How three alumni in the class of 1963 are helping create a lasting legacy in honor of an Amherst trailblazer

In 2017, the Asa J. Davis Scholarship Fund was created and named for Amherst’s first chair of the Black Studies department. As is often the case with gifts of this kind, the idea was actually formed several years earlier in 2014 when Leon Gibbs ’63 emailed two of his Amherst classmates—Bill Davis and Hugh Price—about how to create a 55th Reunion gift that would be meaningful to them and have a lasting impact on the College. 

Over the next three years they worked to establish the scholarship fund, and eventually opened it to the class of 1963 and other donors. Along the way, the classmates have had many discussions about the fund—including about whom to honor in its name. Davis, Gibbs and Price ultimately agreed to pay tribute to Asa J. Davis, professor of history and black studies, who played an instrumental role in the launch and success of the Black Studies department.

Professor Davis joined the faculty in 1970 and served as the first chair of the newly formed Department of Black Studies, created a year earlier after a series of events on the national scale and at Amherst galvanized students to take action. A student-organized Black Arts Festival, scheduled for April 5, 1968, transformed into a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination a day earlier. That event marked the beginning of a series of impassioned conversations and significant changes that led to the inclusion of black studies in the Amherst curricula.

At the time, many other colleges and universities around the country were creating Black Studies departments as well, but there was no clear blueprint for what the field of study should be. Professor Davis played a vital role in setting the vision and ensuring the success of Amherst’s department.

Calvin Plimpton ’39, then president of Amherst, recruited Davis to join the Amherst faculty and chair the department. Prof. Davis immediately envisioned Black Studies as an interdisciplinary major. The 1970-71 course catalog introduced the department’s first two courses “An Introduction to Black Studies” and “African Elements in Brazil, Latin America and the Caribbean,” along with 20 related courses available for inclusion in the major through nine other departments—from English, to economics, to history, to political science. By 1976, the department’s faculty had increased to five, and courses offerings had expanded considerably alongside many interdisciplinary options.

Davis taught at Amherst until his retirement in 1992. He received numerous research awards and published extensively on topics pertaining to the history of Africa and Europe during the Colonial period. He was the author of several books, including The King's One Body: Symbol of Ethiopian Nationality, and Viagem Emafrica. A World War II veteran, Davis graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard Divinity School, and then received a Ph.D. in history, philosophy and religion from Harvard. Before arriving at Amherst, Davis served as a senior lecturer at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, at San Francisco State University, and at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He passed away at the age of 77 on Sept. 28, 1999. 

Prof. Davis teaching in the Octagon in 1972

Left: Professor Davis teaching a class in the Octagon, taken in October 1972; Right: Professor Asa J. Davis

Having graduated seven years before Prof. Davis came to Amherst, Bill Davis, Leon Gibbs, and Hugh Price never took a class with him. Coincidentally, Bill Davis met Prof. Davis while pursuing graduate studies as a Rotary Fellow in Nigeria, the year immediately after his Amherst graduation. However, Gibbs and Price only knew of him through news reports and by returning to campus for events and reunions.

“During the turmoil of the 1960s, we alumni were constantly recipients of news about the events at Amherst,” says Gibbs. “We did not form any lifetime friendship with Dr. Davis but the admiration for what he endured during those critical years—that, more than anything is why we are setting up the AJD Scholarship fund. It is a way of giving back.”

Davis, Gibbs and Price were the only African-American students who graduated in the class of 1963, though two others matriculated. Of their experience and their reasons for creating a scholarship fund, Leon Gibbs says, “We have been successful in life. We have lived through the turbulence of the ’60s and ’70s, the civil rights movement, the Martin Luther King era, the Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins eras. We have been beneficiaries of the legacies of these great men as well as those who preceded us at Amherst. And we have been beneficiaries of the fine education we received at Amherst College.”

Davis adds, “To get to a point where you feel you have ownership in an institution, you have to give back—participate—in some way.”

For Price, it’s also about how Amherst has changed. “Back in our day,” he says, “Amherst basically threw us into the deep end of the pool. There was scant, if any, help for students who thrashed around, struggling to pass. That the faculty are authentically committed to the success of every student who attends Amherst is a most welcome change in the philosophy of the College and the reality of its undergraduates.”

Davis, Gibbs and Price came to Amherst from different places and backgrounds. After graduation, all three went on to successful and varied careers: After Yale law school, Davis worked as a community development corporation executive and an attorney, then joined the faculty at MIT before taking a director position in the Peace Corps, and ultimately working in real estate development. He was an Amherst trustee from 1974 to 1986. Gibbs received an MBA and MIA from Columbia and spent the majority of his career in international marketing and management including overseas assignments in Fortune 500 Healthcare corporations. Price, the author of This African-American Life: A Memoir, also earned a law degree from Yale, then spent his career working for causes of racial justice and education, including as president of the National Urban League. Price donated his entire collection of professional papers to the College’s Frost Library.

The Asa J. Davis Scholarship Fund is unique because it represents multiple people and multiple parts of Amherst’s history. The importance of the scholarship lies in that multiplicity. The contributions—academic, civic, and financial—of many people will support Amherst students in perpetuity. Davis, Gibbs and Price, hope the fund can reach $1 million, and they are nearly halfway to their goal through their initial contributions and that of 19 other members of the class of 1963. If the scholarship fund reaches its goal of $1 million, the return on the fund is expected to support most of the averaged financial aid package of one student each year. The first recipient of the AJD Scholarship has been awarded in 2018-19.

Earlier this year, Amherst launched Promise: The Campaign for Amherst’s Third Century, a five-year, $625 million comprehensive campaign, which will preserve Amherst’s longstanding strengths while supporting the College's ambitions to innovate in instructional and curricular practices. The campaign will ensure that the College has the students, faculty, facilities, and resources to extend its leadership into the future.