Ellsworth J. Davis

Maurice Sorrell Lifetime Achievement Award - 2001

Ellsworth J. Davis is a native Washingtonian and the first Black photographer hired by The Washington Post newspaper. After graduating from Armstrong high school in 1945, he worked part-time at the Maritime Commission then joined the Army. While stationed in Germany as a member of the Signal Corps, he developed an interest in photography.

It was during the 1940s that he became fascinated with photojournalism. Davis was trained in the basics of photography by a German photographer in exchange for darkroom chemicals and printing paper. He would photograph groups of children to file along with his reports to the commanding officer.

Davis was honorably discharged from the Army in 1947 then spent a year traveling around Europe. Upon returning home, he took a series of skills tests at Georgetown University to determine a career and decided upon photography. He signed up for Robert Scurlock’s Capital School of Photography where he attended classes from 1947 to 1950.

In addition to photography, the curriculum included courses that developed professional skills including resume writing.  Davis said of Scurlock's school, "He prepared every guy who graduated from that school to go out and find jobs in the government or the private sector as photographers. Unfortunately, neither one of them at that particular time were doing much hiring of Black photographers."

While attending classes, Mr. Davis was also an active member of the 12th Street YMCA's FotoCraft Camera Club. In the middle of his photography studies, he was again called to duty during the Korean War. While stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he would drive to Fort Knox, Kentucky on weekends and teach basic photography to other soldiers.

After his discharge, Mr. Davis returned home and worked in the photo darkroom of the State Department while again taking up his studies at the Capital School of Photography where he finished in 1951. Between 1954 and 1961, he worked as a photographer for Jet and Ebony magazines after Johnson Publishing Company opened a Washington, D.C. bureau. While there, he covered not only events within the Black community, but also Capitol Hill and the White House.

In 1961, he left Johnson Publishing Company, where he was replaced by Maurice Sorrell, and began working for The Washington Post. When asked about what it was like covering some of the 1960's more turbulent events for The Washington Post, Mr. Davis said: "I developed a way of doing things, or a way of working, when I was with Ebony. Those trips down south did more to strengthen me mentally. When an assignment came up, you went right in on it…I knew the danger was there, but I was out there doing the job. If you thought about it, you would not have gotten anything done."

Mr. Davis retired from The Washington Post in 1991 after 30 years. He was the second black photographer admitted into the White House New Photographer's Association. Ellsworth Davis, 86 years old, passed on August 14, 2013.

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