By Sierra Whitten
We so often hear the popular stories of the noble Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the courageous Rosa Parks, but somewhere in their glory we lose stories of local, everyday heroes who worked just as hard to fight against inequality during movements of transformation. That includes pioneers like Della Davidson, an educator who worked tirelessly to make lives better right here in Lafayette County.
Her storied legacy was the inspiration behind the naming of local elementary school, Della Davidson Elementary. Located on Commonwealth Boulevard just a few miles down from Oxford Commons, the school serves third and fourth graders in Oxford.
Even with her name posted high above the door of one of Oxford’s most prominent educational institutions, many locals still don’t know exactly who Davidson was and the importance she held in the community.
“Mrs. Della was a force to be reckoned with,” said longtime Oxonian, Cynthia Parham, who played a fundamental role in the naming of Della Davidson Elementary. “She was a wonderful leader who led by example. She taught us how to agree to disagree. I think her understanding that everybody is not going to agree with what you believe in was a part of the reason that her efforts were so successful.”
Davidson was an educator in the LOU community for over 30 years. Originally from Winston County, Mississippi, she attended Rust College, a historically black liberal arts college in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She relocated to Oxford in 1937 where she married Reverend William Hamp Davidson and had one son, Edward Shannon. She remained in Oxford until her death in 1996, according to her obituary.
She played an integral role in the integration of Oxford and Lafayette schools. Her fierce integration efforts caused her to receive distinguished service awards from the Mississippi Education Association and the National Education Association. She embarked on her career as a sixth-grade teacher at Johnson-Peterson Elementary, an all-black school named after Dovie E. Johnson and Lena Mae Patterson, who were both educators in the Oxford community for over 40 years.
On top of educating students, it is also said that Davidson worked as a mentor to other teachers during her career. On a commemorative plaque in Della Davidson Elementary, one educator said, “Della Davidson had chalk in her veins and compassion in her soul. She was not just an educator. She was so much more – a brilliant teacher, a thoughtful mentor and a dedicated administrator.”
After the integration of Oxford schools in 1969, Davidson was appointed as assistant principal of Oxford Elementary School. About 12 years after integration, she became the first black principal of Bramlett Elementary in 1982.
“Leaders like Mrs. Davidson wore a halo on their heads because they were able to walk into a situation burdened by opposition and face it without animosity,” Parham said. “After the schools’ integration, things weren’t easy or nice. We [black students] were mad because we didn’t want to be thrown into that setting. Being able to bring over our teachers like Mrs. Davidson was our saving grace.”
On top of her duties as an educator, Davidson was involved in numerous community organizations.
“She was just into so much of everything – an amazing force. If it had anything to do with bettering the black community, she was there,” said a former student of Davidson, Eunice Burke. After receiving inspiration from Davidson and other black community leaders, Burke went on to be an educator herself at Oxford Elementary for 37 years.
Davidson was a member of the League of Women Voters and the Senior Sewing and Savings Club. She was highly involved in being a member of the Burns United Methodist Church—now home to the Burns-Belfry Museum—where she directed the Oxford Community Chorus. She also served as president of the Oxford Development Association, an organization committed to the black community through expanding education and opening businesses. Under Davidson’s leadership, the ODA was able to offer voter registration, youth mentoring and a scholarship fund for young African Americans who planned to go into the medical field.
Parham said she is currently following in Davidson’s footsteps as president of the ODA. She hopes to continue to use her platform at the Burns-Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center to tell more of these stories that so often go unnoticed.
“There are more things that happened here besides James Meredith. There are so many amazing things that people from little ole Oxford, Mississippi have accomplished that we have lost sight of,” she said.
“All the credit goes to them and it is up to us to continue it.”