Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Davis, Edward

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana on February 27, 1911, Edward Davis was the first African American owner of a new car dealership in the United States. Davis attended Cass Technical High School, studying accounting, but returned to his love of cars after learning that the accounting field offered little to African Americans. Following a job at the Dodge Brothers’ foundry, Davis went to work selling cars at Lampkins Chrysler in Highland Park, though he was forced to work out of a secluded makeshift office in the dealership’s second floor storeroom.

Members of the city’s black community heard about “the black man who sold Chryslers,” which increased Davis’s sales, and helped his promotion to a full-time sales position, though he was still barred from working on the main sales floor. In 1938, Davis opened a used car dealership, Davis Motor Sales, at Vernor and Brush streets, but continued as a new-car broker for black buyers.

With struggling sales in the Detroit area, South Bend, Indiana’s Studebaker Corporation heard about the success of Ed Davis. Thinking that Davis might be the way to reach the city’s black population and increase sales, in 1940, Studebaker offered Davis a franchise. He was the first African American in the country to own a new car dealership. By the 1950s he was able to join other wealthy African American Detroiters in the Boston-Edison neighborhood.

Other franchise offers failed to materialize, and the construction of I-75 through Davis’s property in Paradise Valley, caused Davis to close his business in 1962. He was able to secure a new-car franchise at Dexter and Elmhurst streets with Chrysler-Plymouth, making him the first African-American to get a “Big Three” auto franchise. Davis’s dealership prospered, selling an average of 1,000 cars a year, and twice that in used cars.

After the 1967 riots and the surrounding neighborhood deterioration, Davis retired in 1971, saying that "Finally, it reached the point where it wasn't worth it anymore." On October 1, 1971, Davis was appointed general manager of the Department of Street Railways (DSR) by Mayor Roman S. Gribbs. The hope was that Davis might be able to discover new and innovative ways to improve service at the agency, riddled with problems and losing money. His promotions included “Ride the Bus Month,” in which passengers could ride for twenty-five cents during certain hours, and the DSR’s new slogan, “Come Ride with Us.”

Davis’s ideas at the DSR would take a back-seat to its ever-increasing financial problems, and for the rest of his time, through the end of Gribbs mayoral administration, he kept a low profile as general manager. In 1996, Davis was the first African American inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. Davis passed away on May 3, 1999.