Henrietta Vinton Davis (1860-1941) was an elocutionist and dramatic actor who later in life worked closely with Marcus Garvey as a leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a self-reliance movement. Davis’s speeches boosted support for Garvey and UNIA, a pan-African, separatist movement that explicitly opposed colonial domination and advocated for migration of Black Americans to Africa.
Born in Baltimore, Davis earned her teaching certificate at age 15. In 1878 she became the first African American woman employed by the D.C. Recorder of Deeds office. She remained in her copyist job when Frederick Douglass was appointed Recorder of Deeds in 1881. She began studying drama, and on April 25, 1883, Douglass introduced her when she made her Washington debut as an elocutionist, a public speaker employing a dramatic style of delivery. From there she went on to a successful career as a popular speaker.
For most of her career, Davis lived at 1219 Linden Street NE (1900-1933) a narrow street along the H Street corridor, home to working and middle-class African American owners and renters.
Davis followed the work of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), who founded UNIA in his native Jamaica in 1914. In 1920, after Garvey immigrated to the United States, Davis went to work for him, and was among the first to sign Garvey’s Declaration of Rights for Negroes. Davis became vice president of UNIA, its first international organizer, and a director of the Black Star Line, a shipping company founded to foster black trade; transport passengers among the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa; and serve as a symbol of black grandeur and enterprise. Her talent as an orator drew huge crowds and bolstered the UNIA’s membership.