Corneal Davis. Born in Mississippi in 1900, Davis heard about life under slavery from “the real people” (former slaves) he encountered through his preacher grandfather. This inspired a lifelong determination to fight racial injustice wherever he found it.
He enlisted in the Army in 1917 and was sent to France. He was a medical corpsman on the front line during the Meuse-Argonne offensive and was headed to Metz when the armistice was signed. Back in the United States, having graduated from Mississippi’s Tougaloo College, Davis followed his parents to Chicago, attending the Legion’s St. Louis Caucus with friends along the way. He served in the Illinois National Guard for 12 years, attended John Marshall Law School, and then turned his attention to civil rights.
Along with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Davis successfully fought for equal pay for black teachers in a southern Illinois town. A Republican in his early years, he switched to the Democratic party in support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic policies. In 1943, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. Being refused a hotel room in the state capital of Springfield on his first night there only impassioned his sense of justice further.
Over the next 36 years, Davis campaigned against segregation in Illinois, co-sponsored legislation to create the Fair Employment Practices Commission and served as assistant majority leader. Also an ordained preacher, he often led the chamber in its opening prayers and earned the nickname “Deacon.” He put those skills to work on the Legion’s behalf, as well – he served as chaplain of George L. Giles Post 87 in Chicago for many years, orating at funerals, speaking engagements and similar events.
Davis retired from the House in 1979 and served on the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners until 1987. He died in Chicago in 1995, at 94.