Activist, leftist, and radical feminist — these are just some of the words used to describe Angela Davis, a scholar and civil rights leader and fighter who came to prominence in the countercultural era of the 1960’s. Davis was born on January 26, 1944. Greenwich Village has always been a breeding ground for movers and shakers, whether they be artists or activists, or anything in between. Today, on Davis’ birthday, we look back at her life and her connections to the neighborhood.
Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944, and spent much of her childhood in the South, occasionally staying with friends and family in NYC. Her mother, Sallye Bell Davis, was a leading national officer in the Southern Negro Youth Congress. As a result, Davis grew up surrounded by community organizers, many of whom had communist leanings, which significantly influenced her intellectual development and views. It was during Davis’s junior year of high school that she was accepted to an American Friends Service Committee program, one that put black students from the South into integrated schools in the North. It was through this program that she was placed in Elisabeth Irwin High School, otherwise known at the Little Red School House (LREI), here in Greenwich Village. LREI is regarded as NYC’s first progressive school, created in the early 20th century as a joint public-private experiment in progressive education (LREI’s historic building and profound cultural impact were a big component of GVSHP’s successful push to gain landmark designation for our proposed South Village Historic District).
From the Village, Davis went on to attend Brandeis University, spending her junior year at the Sorbonne in Paris, followed by graduate education at the University of Frankfurt in Germany and post-graduate work at the University of California, San Diego. Throughout the end of the 60’s and into the 70’s,m Davis taught briefly at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was also involved in radical feminist causes, was a member of the Communist Party of the USA, and an associate of the Black Panther Party. During the 70’s she made it onto the FBI’s Most Wanted List due to a hostage and murder incident at the Marin County Court House in California. She was sought after in connection to the murder weapon being purchased under her name, and was hiding out and arrested by the FBI in 1970 at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge on Eighth Avenue and 52nd Street.
She was brought to the Women’s House of Detention on Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street in Greenwich Village (now the Jefferson Market Garden) where she was held for trial, during which time Black Panther supporters held a vigil outside the prison. Davis later spoke about the abuse and mistreatment she witnessed and suffered while being held there, helping to lead to the prison’s closure and demolition in 1974. And Davis was found not guilty after the trial for the charges against her.
For her time at both Little Red Schoolhouse and the Women’s House of Detention, Davis appears on GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, along with over one hundred other locations connected to African-American, women, LGBT, immigrant, and other civil rights and social justice history. Check them all out.
Since the 1980’s, Davis had resumed teaching and assumed various positions at different colleges and universities around California, as well as two stints at Syracuse University in 1992 and 2010. Davis is known for her tireless efforts to speak out against oppression and abuses (for example, she coined the term Prison-Industrial Complex), her advocacy for civil rights, and her commitments to various left leaning causes.