‘He gave so much to all of us’: Remembering Larry Davis, dean emeritus of the School of Social Work

By Colm Slevin, Staff Writer

LauraEllen Ashcraft travelled to Cuba with Larry Davis in 2013, who upset the airport’s Cuban Border Patrol with a book about race in Cuba. Being the only person on the trip who spoke Spanish, Ashcraft had to explain Davis’ true intentions to the patrol officers — a memory Davis often recounted when seeing Ashcraft.

“I happened to be the only person on the trip who spoke Spanish,” Ashcraft, a graduate student in Pitt’s School of Social Work, said in an email. “I stepped in and explained that we were academics from the U.S. coming to learn about how life is in Cuba, and we were not going to give the books to anyone — rather, we were here to listen. It was quite an excited start to the trip. Dean Davis remembered it often whenever we had the chance to meet.”

Davis, the dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, passed away on March 30 at 74. A renowned scholar on race in America, Davis joined Pitt as the school’s dean in 2001 and founded the Center on Race and Social Problems shortly after in 2002. Davis was also a member of The Heinz Endowments’ Advisory Board on African American Men and Boys, founder and editor of the Bridges magazine — the school’s magazine — and author of more than seven books, including his latest, “Why Are They Angry With Us?: Essays on Race.”

Davis also received the Significant Lifetime Achievement in Social Work Education Award in 2016 from the Council on Social Work Education — which recognizes the achievements of a social work educator over their entire career — and in 2018, the Society for Social Work and Research’s Distinguished Career Achievement Award — which recognizes a remarkable career in social work research. Davis was the first person to ever receive both awards.

Shaun Eack, the school’s associate dean for research, said Davis was “prophetic” in creating CRSP, as it was one of the first places in the nation to put an emphasis on race and address issues such as racial injustice and education in social work.

“His vision allowed him to be prophetic in many ways about the challenges this country has faced in the past and will continue to face with regard to race and racial injustice, about the needs for social workers to be part of addressing that issue and in so many systems and advocacy and health care and education,” Eack said. “He started the first center that led with race, that really put that first. And especially in a school of social work, nothing like that had existed before.”

According to its website, CRSP helps America to continue on the path towards social justice by “conducting race-related research, mentoring emerging scholars and disseminating race-related research findings and scholarship.”

Betsy Farmer, the school’s current dean, said following Davis’ passing, the school could see how “broad and deep” his impact and influence was on the people he worked alongside with. 

“Dean Davis was instrumental in focusing the field’s attention on issues of race,” Farmer said in an email. “We’re really seeing, in this past week, how broad and deep his impact has been on his colleagues, how many people viewed him as a mentor, and how influential he was in resolutely focusing people’s attention on the broad and deep implications of race in our society.”

Provost Ann Cudd said in a statement that Davis “profoundly changed” the University through his leadership and conversations on race. She said Davis was a visionary who could identify changes that needed to be made to improve racial relations around campus, and therefore help Pitt to be more equitable. 

“He transformed national and international conversations about race — and with it facilitated groundbreaking research efforts,” Cudd said. “He was always ahead of a very steep curve — one that we grapple with — but also have great hope for as we look toward the equitable future he worked toward.”

Eack said Davis acted as a role model to many students, and encouraged them to better themselves by supporting and uplifting them.

“Dean Davis was always so cultured and refined. He led the way in terms of, just knowing the world for all of us, and, and I was very much the opposite of that. I think we both had humble beginnings, but something about him, made him first class all the way,” Eack said. “For those of us who came from pretty humble beginnings, he helped us fit in, he helped show us the world, he helped us tie our tie tight and proper. In a lot of ways he made us presentable so that the world would take us seriously.”

To Eack, Davis was more than a colleague. Davis acted as a father figure to him and was very personal with his colleagues and treated them like family. 

“He was like a father to me,” Eack said. “He treated people like family and have them over and I’d go over to his house as a first year assistant professor. He always described me as a son. And I think he made a lot of people feel like that, who he worked with. It was really a personal business and he took us in and treated us like family.”

Eack said the opportunity to start the CRSP is what really brought Davis to Pitt — to create one of the first centers focused on race in the nation. He feels now it is the role of the school to continue the mission of CRSP and carry on Davis’ legacy. A legacy which, according to Eack, found a home in an “unlikely” place, but a place where it has grown and will continue to grow.

“That’s the challenge he left us with, and the great responsibility he left us with,” Eack said. “We have to carry this, and we will. And it’ll be our honor. He gave so much to all of us. But it is an important legacy that we need to nurture, to grow and to continue it.”