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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Davis devoted his career to creating opportunity for others

In high school, Herb Davis was an all-state halfback with incredible vision.

What he could not see, though, was a future in football. That’s because from the time he was born, he was told he had farther to run.

“All my life, I have had people pushing me forward,” Davis said. “All my life, I have had people whispering in my ear, ‘You are going to be successful.’”

Davis listened. And he believed.

The whispering in his ear began with his aunt, Ernestine Davis Staten, when he was still in the crib – literally.

She was a teacher, and she began getting him ready for school from the first time she laid eyes on him.

By first grade, when his classmates were reciting their ABCs, he was already reading on his own. He would maintain that edge all the way through high school in his hometown of Jamesville, a farm community in eastern North Carolina virtually destroyed during the Civil War.

Finding a way out

Even as a little boy, Davis glimpsed the bigger world that lay beyond the long-leaf pines and tobacco fields that engulfed the town and its way of life. For generations, the town’s biggest employer was a sawmill.

He saw that bigger world through the eyes of his mother, Marian, who was born in Philadelphia.

Throughout his childhood, Davis and his three brothers and sister would visit Philadelphia to spend time with their grandmother. They learned firsthand about racial prejudice in a Northern city, and how it was different – and the same – from the discrimination they experienced back home.

In Jamesville, Davis ran into white people who saw it as a birthright to look down on him because he was black; in Philadelphia, he encountered white people who did not see him at all.

His father, Herbert Sr., made his living as a truck driver who hauled logs during the day but made it home for supper every night. His presence and steady support gave his family something that many families today do not have: stability.

They lived in a house built by Davis’s grandfather on the Roanoke River. “When I say on the river, if you went to my backyard and rolled down the hill, you would roll into it,” Davis said.

He turned the river into a laboratory where he conducted scientific experiments, such as sticking raw meat into the water so he could study the planaria – “they are like leeches” – it would attract.

“I was so blessed because I had all these things coming together, not knowing at the time how they were influencing me,” Davis said.

From those experiments on the river, his dream of becoming a doctor began to take shape.

“Football was fun and I wasn’t bad, but I knew my future did not reside in football,” Davis said. “When I was young, everyone knew education was your way out.”

Staying on course

His first move out of high school – to play football for what was then Hampton Institute in Virginia – was a wrong step he quickly corrected by withdrawing and accepting an academic scholarship to Elizabeth State College.

Here, too, he found people who offered encouragement and support, including Walter Ridley, the college president who went on to become the first black graduate of the University of Virginia – at age 41.

Ridley hired Davis to serve as valet for his wife, Henrietta. One of his duties was to drive her to Norfolk, Va., to go shopping in Ridley’s Buick Electra 225. That’s when she would ask how his classes in biology and chemistry were going. She knew of his plans for medical school and how vital it was for him to succeed in those classes.

“When I was with the Ridleys, I had a chance for the first time in my life to see people who were wealthy and well educated,” he said. “Both of them encouraged me to work hard, and I did.”

After graduating, Davis came to Carolina and enrolled in the doctoral program in developmental biology under the tutelage of H. Eugene Lehman, a beloved professor who taught here for 41 years. Lehman was then chair of the zoology department.

While Davis worked on his dissertation, Lehman hired him as a zoology instructor. It was 1975. Davis was 26 and about to encounter something that shocked and dismayed him: student indifference.

“You know, when you first start teaching, you believe you are going to change the world and that every student is going to love you,” Davis said.

At the end of his first class, as he read through students’ evaluations, he discovered he had been wrong on one assumption: “Some of them didn’t love me,” he said.

Eventually, Davis called the admissions office to complain.

Again and again, he said they needed to send him students who were not just smart, but hungry to learn.

Finally, Collin Rustin, the assistant director of undergraduate admissions, proved he had been listening.

“Collin called me one day and said, ‘How would you like to come over here and do some admissions work for us?’ Davis said. “It was crazy how it happened, but I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a shot.’”

He started working in the admissions office in fall 1978 and did not leave until he retired this summer, shortly after winning a 2012 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award for his 37 years of stellar service.

Going back

Davis insisted that he did not deserve it – that his luck was good and his timing even better.

When he came to the admissions office, the University was still embroiled in a legal battle with the federal government that began in 1972 over enforcement of the desegregation of higher education as required under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It was resolved by a consent decree ironed out between 1979 and 1981 calling for the courts to monitor the state’s desegregation plan.

Davis can still remember the memo that former UNC President William Friday sent to all the UNC campuses, explaining that the system would be required to nearly double its minority enrollment within the next six years.

He felt pretty positive about that message because, during his first year in the admissions office, Davis was instrumental in nearly doubling the number of African-American students enrolling at Carolina for 1979-80.

He had already found his life’s mission.

That mission would take him back to Jamesville and other overlooked places in eastern North Carolina, places filled with promising men and women who had never dared to dream Carolina was within their reach.

It was his turn to go back, and to give back, by pointing such students toward Chapel Hill.

It was his turn to whisper in a child’s ear about the bigger world awaiting them.