It was special meeting with and extensively interviewing Ed Davis; an icon among African-American business entrepreneurs. When we met in his office located in the Penobscot Building (downtown Detroit) which he retained for many years after he had left the retail car business, or at his home (with his wife, Mary Agnes), he discussed in great detail the long journey from his roots in Shreveport, Louisiana (1911) until his decision to retire as a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in Detroit in 1971.
Ed Davis had not accumulated the kind of wealth that many successful car dealers had due to product, timing, market conditions and other factors. But it was evident that he understood the importance of his tireless effort to open doors for other African-Americans, not only in the automotive sector, but in government and other business entities as well.
When Ed Davis and his family arrived in Detroit in the early 1930's, he found work at local garages and eventually went to work in the local Dodge factory. It was there he made contact with a local dealer and began to sell cars as a "bird dog".
Eventually, because of his success, he was given an office on the second floor of the dealership but the constant race issues and other pressures from the dealership employees caused Davis to move out on his own.
Scrapping up every cent he had, Davis located a facility at 421 East Vernon Highway in Detroit and Davis Motor Sales, Inc. became a reality on December 4, 1939. With a small staff, Davis pursued the used car business and brokered new cars. It was at this time that the local Studebaker dealer for the Detroit market concluded that Davis could sell incremental units for him and in 1940, Ed Davis made history – he was awarded the Studebaker franchise.
With less than a desirable product line, a highly competitive market, and being excluded from the 'club', Davis struggled. Studebaker was in a tailspin and finally, in 1955, closed its doors. Davis remained in the used car business and sought out the Big Three but the answer was always the same; "we have nothing, we'll call you when we do."
In 1957, Davis became a sub-dealer for the local Ford dealer (Floyd Rice) which lasted for about two years. But, again, because of racial issues, he was constantly under considerable pressure. As a result he returned to selling used cars.
In 1963, while attending a newspaper media event, Davis was introduced to Chrysler management. The decision was made to appoint Davis as a dealer at a location within the confines of the city of Detroit. A market area was carved out that was primarily African-American with low income and an unemployment rate of 45 percent. But Davis knew the market and believed he could be successful.
On November 11, 1963, Ed Davis was appointed a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer, the first African-American to be awarded a Big Three franchise in the post World War II era. He remained in business until 1971. Faced with labor problems, a tough competitive environment and financial problems, he resigned.
Following his retail business, Davis immersed himself into a number of community activities, particularly Detroit's Department of Street Railroads. During this period, he wrote three books about his automobile experiences; "One Man's Way – An Autobiography (1977)", "A Dilemma of Equality in the World of Work-(1985)", and "Who's Innocent – The Automotive Market (1988)", which may be available from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit.
As has been noted, Davis received numerous awards and honors for his professional and personal achievements over the years. In 1969, he was the first African-American to receive Time Magazine's Quality Dealer Award. In 1996, for his business and community services and his contributions spanning a period of 30 plus years in the retail business, Ed Davis was the first African-American to be selected as a member of the industry's Automotive Hall of Fame.
Ed Davis was an icon with considerable entrepreneurial skills, a distinguished African-American pioneer.
Davis Motor Sales opened for business in 1939.