MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By: Robert Tate, Automotive Historian/ Researcher
Images: Courtesy of Robert Tate's Collection
Posted: 02.04.2015

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to sit down and meet an extraordinary individual who contributed to the automotive industry in so many positive ways. Edward Davis was the reason many families in the community could purchase new automobiles. He also supported many African American families with their transportation needs at a time when it wasn’t easy for them to purchase a vehicle at fair prices. Edward Davis was not only a business man, but he was also a pioneer that created a plethora of job opportunities for many African-Americans.

file 20150204091154 DavisMr. Edward Davis

I will never forget the pleasant welcome and smile I received when I interviewed him for a story about his life and legacy. When you look back throughout the history of African Americans, there were a handful of entrepreneurs who got into the business of selling automobiles. In addition to Edward Davis, another name you could add to the list was Homer B. Roberts (1885-1952) who, in 1923, made history with “Roberts Company Motor Mart”. Homer Roberts’ company saw many successful and profitable selling years partnering with several automotive manufacturers. This included sales agreements with the Hupmobile Car Company, Rickenbacker, Whippet, and the Marmon automobile manufacturers. He also had a distributorship arrangement with a local Oldsmobile dealer. However, it was Mr. Ed Davis, who became the first African American to acquire his own dealership in the city of Detroit.

Davis was born in Shreveport, Louisiana on February 27, 1911 and was the oldest of ten children. It was his father’s Model-T Ford that helped him to create and shape his interest for the love of automobiles. Davis’ journey started when he worked at a car garage, then a small car washing business and a machine shop after that. He attended Cass Technical High School and wanted to become an accountant, however, this assignment for him would change quickly because of the struggling job market. Davis was later offered a job with the Dodge Brothers foundry manufacturing area. However, when a great opportunity became available for Davis in 1939, he was able to open his first used car dealership at Vernor and Brush street in Detroit, Michigan.

file 20150204091213 Ed Davis Motor SalesEd Davis Motor Sales on Vernor Highway

The dealership was called “Davis Motor Sales”, and it became one of the first black franchised car dealers in Detroit. He sold new Studebaker automobiles along with truck models to the City of Detroit and to local businesses. Many people in the community loved his professional business practices as well as his successes. Several community leaders supported Davis which included Rev. R. L Bradby and the Rev William H. Peck. Later, Albert E. Cobo, who was Mayor of Detroit, appointed Davis to the community Relations Commission on which he served from 1953-1961. In 1957 after Davis had terminated his agreement with Studebaker in 1956, Ed Davis became a Sub-dealer for local Ford Dealer (Floyd Rice) for two years.

During the 1960’s, Davis had a received word that a freeway (Fisher) was about to be constructed and built at his location which indicated that he would have to relocate his dealership business in Detroit. In 1963, Mr. Davis achieved another successful milestone in his career with the announcement of being awarded a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Detroit. Mr. Davis received a great deal of positive press when he opened the doors of his new Chrysler- Plymouth dealership and many people from all over Metro-Detroit came in to purchase new vehicles. The new dealership was located on Dexter Avenue and Elmhurst on Detroit’s west side. Davis told me in my interview with him, “It was one of the proudest moments of my career”. For many years, the Chrysler-Plymouth dealership created high sales volume within the Detroit community. Davis generated a loyal clientele through many years of developing honest practices that were valued by many within the community.

file 20150204091315 Quality Award 1969Ed Davis Accepts the Benjamin Franklin Quality Award in 1969

Although his first contract was in July of 1963, Davis did not officially receive his franchise until November 11, 1963. It was not an easy task to finalize this agreement, however, he eventually received his certified dealer number (62399). He would go on to hire the best people he could find to help move his company forward. Two of those employees were Isabelle Monjoy, Davis’ secretary, and Esker Harris. Five years later, Chrysler and other automobile companies were beginning to invest a great deal into black-owned dealerships. Davis once said, “We were selling cars and profits were coming in”. In 1963, Chrysler-Plymouth awarded Ed Davis a dealership that he operated in Detroit until his retirement in 1971.

In October 1971, Davis became responsible for the Detroit system (DSR) that operated 1,100 buses and employed 2,380 employees and generated more than $200,000 each day in sales. This became an exciting and challenging career for him that he really enjoyed. Ed Davis received many awards over the years. In 1955, Davis received a Studebaker plaque for winning sales competing with 120 other competitors. In 1966, Davis was named Michigan’s Small Businessman of the Year. In 1969, he also received the “Benjamin Franklin Quality Dealer Award”. Ed Davis was the first African American to received “Time Magazine Quality Dealer Award”. In 1996, Mr. Ed Davis was the first African American to be selected as a member of the industry’s “Automotive Hall of Fame”.

file 20150204091344 Davis AdvertismentEd Davis City Advertisment from His Dealership

Unfortunately, the world lost him to congestive heart failure on May 1999. His passing left an exceptionally huge mark on the auto industry that will always be remembered by many generations to come. Mr. Davis once told me that he has to give his wife credit, the late Mrs. Mary Agnes Davis, for her great love, understanding and moral support. As we begin Black History Month, we use this story to honor Mr. Edward Davis, Automotive Pioneer.

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of Bob Tate’s Collection. (Bibliography: Davis Edward. “One Man’s Way” Edward Davis and associates 1979. Perez. Tanisha. “Edward Davis first African American to own Chrysler dealership” UAW-Chrysler National Training Center. Ebony magazine 1955. “Davis Motors Detroiter is Only Negro With New Car Franchise”.)

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