Chester C. Davenport
Born in 1941, Chester C. Davenport was raised in Athens, Georgia where he attended local public schools. As a child, he caught wind of Horace T. Ward’s battle to enter the University of Georgia’s Law School, housed in Athens, and the school’s refusal to admit him because of his skin color. Davenport found himself angered by this decision, recalling later, “At the tender age of nine, I thought [Ward’s non-admittance] was not fair. I told my parents and teachers that if they had not let Horace Ward into Georgia by the time I was ready to go to law school, I was going to go.” Thirteen years later, after graduating with honors from Athens High and Technical School and cum laude from Morehouse College, Davenport accomplished this goal.
In 1963, Davenport was accepted to the University of Georgia’s Law School—only two years after the University’s admittance of its first African-American students, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter and three months after their graduation. Although, Davenport was offered admission to numerous law schools, including those in the Ivy League, he later stated he chose Georgia because, “It was the thing for me to do. Someone needed to be the first, and I had the capabilities.”
His experiences at the University of Georgia were mixed. His father’s long-time association with the law school’s dean helped him gain acceptance from the school’s staff and faculty who treated him with respect. Some of his professors were even adamant in their pro-integrationist views, such as his constitutional law professor whom Davenport remembers as, “very progressive and berat[ing] the state’s leading segregationists like Herman Talmadge and Senator Richard Russell, despite the fact that Russell IV was in the class with me.” His classmates were less receptive. On the first day of class no one sat next to or even near him; by the next day, Davenport recalls, the teacher had, “made a mandatory seating chart,” and some students were forced to sit next to him. However, the white students would not wish to avoid Davenport for long. When the class-rankings were released midterm, Davenport was ranked number three in the class and soon his white classmates were clamoring to sit next to him at study sessions. Davenport remembers being excited, not only by his academic progress, but also by his social progress stating, “I was pleased because I was not only doing well in the classroom, but I had made friends in the process.” While his early months at the law school were lonely, he later stated that these isolating months also made him stronger, “Ultimately, the silent treatment that was intended to harm me actually helped me. It made me confident, self-reliant—because at the end of the day, you’re the only person you can totally rely upon.” Despite his achievements Davenport was perpetually disappointed by the fact that no new African-American students joined him during his entire tenure at Georgia Law; in fact, it would not be until 1967 that another African-American student would be admitted. Still, Davenport graduated high in his class and was soon on his way to success both in law and other business and political ventures.
After graduation, “Davenport went to work in the appellate section of the Justice Department’s tax division.” He then worked for California Senator Alan Cranston before moving on to work for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. Carter’s presidential victory—and especially his success among African-American voters—made Davenport a valued commodity in the Carter administration. As such, he was one of only two African-Americans placed on Carter’s “transition team,” the group responsible for making Carter’s transition from Georgia governor to American president run smoothly. As a part of this team, he advised the president-elect on possible African-American candidates for the cabinet. Following the transition, Davenport was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Transportation. Despite his success, Davenport was acutely aware of the tenuousness of his position stating, “Back then, for an African-American, you always had to be the best. It was always, if you’re not better than everybody, you’re not going to get anything.” His tenure at the Department was short-lived; after slightly over two years he resigned his post to become a partner at Hudson, Leftwich, and Davenport, a well-regarded African-American law firm in Washington, D.C.
In addition to his work at the law firm, Davenport gradually entered the real estate business, working with investor Mortimer B. Zuckerman on the redevelopment of downtown Washington D.C. His work was extremely successful, making him one of the nation’s wealthiest African-Americans. In the late 1980s, he started Georgetown Partners, an investment firm. Georgetown Partners became more prominent after the acquisition of, “United Technologies, Inc., a vehicle emissions testing business….[which Davenport] re-established as Envirotest Systems, Corp.” Davenport ran the company successfully for five years before selling it at a 550 million dollar profit in 1998.
After selling Envirotest, Davenport and Georgetown Partners continued to grow. In the late 1990s, he entered the wireless business, hoping to increase minority influence in the growing arena. He joined with the GTE Corporation to purchase Ameritech, a wireless business of which Georgetown Partners now owns about 7%, with GTE owning 93%. Longtime civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who developed the Wall Street Project to increase minority representation in big business, helped Davenport arrange the agreement. Commenting on the negotiations Jackson stated, “The fact is Chester walked into the room with more liquid wealth than anyone else and his team of 15 had done so much preparation for this deal that I think everyone in the room was traumatized.” This purchase was not without controversy, however. Many claimed corporate affirmative action and FCC Commissioner William E. Kennard’s, an African-American, desire to increase minority representation in the business of communication is the only reason Davenport’s company was allowed to share in GTE’s purchase of Ameritech. Davenport did not deny affirmative action’s impact and stated the setbacks of African-Americans in the past warranted such action. Speaking with the New York Times he said, “If I were white, I would own one of these damn telephone companies…whatever money I have, if I were white, doing everything I’ve done, I would have 100 times more money than I have now. You can never make up that time [lost to racial discrimination]. That’s what I’m saying.”
While Davenport and others cannot make up for the time lost to racial discrimination and prejudice, his life achievements paved the way for other African-American lawyers, investors, and businesspersons, just as Horace T. Ward paved the way before him. Whether integrating Georgia Law School, breaking down barriers in government or increasing minority influence in big business, Davenport’s work as a foot soldier has long-lasting implications. He credits his success to his parent’s and family’s guidance. Today, he continues to work to improve the situation of African-Americans, serving on the Board of Trustees of Morehouse College and establishing the Chester Davenport Scholarship Fund at the University of Georgia School of Law.
Maurice C. Daniels, Ed. D with assistance from Michelle D. Black.