Darwin Davis, pioneering black executive, dies at 74


STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) – Darwin N. Davis, who was among the first blacks to hold a top corporate position after rising through the ranks of an insurance company, has died. He was 74.

Davis, who lived in Stamford, died suddenly on Sunday during a business trip to Philadelphia, his son, Derek, said. His wife, Velmarie, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Last year, Davis was named as one of “the bravest generation” by Fortune magazine for being among the first black executives to fight their way to the top of corporate America. He worked his way up to senior vice president at AXA Financial, formerly Equitable Life Insurance, and retired in 1988 after 22 years at the company.

The Jackie Robinson Foundation presented him with its 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award.

“His story is record-breaking and astounding by any measurement,” the foundation wrote in presenting the award.

Davis was hired as a sales agent by Equitable Life in 1966 and quickly showed his business prowess. He generated more than $1 million in sales within his first two years and was promoted to district manager. He worked his way up to agency vice president by 1975 and to senior vice president eight years later.

In a 2003 profile written by Black Enterprise, Davis said there has been systemic racial discrimination in America for centuries.

“The mission of having black folks enter and participate in the best of America’s offerings is unfinished business that will probably never be (completed) in our lifetime,” he said.

Davis was born in Flint, Mich., on April 10, 1932. His father, Abner Davis, became the first black postal clerk in Flint, according to a biography by The HistoryMakers, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that promotes awareness of the contributions of blacks to American life.

His mother worked in a General Motors factory and his maternal grandfather managed GM’s executive garage.

He attended the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1954. After getting a master’s degree in education at Wayne State University, he served in the U.S. Army in New Mexico.

After Davis retired, he was active in a number of organizations including the NAACP, the Jesse Owens Foundation and the Black Leadership Council on AIDS.

Besides his wife, Davis is survived by two sons, two daughters and seven grandchildren.

In remarks prepared for Davis’ funeral on Friday in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Earl G. Graves Sr., chairman and publisher of Black Enterprise Magazine, wrote that Davis was his best friend.

“Our readers saw him for the giant he was – someone who never backed away from a fight or tolerated an injustice,” Graves wrote. “All the same, he always kept his dignity. And colleagues and competitors alike had to respect him because he always delivered.

“The saddest part of this day is the realization that future generations of African Americans will not have the benefit of this great mans counsel,” Graves continued. “On the other hand, his contributions to this world were so great that generations to come will bear the fruit of his legacy.”