Black History: Special Delivery!!

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Edward Davis (1911 – 1999) was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. He came to Detroit at the age of 16 and moved in with his aunt and uncle; seeking a better life. He was the oldest of 10 children. As a child, he became fascinated with his father’s Model T Ford. This sparked his interest in cars. He would make history by becoming Detroit’s first African American to open a “Big Three” auto franchise as well as the first African American to open a used car dealership. He would also make history in the public sector when he was appointed by Detroit Mayor, Roman Gribbs to be the general manager of the City of Detroit’s Department of Street Railways (DSR) .

Upon arriving in Detroit, Davis entered, Cass Technical High School. After graduating from Cass Technical High School in Detroit, his goal was to become an accountant. He decided, instead to go to work in the auto field. Due to discrimination and segregation, he felt that he would have little opportunity in accounting. Davis began his career in the auto industry at the age of 16 while still in high school. His first auto related job was working at a garage. His starting pay for working at the garage was 12 cents for bus fare.  He soon worked his way up and was making $12 per week. The financial challenges of the Great Depression would result in him losing this job. Davis then started a car wash business. He rented space at a gas station for the car wash. Davis got his big break into the auto field when one of his car wash customers, a Mr. Lampkin offered him a job at Dodge Brothers Foundry in Hamtramck, an enclave of Detroit. He was hired at Dodge Brother’s first to work in the foundry; then the machine shop. In 1936, he was offered a part time car sales position at a new Dodge dealership that was being opened by his bosses son. He was not allowed to work in the main showroom.   Instead he had to work out of a storeroom that was made into an “office” on the second floor of the dealership. He configured the storeroom into a “private office” and furnished it with a desk and other furniture.

Once members of the black community heard about, “the black man who sold Chryslers” Davis became successful in generating sales and was promoted to a full time sales position. His sales were better then the other white salesmen at the dealership. Despite his success, his “office” continued to remain on the 2nd floor, away from the main showroom. He preferred it that way. His success as a salesmen angered his white co-workers and created a lot of tension. On one occasion he even had a physical altercation with one of the white salesmen at the dealership. Davis opened his own used car dealership in 1939 near Vernor and Brush Street (now Fisher Freeway) selling used Studebakers. His dealership, Davis Auto Sales was located in the predominately black area of Detroit known as Paradise Valley. He was the first African American in the U.S. to own a used car dealership. Studebaker hoped that Davis would increase their sales to African American buyers. Davis operated the Studebaker dealership until 1956 when Studebaker filed bankruptcy.  Davis eventually secured a new car franchise of his own with Chrysler-Plymouth (Davis Auto Sales) in 1963. This made Davis the first African American to be given a “Big Three” automobile franchise and also made him the third African American in the U.S. to open a new car dealerships. The Chrysler-Plymouth dealership was located on Dexter and Elmhurst. His franchise was highly successful; averaging sales of 1,000 cars per year and double that amount in used cars.

After the 1967 riots in Detroit, Davis’ franchise would be impacted by the surrounding neighborhood blight. Davis decided to retire in 1971. He the accepted the position of general manager of Streets and Railways (DSR), now known as the Detroit Transit Authority (DTA) He was appointed to the position by Mayor Roman S. Gribbs. The agency was struggling with how to improve its services and finances at the time of Davis’ hire. Davis developed creative promotions such as, “Ride The Bus Month” where bus rides were offered at a reduced rate during certain hours of the day. He also developed a new slogan for DSR, “Come ride with us. “ He oversaw air conditioning being added to city buses as well as the first recruitment and hiring of female bus drivers. Despite his efforts, DSR continued to struggle financially. Davis submitted his resignation when the Gribbs administration ended and Coleman A. Young was elected Mayor.

Davis was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1966. He documented his experiences and struggles with racism and discrimination by writing a book, “One Man’s Way”

He passed away on May 3, 1999 at the age of 88.

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