Larry E. Davis, former Pitt Dean of the School of Social Work, dies at 74

LARRY E. DAVIS, PH.D. (File)

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer

You could hear a pin drop when Larry E. Davis would speak.
It seemed as if the audience listened attentively to each word, each gem of information or opinion that the pioneering Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work would orate.

Dr. Davis was the founding director the Center on Race and Social Problems at the School of Social Work, something he was so proud to be housed in a school of social work. The Center brought in race scholars from across the country to share their race-related research, and in 2010, the Center hosted the largest conference ever held on race in America.

“He was clearly a larger-than-life figure who led this school and the field in ways that brought together his personal experiences with his keen ability to think deeply and profoundly,” said Elizabeth M.Z. Farmer, Ph.D., Pitt’s current Dean of the School of Social Work.

Dr. Davis passed away on March 30 after a battle with lung cancer. He was 74. He is survived by his wife, Kim, and sons Keanu, Naeem, and Amani.
Dr. Davis was the Dean of the School of Social Work at Pitt from 2001 until 2018, when he became Dean Emeritus.

“Dean Davis’ life and work had an incredible impact on so many people,” Dr. Farmer continued, “and it is a true loss not only to his family, the University of Pittsburgh, and the School of Social Work, but to all of the scholars and community leaders whom he has inspired with his work that was dedicated to challenging racism in our society. He was a mentor to many young academics over the years, and has inspired the work of others throughout his career.”

A Michigan native, Dr. Davis earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Michigan State University and a dual master’s in social work and psychology from the University of Michigan. Prior to obtaining his master’s degrees, Dr. Davis was part of the Americorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program and spent three years in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. But he returned to academia after the VISTA program because, “he believed that that the methodology of psychology combined with the tools of social work would enable him to bridge the gap between analysis and application,” according to a bio of Dr. Davis on Pitt’s website.

Dr. Davis was a Professor of Social Work and Psychology and the holder of the E. Desmond Lee Chair in Ethnic and Racial Diversity at Washington University in St. Louis prior to coming to Pittsburgh in 2001. Before setting his sights on the Steel City, he made history by becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate degree in social work and psychology at the University of Michigan, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary.

Dr. Davis was the authority when it came to race relations, and understanding it from an academic, analytical perspective. He often wrote editorials published in the Post-Gazette, was the author of numerous books and made countless lectures on race.

“His final book, ‘Why Are They Angry With Us? Essays On Race,’ was a very intimate examination of his own experiences with race in America,” Dr. Farmer said, “and he was always willing to share stories from his own life to help teach others. When I arrived at Pitt, he and I discussed this book and its many fascinating chapters. It truly was a window into his perspective and understandings.”

The Center on Race and Social Problems was established in 2002, a year after Dr. Davis arrived at Pitt. Its mission is to lead America further along the path to social justice by conducting race-related research, mentoring emerging scholars, and disseminating race-related research findings and scholarship. The Center focuses on race-related social problems in the following areas: Economics; Education; Health; Law; Mental Health; Older Adults; Race Relations; and Youth and Family.

Those who knew Dr. Davis could spot him a mile away with his distinguished aura, trademark bow tie, and genuine, approachable demeanor. During his speeches, Dr. Davis knew when to disseminate important information, and when to showcase his wit. As he began his online lecture, “Will Race Always Matter?” in Sept. 2020, he said: “Coming to the University of Pittsburgh was the best decision I ever made in my life. That is, except for marrying my wife, Kim, who is watching this program.”

Dr. Davis then settled into his presentation, with a use of words that helped distinguish him from others across the country.

“The simple fact is, that race matters more today because we know more about race matters today,” Dr. Davis said. “The iPhone camera and social media has made it all but impossible for racism to go unnoticed and unreported. Racist acts, comments and conversations are, today, more apt to become public. Technology has served to pull back the curtain on our country’s systemic racial problems, at times, showing us many things we did not know, along with things that we had resisted seeing.”

Dr. Davis discussed how the George Floyd death in Minneapolis, captured on video, was “unquestionably the proverbial straw that ignited not only national outrage, but world condemnation.”

Dr. Davis called the “Black Lives Matter” movement the largest national protest in American history, but was quick to remind those watching his presentation that the fight for racial justice and equality has been an ongoing one. The call to elevate African Americans in the corporate sector, remove statues of once-heralded people who promoted racism and discrimination, etc., did not erase the hundreds of years worth of unseen, unheard injustices that Blacks always faced.

“We can only shutter to think about how many people of color must have been unjustifiably humiliated, beaten and murdered without consequence even during our lifetime,” Dr. Davis said.

Dr. Davis closed his presentation by stating: “I ask each of you tonight to engage in what the late Congressman John Lewis referred to as ‘good trouble.’ Challenge existing racist status quos, when and where you find them. Push the envelope. Many of you have, during your lifetimes, accrued enormous social and political capital. I’m asking you this evening to spend some of it. Make our city into the best of American cities. In the words of the esteemed Mississippi Voting Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, let us say to the rest of America, that Pittsburgh is sick and tired of being sick and tired of racial injustice, and we’re simply not going to take it anymore.”

(Dr. Larry Davis’ visitation is from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 7, at John A. Freyvogel Sons, 4900 Centre Avenue. Dr. Davis’ funeral service will be held on Thursday, April 8, at 10 a.m. at Freyvogel Funeral Home, same address. The service can be accessed via the funeral home’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/johnafreyvogelsonsinc. A second memorial service will be held in the Heinz Memorial Chapel of the University of Pittsburgh at a later date, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary. Memorial gifts can be given to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, 1 North Linden St., Duquesne.)

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