Anchorage School District’s first Black teacher and principal remembered as ‘trailblazer’

an old photo of a Black woman in a graduation gown
In 1968, Etheldra Davis earned a Masters in Education from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She went on to earn a Doctorate in Education from Newport University in 1975 (pictured). (Photo courtesy of the Antoine family)

Listen to this story:

Etheldra Davis moved to Anchorage from Los Angeles in 1959 after visiting two older brothers who had previously moved to the brand new state for work. 

“She loved it,” said Davis’ daughter, Andrea Antoine. “She liked the fact that it was smaller, less crime, not as much going on, not the hustle bustle of the city where she had grown up at. And so she decided to move and transfer her teaching credentials to Alaska for the opportunity.”

As the first Black teacher hired on-contract by the Anchorage School District, Antoine said her mother broke barriers. But it wasn’t easy. She recalled photos of her mother at district trainings from the early ’60s, where Davis would often be the only Black person in a group picture.

an old photo of a Black woman in a graduation gown in front of a mostly white crowd
In 1968 (pictured), Etheldra Davis earned a Masters in Education from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She went on to earn a Doctorate in Education from Newport University in 1975. (Photo courtesy of the Antoine family)

“She went through a lot of scrutiny from people that didn’t want her to be hired,” Antoine said. “So she did face pushback from people in the community, but she had more support than non-support. And that overcame, the obstacles that she was facing during those times.” 

Antoine said her mother was a “goal-getter,” a world traveler, passionate about the outdoors and being involved in the community. Davis was a member of the local chapter of the NAACP, she helped found several youth mentoring organizations like the NAACP Youth Council and the United League of Girls, and she helped organize the neighborhood watch program in Anchorage. 

Davis was also part of a group of Black educators called the Black Educators Taskforce, which helped recruit more Black teachers and administrators to the district through gatherings, mentorship, and informational meetings.

It was a group that inspired longtime educator and current ASD School Board Member Margo Bellamy early on in her career. 

“Her being the first, and making a way for others to follow, that’s what we call trailblazing,” Bellamy said.

Bellamy first met Davis in 1976 at one of the taskforce meetings. Bellamy said the group inspired her to gain additional teaching credentials and degrees, and Davis in particular became a role model and a mentor. 

a class photo from 1960 of a teacher and students
Etheldra Davis and her class at the old Government Hill School in 1960. (Photo courtesy of the Antoine family)

“People don’t have safe places to go, where they can get some wisdom and not be judged,” Bellamy said. “Back in the day, she was one of my safe places where I could go and say, ‘Look, I don’t know why this is happening. But what do you think? What would you recommend?’”

Bellamy not only counted Davis as a mentor, but a sorority sister as well, in the historically Black Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

By the time she died, Davis had spent more than 50 years in the organization, making her a Golden Soror. AKA’s are known for their signature colors, pink and green, and their sorority pearls, which Bellamy said Davis donned proudly. 

“She loved the pink and green. And if you would get her pissed off, she would clutch them pearls. And that means that I’m gonna be mad, but I’m gonna be mad with dignity.”

During her career, Davis taught at Airport Heights, Government Hill, and Mountain View elementary schools. She served as assistant principal at Willow Crest Elementary. And, in 1969, she was hired as principal at Fairview Elementary — just down the street from her home. The hire made her the district’s first Black principal.

Later, she transferred to the newly built Ptarmigan Elementary to lead the school as its first principal. In 1975, Davis earned a Doctorate in Education and went on to become the principal at John F. Kennedy Elementary until she retired in 1980.

In 2019, Davis was recognized by the Anchorage Assembly for her contributions to the community. Assembly Member Forrest Dunbar read a long list of her accomplishments.

At the time a discussion of renaming Fairview Elementary after Davis was in the works. Antoine, Davis’ daughter, said Davis liked the idea but wasn’t beholden to it. 

“Before she passed away, she said, ‘Well, if they don’t they don’t,’ she kind of had that attitude, but I knew in my heart that I was going to pursue it.”

Antoine’s goal is to have the school renamed by May of next year, which would have been her mother’s 90th birthday.

Antoine has started a petition, and the NAACP has sent a letter to the school board in support of renaming the school.

Darrel Hess, Anchorage’s ombudsman and a member of the NAACP, hopes the action would help inspire more stories about the city’s unsung heroes. 

“Putting her name on Fairview Elementary School would serve as a beacon for generations of children to come in our neighborhood to show them, in a very diverse neighborhood, what they can accomplish if they apply themselves and they work hard.”

Last month, in November, Davis contracted COVID-19. Antoine was also sick with the virus, but she didn’t want to leave her mother in the hospital where she couldn’t receive visitors. So Antoine arranged for her mother to return home where she died surrounded by close family members.  

“That was a blessing that we were able to be with her instead of her being in the hospital alone.”

Davis died on November 25, 2020, at the age of 89.