Frank Marshall Davis was born on 31 Dec 1905 in Kansas, the son of Robert and Jessie (Marshall) Davis. His parents divorced when he was very young. In 1910, he and his mother lived with her grandmother, Mandy Porter, in Arkansas City, KS. Interestingly, the 1915 Kansas census lists him as Robt Davis, residing with his mother and stepfather, J. W. Boganey. In 1920, he lived with his mother and stepfather, James M. Boganey. He graduated from Arkansas City High School in 1923 and then attended Friends University, Wichita, KS, for a year, using a Sigma Delta Chi Perpetual Scholarship, which he continued to use until the Depression ended his education.
On 09 Sep 1924, he entered K-State, studying industrial journalism. He received credit for several of the classes he took at Friends University.
During the Aggie Orpheum in 1926, Phi Beta Sigma took second place with their entry "Hotsy Totsy Town," consisting of a series of jazz musical selections with Charleston dancing as a feature of the act. It was a close battle, requiring three rounds of voting before the judge could determine who received the loudest applause.
"This was a contest, held two consecutive nights in the college auditorium, at which campus organizations presented vaudeville acts competing for cash prizes. ... For our final number Mouse [Theodore Miller], Hey Hey, Frank Greene, and I danced the Charleston together and as encore I soloed. My frat brothers figured that seeing Old Heavy gyrate and perform the fancy steps expected of a hundred-pounder would slay 'em, and they were right. We brought down the house. ...
Livin the Blues, pg. 97
pours liquid beams
on hard white snow
that hit with a splash
while the wind
laughs at pine-trees
sighing for spring
leaning on hills
toward the sky
of dead streams
in hard coffins
of smoky gray
—F. M. D.
In Feb of 1927, he left college, traveling to Chicago, IL. He returned for the fall semester of 1929, but left again following the spring semester of 1930, just one semester shy of graduation.
"When I returned to KSU in 1929, I left my overcoat with a 'friend' in Gary, Ind., who was supposed to ship it to me in November. I had only a light tweed topper. I walked to the campus from my frat house where I lived at 1020 Colorado across a park which was fairly open because in season the kids played baseball there. As the weather grew colder I pleaded with my 'friend' to send my overcoat. No luck. In late February we had a record cold spell, with the temperature reaching around 15 to 20 below. All I could do was grit my teeth and silently cuss my 'friend' as I strode across the park with the wind howling and biting at me like a hungry wolf. After five days, when it warmed up to zero, I wouldn't even button up my topcoat, I had become so hardened. I want nothing again even resembling a Kansas winter."
From a letter to Carol Oukrup, 10 Jan 1985
He was a member of the American Quill Club. Self-described "King of Kedzie Hall," he published a regular column in the college newspaper, The Collegian, entitled "Diplomat in Black."
He lived in the Phi Beta Sigma Chapter House, 1020 Colorado, during most of his time at college. In 1930, he lived at 1101 Colorado.
The 1930 census finds him in Manhattan, KS, and lists publicity bureau Kansas State Agricultural College under occupation. In 1931, he moved to Atlanta, GA, and became the managing editor of the Atlanta Daily World. He increased sales and made the paper more profitable before moving back to Chicago in 1934, where he served as executive editor of the Associated Negro Press. A recognized expert on jazz, he taught at the Abraham Lincoln School from 1943 through 1945. He worked as a jazz radio disc jockey at station WJJD in Chicago during 1945.
He served as Vice chairman of the Chicago Civil Liberties Committee from 1944 through 1947. He then spent a year as a member of the National Board of Civil Rights Congress. In 1948, he took a vacation in Honolulu, HI, and decided to stay permanently.
The author of several books of poetry, he gave credit for his foray into the medium to a K-State English professor, Ada Rice, who offered her class the choice between writing an essay or an original poem. Black Cat Press published his first three books: Black Man's Verse (1935), I Am the American Negro (1937), and Through Sepia Eyes (1938). Considered by many to be his finest collection, 47th Street, was published in 1948. His final volume, Awakening, and Other Poems, was published in 1978.
Frank M. Davis died on 15 Jul 1987 in Honolulu, HI. Survivors include his wife, Helen, a son, Mark, four daughters, Lynn, Beth, Jeanne, and Jill, and five grandchildren.
Livin' the Blues: Memories of a Black Journalist and Poet (1992), Black Moods: Collected Poems (2002), and Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press (2006) were published posthumously, edited by John Edgar Tidwell.
Photos courtesy of Beth Charlton.
Membership cards donated by Beth Charlton.
K-State Directory, 1924-1926, 1929
Royal Purple, 1925-1926
1910 Census: Kansas - Cowley County - Arkansas City Ward 1 - District 45
1915 Kansas Census: Cowley County - Arkansas City
1920 Census: Kansas - Cowley County - Arkansas Ward 1 - District 43
1930 Census: Kansas - Riley County - Manhattan - District 14
Social Security Death Index
K-Stater Mar-Apr 1985: "Frank Marshall Davis—a diplomat in black"
Kansas State Collegian (Manhattan, Kansas) 09 Mar 1926: "Wilson takes Orpheum prize"
Kansas State Collegian (Manhattan, Kansas) 16 Mar 1926: "Kansas Winter"
Davis, Frank Marshall. Livin' the Blues (1992)