Larry Davis says he’ll ‘always be rooting against racial injustice’
Larry Davis, who announced last month that he would retire as dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work at the end of the school year, tells a story about running around with his childhood friends at night back in Saginaw, Mich. when they saw a police car. Being kids, they thought it would be fun to run and have the officer chase them. He did.
“So, he catches us. ‘What are you kids doing out here?’ And he puts us in the car. He drove us around for two hours, then gets on the radio and says, ‘I’m bringing some kids in to take to the juvenile detention center,’” Davis told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview.
“Now, we hadn’t done anything. He didn’t give us a lecture or a warning or anything. Then the guy on the radio says, ‘You can’t bring them here—we’re full.’ So, he let us go. I often think about what would’ve happened if that had turned out differently—because for a lot of people, it did.”
That point was reinforced years later when Davis, as a budding academic, got to tour a Michigan state prison, and while walking among cliques of inmates from various parts of the state out in the exercise yard, he hears, “Hey, Davis, is that you?” It was one of his old friends from Saginaw.
“I was never the smartest. I didn’t work as hard as some people, but I was the first Black to get tenure at (Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.) and the first in the country with PhDs in Psychology and Social Work,” he said. “But I walked through a minefield. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a fabulous life.”
And after a journey that took him from Saginaw, to being a Vista volunteer in New York City, to traveling every continent except Antarctica, he came to Pitt in 2001, which, he said, was another fabulous piece of luck.
“They recruited me,” he said. “I had no administrative experience, but I had an idea—for this center (the Center for Race and Urban Problems)—and they backed it, and we built it from scratch,” said Davis. “At the time, nobody wanted ‘Race’ in the title of such a center, but the university backed it and they’ve backed it ever since. I’ve never had to ask them for money. Now the university is known for the center.”
In 2010, however, Davis asked a lot of people for money, because he had another idea—a massive four-day conference called Race in America, which drew scholars students, national experts, industry leaders, and featured a keynote address by Julian Bond—to the Pitt campus to discuss ways to promote a more racially equitable society.
“I raised $500,000 for that. People said I was crazy thinking I could get that kind of money,” he said. “But when I went to the Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and everyone else, I told them I wouldn’t be back. It was a one-time deal, and they said OK.”
While founding the center in 2002 and staging the 2010 conference are among his favorite accomplishments, Davis said he is proudest of the stature the School of Social Work has attained during his tenure as dean.
“Publications are up, percent, grants are up, our academic rank is up from 14 to 10 in the nation—now four places may not sound like much, but when you get that high, you’re up against the big boys like (the University of) Michigan—they have 60 faculty. We have 20, and they do a hell of a job, but we’re punching way above our weight.”
Davis is also proud to have been awarded the lifetime achievement award from both professional societies for academicians in social work; one two years ago, and the second this year. He is the first to ever receive both.
“So, it just seemed like the right time to step down, you know, to go out on top,” he said. “The center is fine. The school is in great shape. I’ve gotten these awards, my latest book is doing well, and it’s the school’s 100th anniversary—so everything is kind of aligned. Plus, I’m 71. My one regret is not being able to hire anyone, no post docs, or staff. We’ve got plenty of money, but we’re landlocked. We have no space to put anyone else.”
When he officially steps down, Davis said he has a year’s sabbatical to complete, and he’s leaning toward doing it in Cuba.
“I’ve taken students down there for 10 days at a time for years, but I’d like to live there, speak Spanish, meet the people, eat the food,” he said. “When I come back, I want to give back—I want to work with inmates getting out of prison, work at food banks,” and he and his wife have “talked about going around teaching financial literacy.
“My goal has always been to be useful,” Davis added. “And I’ll always be rooting against racial injustice. I eat it, I sleep it—I can’t go past a job site without counting the composition. But here’s the thing—this center is a multiracial center, it has to be. Race isn’t a Black problem, it’s an American problem.”
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