois Mason and how the two met at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 17 - Gordon J. Davis describes his father's friendship with the author Sterling Brown</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 18 - Gordon J. Davis describes his father's personality</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 19 - Gordon J. Davis describes his father's success as an academic innovator and mentor</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 20 - Gordon J. Davis explains the significance of the Rosenwald Foundation</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 21 - Gordon J. Davis describes his mother's later years</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 22 - Gordon J. Davis describes his earliest childhood memories and his experience at Hyde Park High School in Chicago, Illinois</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Gordon J. Davis talks about his older brother</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Gordon J. Davis recalls perceptions of race and class while growing up in Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Gordon J. Davis talks about his family's sense of racial identity, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Gordon J. Davis talks about his family's sense of racial identity, pt. 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Gordon J. Davis describes the use of humor in diffusing racially charged situations</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Gordon J. Davis remembers his time at the University of Chicago Laboratory School in Chicago, Illinois and in Jack and Jill</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Gordon J. Davis explains his academic goals and choosing to attend Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Gordon J. Davis describes his family lineage and racial identity</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Gordon J. Davis reminisces about his classmates at Francis Parker High School in Chicago, Illinois and his mother's death</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Gordon J. Davis describes his father's and uncle's careers academic careers</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Gordon J. Davis describes his summers at Idlewild, Michigan and his experience at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Gordon J. Davis remembers joining civil rights protests during his freshman year at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Gordon J. Davis recalls the social atmosphere during his time at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Gordon J. Davis talks about the movement to abolish fraternities at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts</a>







Gordon J. Davis talks about his family's sense of racial identity, pt. 1
Gordon J. Davis talks about the movement to abolish fraternities at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts
Now, about the issue of color, can I ask you that, like you know, you talk about Allison [S. Davis] being, I mean, you know, he was confused. Well he was (simultaneous)--$$He wasn't confused. He just didn't understand the meaning of the word.$$Okay (laughter).$$We were never confused about race.$$And why (simultaneous)$$That maybe a bit apocryphal, but generally I don't ever remember him being confused about race, because of what our parents [Elizabeth Stubbs Davis and W. Allison Davis] taught us. They taught us, even to this day, sometimes white people almost say, "Well you could have passed for white, why didn't you?" As if it were a rational question. And I look at them and say, "Why would I want to be white?" (Laughter) Even if I had a choice, why would I want to be, and that always stuns them, because they never could imagine that being the answer. They can only imagine it would be much better to be white than.... And of course, that day, most days there were all kinds of black people disappearing, who'd passed, and so forth. But my parents were social scientists. My father spent his life studying race in this country, and education, and race and education, caste and stuff. So there was a consciousness about these issues in the house, not that we were going around thinking, but they--and the issue being anything other than colored people was never an issue. Even though--you know, and it wasn't an issue not only with us, it wasn't an issue with my father's brother [John A. Davis] and sister [Dorothy Davis]. It wasn't an issue in my mother's family (unclear) light-skinned people, all of us, although my father was darker.$$Yes, people talk (simultaneous)--$$He was darker.$$That's right. People talk about that. That he was darker.$$So that, so the whole growing up is littered with stories about how funny race can be. That Allison saying the teacher's white when she was black. We went to Hawaii (laughter). My father went to Hawaii (laughter) we went to Hawaii in 1947. My father was going to teach at the University of Hawaii. And his principal reason for going, however, was Hawaii was supposed to be the only place in the United States and its dominion, where there was no color line. Coming off the boat, you knew that wasn't true. It didn't take any research. You knew the minute you got to Hawaii there were color lines all over the place. I mean, there were white people, Hawaiians, Japanese, they're all, you know. But it didn't take any study to feel, to realize there was a color.... There's a great picture in the Hawaii Gazette [sic.], 1947, a picture of my father clearly black, a black person, "Distinguished Professor Comes to Hawaii From the University of Chicago to Study," blah, blah, blah. Well, that was, you know, we were a big deal. But there wasn't any need to study because we knew right away there was a color line. Although it was very diverse and the friends my parents had, there were a couple, she was very black, he was white, and the only place they could live a decent life was Hawaii in 1947. So they lived in Hawaii. Actually she, the woman, was she the grandmother of [HistoryMaker] Lani Guinier?$$Oh, I (simultaneous)--$$Lani Guinier's first name comes from the name of the woman who was--in any event, there's a picture of me--we lived in the Moana Hotel [Moana Surfrider, Honolulu, Hawaii]. There's a picture of me when my last day of class in whatever grade I was in, kindergarten, and the kids all gave me a lei with little good-bye notes on it. And you look at my class, there're very white kids there, all these Asian kids, it was very diverse. On the boat on the way over, which was only one class, it wasn't first class, it was only one class, we were in a boat on the way over. And we were a curious group. People would look at us and couldn't quite figure out what we were. A train, even the Pullman porters couldn't quite figure it out. (Sound). So we're on this boat for five days going to Hawaii and it's a woman from the South, she'd sort of been buzzing around and one time--you go up and down on an elevator, so we're in an elevator and my sister, my brother [Allison S. Davis] and myself going up and down the elevator. She finally had her chance. She said, "What are you all?" This is one of these stories from Urbana [ph.]. My brother said something like, "What do you mean?" "Well, what nationality are you all?" My brother said, "We all is Indians." (Laughter). This is another family story. Did he say that? I think, oh that's the story we told for sixty years, that he actually.... The woman was for real. I mean she definitely was trying to figure out what we were. So the issue of race, of color, it wasn't for a long time--the only people didn't know we were, couldn't figure out we were black were white people, because in Chicago [Illinois] everybody knew everybody on Langley [Avenue] everybody knew. I mean every once in a while some kids would wonder into our area of Langley and not know, and start to beat us up and we'd run to the school yard and say, "Tell them, tell them we're"--you know.$So I said about the guys freshman year, walking into the freshmen dining room to say come picket the White House [Washington, D.C.] and got booed and they didn't bounce, they didn't, you couldn't deter them at all. As an example of leadership I hadn't seen before. So at the end of our sophomore year, some guys who were in the so-called best fraternity in the campus, an incident occurred involving an Asian student that they thought should be a member, but the rest of the fraternity members booed down and wouldn't even consider him because he was Asian, even though he was eating his meals there every day. They walked out and they called a meeting in the physics lab to discuss the future, what should be done about fraternities and their effect on Williams [College, Williamstown, Massachusetts]. It ended up as something called the Grinnell Petition, named after the guy [Bruce Grinnell] who was the captain of the football team and lead the--and ninety of us signed the petition saying Williams should get rid of fraternities, the spring of our sophomore year. People had been saying things about fraternities at Williams for fifty years. My father [W. Allison Davis] said, "Don't go to Williams because of the fraternities." (Sound). But this was a little bit different because the people signing the petition were more centrists than the wacky non-affiliates and beatniks. That summer the president of Williams, James Phinney Baxter [III], who had been president for twenty-five years, it was his last year, he resigned, and the new president was a guy named John [Edward] Sawyer, a Yale [University, New Haven, Connecticut] economist. He began my junior year. He invited some of us "campus leaders" to come to dinner at his house--the president's house, and he and his little white wife and his little, tight-ass white self couldn't have been more boring, less interesting, less anything, I mean, we came away saying "Oh God, nothing is ever going to change." A week later, he eliminated the compulsory chapel. And the summer between our junior and senior year the board voted to abolish fraternities, immediately, no all-deliberate speed, no nothing. They said we're going to get rid of fraternities as fast as we can. The campus was in a state of shock. We were, the ninety of us, were in a state of shock. So within (simultaneous)--$$There were ninety of you?$$Only ninety had signed this petition (simultaneous)--$$Only nine (simultaneous)?$$--of the thousands of students, ninety, nine-o. And here this new president got the board to abolish it. Well, clearly he came with that as an agenda. It wasn't just us. He knew that was on his agenda, because he knew that Williams would never be a better institution until fraternities were gone, we could go co-ed without fraternities because fraternities meant you couldn't go coed. They housed--80 percent of the students were housed in fraternities, all men. Fraternities were a deterrent for anybody of color to go there. So, we were stunned. And outside of Williams, the Civil Rights Movement was reaching its crescendo. So I graduated in June of 1963 and a week before the graduation a bunch of guys who were my friends who had just come back from Birmingham [Alabama], they had been down there--the campus was all up in a civil rights thing, everybody was reading [James] Baldwin's '[The] Fire Next Time' and signing up to get on buses, the same place where they were, everybody was booed when they raised it four years before; the whole campus was swept up in the civil rights--had students visiting. SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] [Reverend Dr. Martin Luther] King [Jr.] spoke there. So this was the profound part of Williams. One, there's a personal change going on. It's a totally different experience than my father's [W. Allison Davis] experience obviously. But the world is changing and then Williams is changing, so it was sort of this triple layer of things going on. So the Williams experience became very indelible for me and for my group of friends, who are still very close. We still email all the time. We still talk all the time. It was a very indelible experience because all these things were happening happened at the same time. And all the guys who were totally, I mean, the outcry from the alumni about the fraternity issue, it did not--these WASPs [White Anglo Saxon Protestants], from this WASP, this boring WASP president and his boring WASP board, chairman of the board, who was a guy from--a Brahmin from Boston [Massachusetts], they didn't give a shit. And sure enough within three years the fraternities were gone, I mean gone. They had taken over the houses, they had kicked out all the fraternities, they were gone. I said, "Damn," and three years later it went coed, or four years later. And every step of the way--and the number of diverse students increased, increased, increased, increased. And every step of the way, it got better. All these guys were saying, oh it's going to be terrible, it's going to be (unclear). It became better academically. It became better socially. It's now the number one liberal arts college in the country, has been the last ten years and all this stuff. And it all began with this guy, Jack Sawyer, who nobody thought would change anything, and he just fooled the shit out of everybody. And he eventually became head of the Carnegie Foundation [sic. Andrew W. Mellon Foundation] and he was quite something. So, that in not quite a nutshell, that is why Williams was very profoundly important to me and my--changed me, affected me, whatever the right words are.$$So--