Jackson Davison group

The Andrew Jackson Davison team at Athens Middle School. Front, left to right (holding a framed photo of Davison): Piper Mitchell, Fabiola Keesey, Emma Ulbrich and Sullivan Burkett. Back, left to right: Michael Khangamwa, Henry Wagner, William Walker, Alice Hurst and Angela Hall. Missing: Adviser Susan Matters, Demetra Zaros, Ella Pauwels and Shelby Davenport. Photo by Fred Tom, Lamborn’s Studio.

In mid-October, during our advisory period at Athens Middle School, we were summoned to Mrs. Hall’s room during the announcements. We figured that we were all in trouble. Instead, she invited the 10 of us to engage in a meaningful and inspiring project that would educate us and our community. We would be honoring the only practicing African-American attorney in the history of Athens County: Andrew Jackson Davison.

Mrs. Hall had heard William Walker, a retired Athens attorney, speak of Andrew Jackson Davison at an Athens County Ohio State Alumni Club meeting. Mr. Walker mentioned that Davison’s wife, Eliza Brown Davison, had been honored by schoolchildren in 1934 who raised pennies to erect a headstone for her grave. She was a domestic servant to Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his wife Elizabeth, known as “Libby,” for which Eliza Brown Davison would become nationally known. Mrs. Hall was motivated to have Eliza’s husband, Andrew Jackson Davison, honored by schoolchildren as his wife had been. Inspired by this information, we formed the Athens Middle School 8th Grade Andrew Jackson Davison Club (AJD Club).

A composite portrait of the 1876 Athens County Bar and Public Officials hangs in the jury room of Courtroom A of the Athens Courthouse. Davison was not included among his peers in the composite. As the AJD Club, our initial objective was to write letters to the Athens County Commissioners, judges and the Athens County Bar Association. This would begin the process that would ultimately conclude in placing Davison’s portrait in close proximity to the composite on the wall. In order to do this, we first had to learn Davison’s story and more about our town’s African-American history.

We first met Mr. Walker on Oct. 22 after school to hear him speak about Mr. Davison’s life. We quickly realized that Davison was an extraordinary and inspiring individual. A couple of days later, we walked from Athens Middle School to visit Davison’s home on West Washington Street. We learned about the African-American community on the West Side of Athens and also visited the graves of Andrew and Eliza in the West State Street Cemetery.

Standing outside of Davison’s house, Mr. Walker explained the significance of Davison being able to buy his own house, and how he, being born into slavery, achieved so much through his strong perseverance. For example, Davison became the first and only practicing African-American attorney in the history of Athens, which was an amazing achievement. This was the day on which we truly learned how important it was that our community honor and learn about Andrew Jackson Davison and embrace the African-American history of our hometown, Athens. 

A few days later, Mr. Walker arranged for us to tour the courthouse, meet with Common Pleas Judge Lang, and see the composite portrait. After seeing all this, we were ready to write our letters. In the letters, we wrote about Davison’s life and the importance of hanging his portrait in the courthouse.

After reading the letters, the Athens County Bar Association granted permission to install Davison’s portrait in the courtroom. Knowing that Davison’s portrait would become a permanent part of the Courthouse pictorial collection, we went to Lamborn’s Studio on Stimson Avenue in Athens. Fred and Christine Tom, the owners of Lamborn’s Studio, met with us to digitally enhance and restore the only known picture of Davison. After we were satisfied with the picture, we choose a frame and matting that would complement the 1876 composite portrait. 

ON DEC. 19, ADA WOODSON Adams, an 80-year-old local African-American historian, met with us at Athens Middle School to share her perspective on Davison as well as our community’s Black history. We are so grateful for Ada Adams as she has deepened our understanding of Black history in Athens. She also has brought us closer as a community and inspired us to be kinder to one another, as we are all equal and should celebrate our differences. Another thing we took away from Ada’s speech was that Black should be capitalized when you are referring to people, because it is like using African American as a proper noun.

Another moving experience to us is when we were invited to meet with the Athens City School District Racial Equity Coalition. We were asked why we wanted to do this.

First, Mrs. Hall answered by explaining that she had picked the 10 of us 8th-grade students based upon our keen interest in social justice that she had noticed from our class work.

We then each explained why this is important to us and how this has impacted our lives and our understanding of Black history. We were a little reluctant to speak at first because we were intimidated by all of the empowering adults in the room. However, as soon as one of us started to explain our feelings, it started a domino effect, and we kept adding on to each other.

As we have learned about Davison, we have better understood Black history and the significance of celebrating it, and in this journey, we have grown as an individual. It has empowered us as teenagers to realize that we can do something impactful and significant to our community.

OUR FINAL MEETING regarding the portrait took place with Athens County Common Pleas Judge McCarthy. He met with us at the Courthouse in January after school. It was decided that Davison’s picture would be located in Courtroom A next to the 1876 composite photo. He also shared some of the history of courthouses of Athens and worked with us to determine the best placement for the portraits.

The composite will be moved from the jury room to the courtroom as a result of our conversation with Judge McCarthy. The best part of this trip was Judge McCarthy’s willingness to let us tour his office. We are thankful for Judge McCarthy’s time and support throughout our journey.

In pursuit of this goal, we also have focused on a collaborative effort with the Mount Zion Preservation Group, the Athens City School District Racial Equity Coalition and Ohio University’s Diversity and Inclusion Department to host a Black History Month event. The event will include a speaker, live performances, and much more. The highlight of the evening will be the unveiling of the portrait of Andrew Jackson Davison. This spectacular event will be 6 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 18, at the Athens Middle School. For anyone who wants to come, this event is open to the public and free. Please join us in celebrating our community’s Black history together.

It is so important to honor and learn about the remarkable African Americans in the history of Athens. This is why we chose to honor Davison during Black History Month. One reason Black History Month is celebrated is because many African-American people do not know their ancestors due to slavery and the related lack of record keeping. For example, Davison’s parents and any siblings are unknown. Black History Month gives African Americans a chance to collectively celebrate their shared history.

As we have studied and learned about Davison, we have come to appreciate the Black history of our community and want to honor it. We would like to continue an ongoing celebration of our community’s African American history by honoring an unknown but accomplished person from Athens every year.

Davison faced slavery, poverty, prejudice, discrimination and many other struggles throughout his life. Despite these challesnges, he always persevered and stayed strong. From his humble beginnings, he achieved so much. The opportunity to honor Davison has meant so much to us and helped us all in many ways. We have learned so much about Andrew Jackson Davison, our community’s history, and each other throughout this project.

Also, Davison has become an important role model for us. He has shown us that we should not give up, even when things get hard. He has shown us that you can come from nothing and achieve amazing things. Overall, this project has inspired us to learn more about and appreciate the African-American history of Athens and to be better community members.

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