In February 1944 former National Negro Congress leader John P. Davis attempted to enroll his five-year-old son Michael at Noyes Elementary School in his Brookland neighborhood and was turned away. Although approximately 100 elementary school-aged black children lived in the area, Noyes admitted whites only. Davis’s goal in attempting to enroll his son was to challenge the "separate-but-equal" school system by filing a lawsuit exposing the inequality of facilities available to white and black children. When his suit was initially dismissed, Davis compiled a more detailed case, showing there were no elementary schools for African Americans within walking distance; the closest one was at least 17 blocks from his house. This was in contrast to white neighborhoods that had schools within close walking distance.
As it would for another decade, the court upheld segregated schools as constitutional. However, in a small victory, the DC Commissioners approved the school board's request for an elementary school to be built across the street from Davis's house at 3105 14th Street NE. The Afro-American newspaper reported in January 1945 that, as a result of Davis's lawsuit, the four-grade school for African American children had opened with 75 children enrolled. The school was housed in a private residence with two portable buildings before the Lucy Diggs Slowe Elementary School opened on the site in January 1948 to a larger 143-student body. (Slowe Elementary closed in 2009; its building is now occupied by the Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy.)
A decade earlier, Davis had worked closely with fellow Dunbar High School graduate Robert C. Weaver, who grew up several blocks north of Davis's home in Brookland. Together they pressured the Roosevelt administration to extend New Deal jobs and housing programs to African Americans, and to ensure black workers received fair wages. Davis founded the National Negro Congress in 1936 and worked with its DC chapter to fight police brutality, organize and support labor unions, demand black hiring by Capital Transit and other private employers, and persuade the federal government to desegregate recreation sites in the District.