UNCC Distinguished Alumnus once was seen as ‘retarded’

Gregory Davis defied barriers of race, blindness, label of mental disability to earn doctorate

12/07/2012 12:00 AM

12/05/2012 2:18 PM

Gregory Davis’ cane clacked down the narrow halls of Bellefonte Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, testing the path before him. When he took off his sunglasses, both eyes revealed the brilliant blue fog common in people whose sight was lost long ago.

Davis might never have seen his path, but he has felt each obstacle, from the moment he encountered it to the struggle to climb over it.

He was born in Harlem in 1951; his twin brother died at birth. His mother died 11 years later. When his grandmother brought him to Charlotte, the experts quickly agreed he would be better suited for the N.C. School for the Blind and Deaf in Raleigh.

School officials there were even quicker to label him borderline mentally retarded. They expected little of him, or for him, after that.

“I want to be a lawyer,” Davis remembered telling a guidance counselor one day as students went around the room divulging their dreams.

“Nah. You’re not capable,” said the counselor. “Maybe a janitor.”

He was pushed toward mattress- and broom-making, the trades taught at the school.

“But I was never very good at that,” said Davis. “And consequently, it didn’t sit well with me.”

It’s an ironic start for a man who today holds a Ph.D.

“I came to the table with three barriers on my shoulder,” said Davis. “As a black male, a blind black male, and a retarded – allegedly – blind black male. I went to work climbing a hill with all of those three things on me.”

As Davis sat down behind his desk at the church where he now serves as pastor, his thumbs tugged at his thick suspenders for a few minutes as he pondered how to best describe his motivation.

“We were taught as African Americans that our way out was education. You never could have enough,” he said. “It was just a dream to say that Gregory Davis was a college graduate.”

At Central Piedmont Community College he earned his GED. At UNC Charlotte, he was one of the first African Americans to receive a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. At Duke University he earned a Master of Divinity degree on a full Benjamin E. Mays Scholarship. At the Union Institute he earned his Ph.D. in American religious history.

By his side all the way were three things: his tape recorder, to capture professors’ lectures; his Braille typewriter; and his gumption.

“People said I couldn’t, and I said, ‘Yes, I can.’ That drove me.”

Davis spent most of his career as a lecturer at UNC Charlotte who also oversaw the university’s minority retention services.

In the 1970s, said Davis, he was one of only 100 minority students on campus. Today, minorities account for around 20 percent to 25 percent of UNCC’s population.

As a mentor, he worked tirelessly with students to help move barriers out of their own paths toward education.

“I believed everybody had the same dream I did, or else they wouldn’t be there,” he said.

Last month, the UNC Charlotte Alumni Association honored Davis with the Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor it can bestow on a member.

The award is given to those whose accomplishments and service to their communities proves extraordinary.

Retired from the university for the past four years, Davis is pastor of Bellefonte Presbyterian Church near Harrisburg.

When people in the congregation share their discouragement with him, he often tells them of his bumpy path.

“Whatever your dream is, don’t let anyone tell you ‘no.’ Claim your dream. Nurture your dream,” he said.

“Sometimes you’re going to fall down, but get up. I went from, in 1972, being a ‘mentally retarded’ kid to, in 1985, receiving my Ph.D.”

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