African-American Transportation History: Edward Davis, Automobile Sales Pioneer and Detroit Transportation Manager

Edward Davis was among the first African-Americans to own and operate a car dealership. He was born in 1911 in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the age of 15, he went to live with an aunt in Detroit in order to have access to better educational opportunities. Davis attended Cass Technical High School in the Motor City and studied to become an accountant.

Davis had long harbored a strong interest in automobiles, however, and this – not his accounting classes — shaped the career that he actually did pursue. in 1936 he was hired to work as a salesman in a Detroit dealership. Davis had to deal with discriminatory treatment from his white co-workers, though. He was not even permitted on the showroom’s main floor. A determined Davis ultimately managed to turn these impediments into advantages. After revamping part of a second-floor storeroom into his own private office, Davis went out into Detroit’s African-American neighborhoods to sell automobiles directly to those residents.

Davis (right) in front of one of his dealerships.

Davis eventually outdid his co-workers when it came to sales. In 1939, he opened his own dealership. Davis first sold Studebakers, remaining a dealer for that company until the mid-1950s. Davis subsequently opened a Chrysler showroom, which made him the first African-American to be awarded a “Big Three” automobile franchise.

After more than three decades of selling automobiles in Detroit, Davis closed the doors to his car dealership business in February 1971. About seven months later, he was appointed by Detroit Mayor Roman S. Gribbs to serve as general manager of the city’s Department of Street Railways (the present-day Detroit Department of Transportation).  Davis was the first African-American to serve in that role, and he remained in the position until 1974. In 1996, Davis became the first African-American to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. He died in Detroit in 1999 at the age of 88.

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