Eddie Davis spent 30 years in North Carolina classrooms, guiding students through To Kill a Mockingbird, Macbeth and other classics as a high school English teacher. But it's history that seems to draw Davis' intrigue these days: There's so much in Durham that remains widely unknown or uncelebrated, he says.
So, just as a teacher would, Davis has been bringing people together for lessons. Few Durhamites might have known that one of the state's first civil rights sit-ins happened at the local Royal Ice Cream parlor in 1957, more than two years before similar and better known demonstrations in Greensboro. But Davis persuaded state authorities to erect a historical marker near the former business on North Roxboro Street to commemorate it.
And until recently, some residents didn't realize that when they were students in Durham's city schools 60 years ago, their parents joined a school integration lawsuit, Blue v. Durham Public School District, which blazed a path for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. Davis recently shared his findings at a public program, hosting some of the now-grown students whose parents had sued.
"These folks seemed to walk away with a greater pride for their parents, and to know they were a part of history," Davis says.
Joanne Abel, who works at the Durham County Library, says the way Davis has brought lesser-known local history to life is a gift to the community. He has a real spirit for uniting people, she says—a strength Davis has shown in many capacities.
Davis was just 36 when the Indy honored him in 1985 for turning Durham's attention to apartheid in South Africa, drought in Tanzania, and women's rights and educational issues in Durham.
At the time, he had been teaching high school for almost 15 years, first in Weldon in Halifax County and then at Hillside High School. That's when Davis became active in the local educators' association, serving as president. His personable leadership propelled him in 1993 to become the first practicing classroom teacher to hold a full voting position on the State Board of Education, building bridges between the 80,000 teachers in the state and the powerful people who decided how they did their jobs.
He says he often found himself reminding school administrators that they, too, started their careers as classroom teachers.
Davis later became president of the N.C. Association of Educators, successfully lobbying state lawmakers to raise teacher salaries, which were abysmal when compared with salaries in other states.
Davis retired in 2008 and that year ran for state superintendent. He won 47 percent of the vote in the Democratic Primary, but was edged out by June Atkinson, who later won the general election.
Despite the high-profile positions he's held, he's most proud of his work with students, Davis says. At Hillside, he was faculty adviser to the student council. In 1989, as those students were studying the U.S. Constitution, Davis interested them in the 24th Amendment, which eliminated poll taxes that limited the participation of poor voters, who were often also African-American. But North Carolina never ratified the amendment, Davis told them.
The students took action. Davis drove the teens, dressed in suits, to Raleigh, where they persuaded the N.C. Legislature to retroactively ratify the amendment. Soon, Davis was driving the students in a van to Washington, D.C., where they delivered the ratified bill to the National Archives. As he has gotten older, says Hillside grad J.K. Reaves, he appreciates the opportunities Davis brought to his students.
"What he did, and the experiences he allowed for us to have, were absolutely amazing," Reaves says. "He was truly an advocate for kids, inside the classroom and outside."
"In a small way, those students were able to change the Constitution of the United States," Davis says.
They made history. And as an educator—both of students and adults—so has Davis.