Charles A. Davis was a journalist, founder of one of Chicago’s first African-American-owned public relations agencies, commercial real estate developer, and noted civic and social leader. Davis was born on September 29, 1922, in Mobile, Alabama, the fourth of five children of Robert and Clara Mae Davis. His family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1924 when his father was assigned an Atlanta Life Insurance Company in the city. Davis’s father died in 1930 and his mother died a year later in 1931, both from tuberculosis. Davis and his siblings were sent to live in Chicago with their material grandfather, Charles Robert Williams, a Pullman porter.
Davis graduated from DuSable High School and after graduation went to work as a bellhop at the largest black-owned hotel in the city, Bronzeville’s Grand Hotel. While working there, he came in contact with many notable African-Americans, including National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leaders Walter White, Roy Wilkins, W.E.B. DuBois, and Dr. Metz Lochard of the Chicago Defender. Davis worked briefly as a Pullman porter on the Milwaukee Road line before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and serving as a technical sergeant in the Philippines.
In 1946 after being discharged from the army, he accepted a job as a reporter for the Chicago Defender. He was first assigned a weekly sports column but later became managing editor, city editor, publicity director, and advertising director. During this time, he resumed his college studies at Chicago’s Central YMCA College and Bluefield State College in West Virginia. He also studied political science at Roosevelt University from 1953 to 1955.
In 1959 Davis left the Defender to establish his own company, Charles A. Davis Associates Inc. He had one of the earliest black-owned public relations firms in the nation. Its services included publicity and advertising, research and marketing, and conventions management for minority clients. Baldwin Ice Cream, the Chicago Urban League, and United Air Lines were among the many businesses and non-profit organizations served by the firm. In 1962 Davis became executive director of the National Insurance Association, a trade association of forty-seven black-owned insurance agencies.
During the 1960s, Davis worked with Chicago-area civil rights groups like the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). In the 1970s, Davis worked with George Brokemond to organize Highland Community Bank which by the 1990s grew into one of the Midwest’s largest minority-owned banks. Davis remained on the bank’s board of directors for thirty years. He also served on the broad of directors for the Southside Chicago NAACP Branch, the Chicago Urban League, the Chicago Renewal Society, and several local foundations. He was a strong supporter of Harold Washington’s successful 1983 mayoral campaign and participated in several of Washington administration initiatives, including the Communications Task Force and the Chicago Economic Development Commission.
Davis received many awards through his lifetime, which included the NAACP Foundation award and Mary Herrick Fund Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004 the city of Chicago designated the block of 24th Street between Michigan and Wabash Avenues, the location of the Chicago Defender Building, as the honorary Charles A. Davis Street.
Davis married Rosalie Dorsey in 1943. The couple had a son, Charles A. Davis Jr., and a daughter, Daphne Davis LeCesne. Charles A. Davis died on June 12, 2016, at his home in Chicago. He was ninety-three.