Remembering Larry E. Davis

The University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work suffered a great loss when Larry E. Davis, PhD, dean of the school from 2001 to 2018 and founding director of its Center on Race and Social Problems, passed away on March 30, 2021.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work suffered a great loss when Larry E. Davis, PhD, dean of the school from 2001 to 2018 and founding director of its Center on Race and Social Problems, passed away on March 30, 2021.

Davis was born on May 11, 1946, in Michigan. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Michigan State University and his master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. Upon graduating, Davis joined the AmeriCorps VISTA anti-poverty service program and spent three years working in one of New York City’s low-income neighborhoods before returning to Ann Arbor to earn his second master’s degree in psychology. Following that, Davis became the first African American to earn a PhD from Michigan’s dual-degree program in social work and psychology.

Davis began his career at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. He blazed trails during his time there, becoming the first African American to be awarded tenure at the university. He also was named the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity.Dean Davis sitting on a bench

Davis became dean of Pitt Social Work in 2001. The following year, he created Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP), the first such center to be created at any American school of social work. Scholars at CRSP conduct and disseminate applied social science research on race, color, and ethnicity and mentor emerging scholars on race-related social problems. Through its programming, the center regularly engages community leaders with current research relating to race. 

Shaun Eack, the school’s associate dean for research, says that Davis was “prophetic” in creating CRSP, as it was one of the first places in the nation to put an emphasis on race and address issues such as racial injustice and education in social work. “His vision allowed him to [shed light on] the challenges this country has faced in the past and will continue to face with regard to race and racial injustice [and] about the need for social workers to be part of addressing that issue.”

One of Davis’ most cherished accomplishments was the center’s hosting of the four-day Race in America conference in 2010. It drew more than 1,300 scholars, students, national experts, and leaders, including former NAACP chair and civil rights leader Julian Bond, to discuss the promotion of a more racially equitable society.

When Davis arrived at Pitt, he already was recognized as a leading scholar of race and social justice. He continued his record of publication and thought leadership during his time at Pitt. Among his extensive list of publications are five books that he wrote, cowrote, or edited, all aimed at fellow academics. He also authored books for a more general audience, including Black and Single: Meeting and Choosing a Partner Who’s Right for You and Why Are They Angry with Us?, his most personal book, in which he discussed his family and personal experiences with racism in America.

Davis was the coeditor in chief of the “Encyclopedia of Social Work,” 20th edition, and was the founder and chair of the editorial board of the journal Race and Social Problems. He also founded two national organizations: Black Administrators, Researchers and Scholars, Inc., and REAP, a consortium of race, ethnicity, and poverty centers.

Davis was the first person to receive both the Significant Lifetime Achievement in Social Work Education Award from the Council on Social Work Education and the Distinguished Career Achievement Award from the Society for Social Work and Research, major awards within the field of social work.Dean Davis speaking at graduation

“Dean Davis was a larger-than-life figure who led this school and the field in ways that brought together his personal experiences with his keen ability to think deeply and profoundly,” says current Pitt Social Work Dean Betsy Farmer. “His life and work had an incredible impact on so many people, and it is a true loss not only to his family, the University of Pittsburgh, and the School of Social Work but to all of the scholars and community leaders whom he has inspired with his work that was dedicated to challenging racism in our society. He was a mentor to many young academics over the years and has inspired the work of others throughout his career.”

Davis also was the founder and editor of Bridges magazine, which he took great pride in developing and overseeing with the help of his longtime executive assistant, Rosie Rinella. 

Davis is survived by his wife, Kim Armstrong Davis, and by three adult sons—Keanu, Naeem, and Amani Davis—as well as an extended family of nephews, nieces, and cousins.

Find more remembrances of Dean Emeritus Larry Davis on the School of Social Work website.