Commitment. Courage. Character. Nancy Randolph Davis embodied all of these qualities throughout her life.
Davis was the first African American student to enroll at Oklahoma State University (then Oklahoma A&M College) in1949. Over the last two decades, the university and the College of Human Sciences have recognized and celebrated Davis’ life and accomplishments.
In 2019, her legacy was honored in a beautiful, eternal way when a statue of her likeness was unveiled in the courtyard of the Human Sciences Building, facing Monroe Street, on the Stillwater campus.
The bronze sculpture, created by artist Jane DeDecker, depicts Davis as a young graduate in master’s academic regalia, celebrating her accomplishments as a student graduating from OSU. A doorway symbolizes her crossing the threshold of opportunity and looking ahead to a bright future. At the base of the doorway, a bronze ring is inscribed with a quote from Davis herself:
“I was never trying to make history. I was just a regular woman and teacher wanting to further my education so that I could improve my community and the lives of my students.”
Nearly 200 people gathered for the sculpture dedication on Jan. 31, ushering in 2019’s Black History month at OSU. The attendees included Davis’ children, son Calvin Davis and daughter Nancy Lynn Davis, and her granddaughter Teklyn Jackson-Davis, who has followed in her grandmother’s footsteps as a current OSU graduate student. Many of Davis’ former students also attended the historic event.
“This sculpture represents an incredibly powerful and profound moment for this institution, for every one of us that know it, that love it, that care about it,” Dr. Jason F. Kirksey, vice president for institutional diversity and OSU’s chief diversity officer, said during the dedication. “This is a commitment to inclusion that is unwavering.”
The statue is only the second life-size sculpture of a human being on the OSU campus; the first is of Henry G. Bennett, who served as university presidentfrom1928 51. Calvin Davis expressed his family’s gratitude to the university and encouraged everyone at the dedication to follow his mother’s legacy of belief in her own success and acceptance of others. “My mother would not want (the statue) to be about her,” he said. “She would want it to be a beacon of hope, perseverance, determination and encouragement."
In June 1949, Nancy Randolph Davis became a civil rights pioneer, crossing racial barriers at OSU. She was not trying to make history; she simply wanted to earn a master’s degree in her home state. Her conviction to pursue higher education changed Oklahoma State University. Davis was required to sit separately from her white classmates, in the back of two classes and in the hallway for the third, looking through a window and listening through a door. “I was segregated for about a week and a half,” she shared in a 1997 interview. “After our first test (I made the second-highest score in the class), my classmates said that the laws were unfair, and they wanted me to sit in the class with them. When they invited me to sit with them, they made me feel important instead of different.”
Davis continued her teaching career and took classes for the next three summers. She completed her master’s degree in home economics (now Human Sciences) in 1952. Davis said she did not know she was a trailblazer, but she became an iconic figure in the university’s history. “(Davis’ enrollment at OSU) was an important event in terms of legal changes and cultural history and in who we became as an institution,” said Stephan Wilson, dean of the College of Human Sciences and interim dean of the College of Education, Health and Aviation.
A Passion for Education
Davis, who earned her bachelor’s degree in home economics from Langston University in 1948, dedicated her life to public education. She spent 43 years as a teacher, 20 years at Dunjee High School and 23 years at Star Spencer High School, before retiring in 1991. Davis’ passion and care for people and her desire to educate were evident to all who knew her.
“She was a major advocate for both the human sciences and public education. Throughout her life, she stood up for what she believed, and she earned the respect of all around her for that,” Wilson said.
Davis influenced thousands of students and their families and inspired others to fight through adversity to pursue their dreams. She also did not shy away from supporting social changes in Oklahoma.
Throughout her life, she was active in the civil rights movement in the state including working as an adviser to the Oklahoma City National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council.
Davis transformed the legacy of OSU, what it stands for and what it aspires to be.
“You could not have better values than Nancy Randolph Davis,” OSU President Burns Hargis said. “She believed in education and spent her life in education and in civil rights. We all have benefited from her.”
Davis' List of Honors
In 1999, she was honored with the OSU Distinguished Alumni Award, and OSU’s residential Davis Hall was named in her honor in 2001. Each February, the university celebrates “Nancy Randolph Davis Day.” In 2009, she received the OSU College of Human Sciences’ Enhancing Human Lives Award. She was inducted into OSU’s Greek Hall of Fame in 2012.
Davis has also been honored multiple times by the state of Oklahoma. In 1991, Gov. David Walters designated May 31 as “Nancy Randolph Davis Day.” She received the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
Following her death at the age of 88 in 2015, she was posthumously inducted to the Oklahoma African American Educators Hall of Fame (2015) and the Oklahoma State University Hall of Fame (2018). She was also recognized by the state with a three-mile stretch of Interstate 35 west of Stillwater named the Nancy Randolph Davis Memorial Highway in 2018.
“We should make sure that every time we pass (the sculpture), we reflect on who she is and what she stands for and what that sculpture represents about Oklahoma State University,” Kirksey said.