By Allison Hageman | [email protected]
Last summer at the Alexandria vigils for George Floyd, Audrey P. Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, collected history as it happened.
Davis said she field-collected at vigils across Alexandria, including one that occurred in front of the Alexandria Black History Museum and the Charles Houston Recreation Center. She wanted to tell Alexandria’s social justice story and capture the historic events occurring following the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans who had been killed by police officers.
The George Floyd initiative collected “incredibly powerful” submissions from the community, including pictures, artwork, buttons and other personal reflections on events, Davis said.
Davis herself is another powerful influence on Alexandria’s history and how residents understand it. Her name has become synonymous with the Alexandria Black History Museum and is known in historical circles throughout Virginia.
“That’s one of the things I love about the museum because we are really making history every day in Alexandria, and we have real history here. We have some incredible stories,” Davis said.
Originally from Washington D.C., Davis’ parents were teachers. Her mother taught for many years in Arlington Public Schools and her father taught history in D.C. before becoming an administrator.
As a child, her parents often brought her to museums.
“I loved museums,” Davis said. “I used to set up museums in my room and charge my parents admission to come to my museum.”
Her mother, realizing her daughter’s love for museums when Davis was about 12, found an internship at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Davis applied and was accepted into the internship for two years, which changed her life, according to Davis.
While interning at the museum, the staff mentored her and trained her in giving tours of the collections for dignitaries, celebrities and the general public.
“We had full run. We could go into anybody’s office, we could watch what the scientists were doing on the lower level – there were no restrictions for us,” Davis said.
That love for museums has not waned in the years since.
“She obviously does what she loves. She loves history, she loves being able to share that history with others,” Alexandria Black History Museum volunteer Kathy Riddick said.
Museums, history and art are a family legacy for Davis.
Her grandfather, Arthur P. Davis, was an African American historian who taught at Howard University and contributed to“The Negro Caravan,” a book, Davis said, that is one of the early anthologies of historic African American literature. Her great-great-grandfather was William Roscoe Davis, an African American leader in Elizabeth City County, Virginia during the Civil War. Elizabeth City County is now a part of the city of Hampton.
William Roscoe Davis’s words are inscribed in the main reading room at the Library of Virginia in Richmond: “We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that, and we are made for time and eternity.”
Davis’ relatives have also won a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy and work in art and history in academia.
City Historian Dan Lee, who works alongside Davis in the Office of Historic Alexandria, said that although Davis has long roots in the DMV area, her emphasis is much broader.
“It’s not about her family. It’s not about her own personal history. It’s a desire to bring the voice and perspective of African Americans in general to the way that we decide about what to commemorate,” Lee said.
From college to museum director
Davis earned her undergraduate degree and master’s from the University of Virginia in art history. While at UVA, she had a few internships and worked at the National Gallery doing historical editing.
After graduate school, Davis worked at The Experimental Gallery, a temporary museum that was housed in the Smithsonian Institution’s Art and Industries Building.
One exhibit that stood out to Davis was the “Etiquette of the Undercaste.” As a museum staff member, she would put museum goers in a morgue drawer, their funeral would play, they would get out of the morgue drawer and then they would go through a maze where they went from being a person who was middle class to a person who was homeless.
“We had lines around the block daily to get into the show, and it was again a really interesting experience to be a part of it and increased my love for museums,” Davis said.
After that experience, she briefly worked as a tour guide at Mount Vernon. While there, she met Gladys Quander Tancil, Mount Vernon’s first African American woman tour guide, and a board member of the Alexandria Black History Museum.
Tancil told her there was a position opening up at the museum. Davis applied for the job, which was for a part- time curator, and was hired in 1993. Davis has worked at the museum since then, eventually becoming acting director in 2012 when previous director Louis Hicks retired. Davis was appointed as the museum’s director in 2015.
At the museum
Sharon Frazier, who has volunteered at the Alexandria Black History Museum for more than 16 years and whose historical miniatures have been featured there, said she met Davis at the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church bazaar. The church is a few blocks away from the museum and Davis stopped to shop and chat with her.
Frazier, a native Alexandrian, remembers the museum’s building as a library when she was growing up. Frazier said Davis ensures that visitors have a positive experience and leave knowing at least a bit more about Alexandria’s history than before they came.
“It’s a small place, but she’s made it so that people from anywhere can come in and take something away about Alexandria or Black history or … whatever exhibit she has going on,” Frazier said.
The museum has been closed for in-person visits during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Davis said virtual programs have been offered.
Lee said the museum has had to change its programming and exhibits rapidly to respond to current events.
“She has been able to adapt and to find a way to represent both her museum and the city … with grace and diplomacy,” Lee said.
Riddick said she has learned many things while volunteering and watching the museum’s virtual events. She said she learned about the lynchings that occurred in Alexandria from the museum and added that it impacted her “understanding of where we are” and how this is “homegrown.”
Riddick said Davis also spurs growth by being an excellent presenter.
“When she presents data, you want to listen because not only is her presentation so sincere and impactful, but you also get information that … in my case, [helped] me grow and [helped] others grow,” Riddick said.
Not just Alexandria
Davis is a busy person. Her day-to-day is a “mixture of everything,” she said, from organizing the city’s Black History Month programming to giving speeches and planning renovations at the museum.
“It’s never dull, and it’s always something new … which is why I love it because you’re also thinking about future exhibits,” Davis said.
Her impact goes beyond Alexandria to the state of Virginia, according to Lee. When he applied for a grant at the Virginia Humanities Council, they asked how much support he was getting from Davis, which he said is a “reflection of how much weight she carries throughout the state.”
“Her work is not just confined to one museum or even one city,” Lee said.
“Alexandria needs that museum and Audrey goes all around, speaks to different people, groups. It’s like she doesn’t turn people down,” Frazier said.
Davis said she wants to encourage people to learn about and honor Black history and attend the Alexandria Black History Museum beyond Black History Month.
The museum, like Davis, is there all year, working for Alexandria and Black history.
“I really am dedicated to making sure we’re trying to tell everyone’s story here in Alexandria,” Davis said. “There’re so many terrific people and so many interesting events that have occurred, and I just look forward to continuing to interpret that history.”