Griff Davis: A life in photography and diplomacy

Woman sitting at table with people sitting behind her (© Griff Davis)
Griff Davis photographed future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall (rear, left) representing Ada Lois Sipuel (front) against the University of Oklahoma School of Law in a 1948 discrimination suit. (© Griff Davis)

Griffith (“Griff”) Davis was a photographer, journalist and diplomat at a time when both African countries and African Americans were struggling toward greater freedom.

“His story is representative of that era,” said Dorothy Davis, his daughter. He had attended Morehouse College at the same time as Martin Luther King Jr. While there, he sold his work to national publications, including Ebony, a magazine covering black culture.

Journalism would take Davis to Africa, where he would eventually join the U.S. Foreign Service and be posted in Liberia, Tunisia and Nigeria. As a diplomat, he worked as part of President Harry Truman’s Point Four program for foreign aid, the forerunner of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“It was all part of the independence movement — everyone trying to connect with each other,” Dorothy says. Her father introduced writers in the U.S. to their counterparts in Africa. And he helped his own American readership to better understand events in Africa.

The photographs below capture aspects of black culture in the South before the civil rights movement, as well as an Africa in transition.

People standing around table with heads bowed (© Griff Davis)
(© Griff Davis)

Davis’ breakthrough was a 1947 story for Ebony magazine about life at Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina. Founded in 1902 by Charlotte Hawkins Brown, the school was the nation’s only black boarding school and prepared its students for college.

Man and woman sitting at table behind fence (© Griff Davis)
(© Griff Davis)


Euclid Taylor was a prominent attorney in Chicago’s black community. For a crime story for Ebony in 1948, Davis photographed Taylor interviewing a client in prison.


Man sitting in chair with cigarette in hand near typewriter (© Griff Davis)
(© Griff Davis)

The celebrated poet Langston Hughes was a friend and mentor to Davis, befriending him in 1946 when Hughes was a visiting professor at Morehouse. While Davis studied journalism at Columbia University, he rented a room in Hughes’ Harlem home. It was here that Davis took this photo of Hughes sitting in front of his typewriter, which later graced the cover of Hughes’ book of short stories titled The Ways of White Folks.

Woman lying in hammock lighting man's cigar with her cigarette (© Griff Davis)
(© Griff Davis)

Davis and his wife, Muriel Corrin Davis, are shown above in March 1952 in Liberia. (Davis took the photo using a timer.) He shot photos and wrote a feature story for Ebony about their extended honeymoon to Kakata, Liberia; Paris; Lisbon; and Madrid.

Little girl and boy kissing (© Griff Davis)
(© Griff Davis)


In 1956, Davis’ daughter, Dorothy, gives Wiki Padmore, the son of Liberia’s ambassador to the U.S., a farewell kiss as the boy prepares to leave Liberia to to join his father in Washington. The photo was captioned “International Kiss” when it appeared in a Liberia newspaper at the time.


Group of formally attired people talking (© Griff Davis)
(© Griff Davis)

During a celebration of Ghana’s independence in March 1957, Davis captured this photo of then–Vice President Richard Nixon, in Africa for the first time, speaking with Martin Luther King Jr. (Both men’s wives are also in the photo.) This meeting would have been too volatile to have taken place in the United States, and the photo was not published there at the time. But King told Davis afterward that Nixon had invited King to visit him in Washington at a future date.

Photo editor Sherry L. Brukbacher contributed to this story.