‘He was one of the great people of the world’


Larry E. Davis — founding director of Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems in the School of Social Work, the school’s former dean and inaugural Donald M. Henderson professor — died March 30, 2021.

“Larry was extraordinarily accomplished both as an academic leader and as an individual scholar,” said Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg. “He had a distinctive ability to engage people in constructive discussions on what were politically divisive issues, which was a real gift.”

Nordenberg remembered fondly the work he did with Davis through the years — from a conference on policing and an anniversary program for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court to inviting Davis to give his last major speech, “Will Race Always Matter?” last September, as part of the American Experience Distinguished Lecture Series at the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Public Policy.

“Larry’s legacy at Pitt certainly will include the hard work that he did in leading the School of Social Work to an even higher position within the ranks of American schools,” Nordenberg said. “It will include the continuing programming in the Center on Race and Social Problems.”

Provost Emeritus Jim Maher recalled being impressed by Davis at their first meeting, when Davis was recruited to Pitt, and continued to be impressed in subsequent years with the new directions in which Davis took the school.

“He really set the school up to educate the professors who would go out to other social work schools,” Maher said. “The innovations he made here became innovations on a broad area of the country.

“Larry used to like to say that every serious social problem in the United States, if you scratch the surface, race is involved,” Maher added. “America doesn’t know how to address its social problems that involve race. He was a very kind, thoughtful person, and had a way about him that was marvelously suited to his project of talking about race — he made it possible to have a discussion of America’s racial problems without it turning angry. “

Pitt Board of Trustees member William Lieberman also recalled the recruiting dinner for Davis at the chancellor’s home, when he sat next to Davis for several hours and became lifelong friends. Lieberman evoked the Hebrew refrain of a Passover song about miracles — Dayenu, meaning “That would have been enough” — in recalling Larry Davis: “He was a scholar. Dayenu. He was a great administrator. Dayenu. He was a national and international figure. Dayenu. He put the School of Social Work on the map. Dayenu. But most of all he was a mensch.

“He was one of the great people of the world, whose legacy is that he brought the discussion of race into the mainstream at Pitt,” Lieberman continued. “His Center on Race and Social Problems was a defining moment for the discussion of race at Pitt and in Pittsburgh, and it is that platform that Pitt and Pittsburgh use today to continue the discussion.”

Davis’ successor as center director, James Huguley, joined Pitt first as a post-doctoral fellow specifically to work with Davis.

“Larry was a wonderful colleague,” Huguley recalled. “He was honest and authentic. He would be real and up front with you; he would give you honest feedback but a lot of support.

“He is a pioneering figure not just in social work but in race conversations nationally,” Huguley added. The center continues to draw community members and activists today to its public lectures because of Davis’ legacy of translating research into practice, he said.

“A lot of people have come to realizations about race in the past 12 months,” Huguley said. “Larry has been having these conversations for 20 years, and he has prepared a generation of academics and professionals to go out and do this work.”

Larry Davis was born on May 11, 1946 in Michigan and earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Michigan State and his master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. Joining VISTA, he spent three years working in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, returning to Ann Arbor to earn his second master’s degree, in psychology. He was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Michigan’s dual-degree program in social work and psychology.

He began his career at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and was the first African-American to be awarded tenure at Washington, where he was named the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity.

After joining Pitt in 2001, he led the school to a top 10 ranking. The Center on Race and Social Problems became the first center of its type in any social work school in the U.S.

The center issued two comprehensive reports, in 2007 and 2015, titled “Pittsburgh’s Racial Demographics: Differences and Disparities,” which have been employed by city and county leaders in their strategic thinking about affordable housing and other issues. The center also hosted a four-day conference in 2010, Race in America, which drew scholars, students, national experts, industry leaders and keynote speaker Julian Bond to discuss the promotion of a more racially equitable society.

At the school, Davis created a new study-abroad course, Cuban Social Policy Issues, for social work graduate students, sending eight to 10 students to Havana each spring to study social conditions and meet with community leaders. He also revamped both the school’s doctoral and master of social work degree programs to send students into the region’s neighborhoods earlier for practicum requirements. In addition, he instituted the school’s Browne Leadership Program, which brings Pitt undergraduates from outside social work to participate in symposia and a service project aimed at bringing the lessons of social work disciplines to many other fields.

Davis’ research on race, civil rights and social justice received funding from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and National Institute of Mental Health. 

Among his extensive list of publication are five books that he wrote, co-wrote or edited, all aimed at fellow academics: “Race, Gender and Class: Guidelines for Practice with Individuals, Families and Groups”; “Ethnic Issues in Adolescent Mental Health”; “Working with African-American Males”; “Measuring Race and Ethnicity”; and “Race and Social Problems: Restructuring Inequality.” He also authored books for a more general audience: “Black and Single: Finding and Choosing a Partner Who is Right for You” and “Why Are They Angry With Us?”

Davis was the co-editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Social Work, 20th edition and was the founder and chair of the editorial board of the journal Race and Social Problems.

He was a member of the National Association of Social Workers, the Council on Social Work Education, the Society for Social Work and Research and the Inter-University Consortium for International Social Development. He founded two national organizations: Black Administrators, Researchers and Scholars, Inc., and REAP, a consortium of race, ethnicity and poverty centers. 

Davis was inducted into the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and received the distinguished alumni award from the University of Michigan School of Social Work. He was the first person to receive both the Significant Lifetime Achievement in Social Work Education Award from the Council on Social Work Education, and the Distinguished Career Achievement Award from the Society for Social Work and Research, both major awards for education and research in his field.

“Larry was one of the pioneers in legitimizing race as a central field of study across disciplines,” Huguley said. Davis’ work paved the way for the University-wide, first-year course on anti-Black racism as well, Huguley said, and for Pitt’s current effort to recruit more Black and Latinx faculty.

“His style and presence,” Huguley said, “will be missed as much as we miss his work and character. “

Davis is survived by his wife, Kim Armstrong Davis, and by three adult sons — Keanu, Naeem and Amani Davis — as well as an extended family of nephews, nieces and cousins.

A memorial service was held April 8 and can be viewed here.

Memorial gifts are suggested to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, 1 North Linden Street, Duquesne, PA 15110.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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