Institute’s Work Mirrors Director’s Own Story of Success

By Monica DeMegio, published in All Rise, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law magazine,

Sharon Davies has been an assistant U.S. attorney, respected scholar, and accomplished author. Now, she hopes to transform society’s views on race and ethnicity through a new role.

Sharon DaviesSharon Davies is passionate about the mission of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity because she believes her life is proof of its fundamental philosophy: Individual success is only partly attributable to character; it also is strongly helped by the structures that exist in–or absent from–the community in which one is raised.

Davies, the new director of the Kirwan Institute, is the John C. Elam/Vorys Sater Professor of Law at The Ohio State University Mortiz College of Law and a noted scholar in the areas of criminal law and procedure and race. After working at firms in New York City and Washington, D.C., Davies was an assistant United States attorney in the Southern District of New York, considered to be one of the highest-profile offices in the country. As a scholar, she has published numerous articles on criminal justice, co-authored a treatise on Medicare and Medicaid fraud, and, most recently, wrote the highly acclaimed narrative Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America.

But Davies insists that she would have achieved none of those things had she not grown up in a small New England town that provided its children sound public schools, safe streets, and a safety net of social services.

“Neither of my parents went to college; they were low-wage earners, and they often struggled to support their family of eight. But we lived in a town where there were structures of support around us that my parents could rely on for help when they needed to,” Davies said. “So despite having little money and sometimes needing assistance, my siblings and I were still able to go to good schools and live in a safe neighborhood. Place matters.”

A fundamental philosophy of the Kirwan Institute is that opportunity in America is deeply embedded in the major structures that surround us. And while one’s success is undoubtedly partly due to individual enterprise, it is also part community investment.

People overcome all sorts of obstacles in life, but it still matters whether you live in a safe neighborhood or a crime-ridden one. It matters where a family has easy access to health care and facilities, difficult access, or none at all because of an inability to secure insurance. Students who attend high-performing, well-resourced schools have a surer path to life success than those who do not.

Through development of geographic information system mapping technology, researchers at the Kirwan Institute have helped others see where “opportunity” is located in various cities and regions to better understand how proximity to or distance from “opportunity-rich structures” shape lives.

The Kirwan Institute’s [Opportunity Communities] model now has a national following and has guided the efforts of social justice advocates, localities, funders, and public officials to target their investments and services to address social inequality. The institute has worked with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. and cities eager to tackle the disparities within their communities.

As the new director of the Kirwan Institute, Davies plans to continue the work for which the institute is renowned, in addition to expanding its research in the areas of criminal justice and health care.

“It’s tempting to think that hard work and determination are all it takes for an individual to achieve success. Americans are inspired by rages-to-riches stories, but the vastly more typical storyline for those who face severe deprivation, like failing schools and crumbling neighborhoods, is one of stunted capacity,” she said. “Rather than attributing achievement and wealth gaps to individual or cultural failing, we need a more robust understanding of the role that structures play in life success.”

The critical, early years of Davies’ own life were spent in South Deerfield, Mass., a town that sprung from a farming community on the banks of Connecticut River, with a population of roughly 500 families today. Davies’ family lived a mere 12 miles from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where her father, Forrest Davies, was an electrician and later the building manager of the student campus center.

Because her father worked at the university, Davies was eligible for a break in tuition. That, coupled with student loans and holding down jobs, enabled her to study political science there and to met Dean Alfange Jr., a professor who would become her lifelong mentor. He taught all of the law-related courses in the political science curriculum, and Davies registered for each one. Midway through her undergraduate career, she was committed to going to law school

Davies earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science in 1984 and graduated from Columbia University of Law with her Juris Doctor three years later. While at Columbia, she was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar and the notes and comments editor of the Columbia Law Review.

“I’m not saying the lessons my parents taught me about the importance of working hard and the value of a good education weren’t important for me,” Davies said, “they were. But those lessons provide insufficient explanation for what enabled each of their six children to graduate from college and earn advanced degrees. We were the beneficiaries of a potent network of structures that surrounded and supported us. That’s why I believe so firmly in the mission and philosophy of the Kirwan Institute–I’ve lived it.”

The Storyteller

Seated at the dining room table in the rectory at the Cathedral of St. Paul, Davies was consumed with her reading. She had started another morning in Birmingham, Ala., poring over the notes. They were written in an elegant script that conveyed a sense of discipline and artistry, later bound carefully into 19 volumes.

The author of the handwritten tomes, Father James Coyle, had died nearly 90 years before, just a few strides from where Davies sat. But his journals’ accounting of the religious bigotry his parishioners and he suffered in Birmingham in the 1920s brought the era back to life.

“Reading his notes was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. Page after page described the prejudice against Catholics that mounted as the country moved toward war, when demands for ‘100 percent Americanism’ were on the rise,” Davies said. “I could literally feel that tension, reading his notes.”

Coyle included news of Catholics losing their jobs, being threatened with violence, watching helplessly as their churches were burned to the ground. Through letters to the editor, sermons, and more, the priest attempted to refute the charges that Catholics were planning an insurrection to “make America Catholic,” and salacious accusations that priests held young women captive in convents. Deep in Klan country, there was little chance his defense of the Catholic faith would prevail.

“Unlike most Catholics, who perhaps wisely kept their heads down, Father Coyle was willing to publicly defend his faith and his congregants from the attacks being leveled against them,” Davies said. “That was a very dangerous course, and it ultimately contributed to his death.”

Coyle was murdered on the front porch of the rectory at St. Paul’s Catholic Church on Aug. 11, 1921. A Methodist minister and Klansman named Edwin Stephenson shot the priest upon finding out that Coyle had married Stephenson’s only child, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican migrant and practicing Catholic just a few hours before.

Davies’ search to learn more about the story brought her from her home in Bexley, Ohio–and even further from the kind of scholarship she was accustomed to producing.

The law professor had set out to research and write an article about laws prohibiting marriage between races in the South and the dramatic transformation in a nation’s thinking on that question. With the Coyle homicide, she thought she had found a powerful example of the depth of emotion that animated those laws through an event where biracial marriage could be used as justification even for murder.

“But once I found out more about the story, I could not get it off my mind. It’s almost as if I knew right away that my project had changed,” Davies said. “I saw in that story so much power to illustrate who we were, what we were afraid of, what we were most committed to at that time. I decided to do something I had never tried to do before, which was to write a narrative nonfiction book.”

Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America is an historical account abounding in rich, narrative details. While the story traces the bigotry toward Catholics and minorities in Birmingham in the 1920s, it is relevant to issues Americans grapple with today.

For example, a common belief at that time the Knights of Columbus­–an innocuous fraternity of Catholic men dedicated to service­­–were stockpiling weapons in church basements and waiting for word from Rome to begin war. Catholics were considered a threat to national security, and several states passed laws direct that warrantless searches be conducted in their buildings without warning.

“Whenever I talk about those laws today, my students laugh, and my audiences chuckle. It seems so absurd today. But at the time, the Catholic threat didn’t seem absurd at all. To many Americans, it seemed true, real, and dangerous,” Davies said.

“And what we did to calm our fears back then is not very different from how we quiet our fears today. We may no longer think that Catholics are plotting an insurrection, but we don’t find it at all difficult to think that millions of U.S. Muslims are a danger to our national security.

“It is important that we approach our new fears with a sense of historical perspective,” she said.  “As Mark Twain once quipped, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Preparing for transition

Learning from history is a theme that threads through any conversation Davies has about Rising Road and the Kirwan Institute.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago when it was criminal for her to exist at all.

Her mother, Patricia Prescott, is a white, Irish-American from upstate New York. Her father, Forrest Davies, was a young black man from rural South Carolina. They met when he was on military leave. In 1956, their decision to marry was not only unpopular in most of the country, but many states made it a crime.

While New York did not prohibit their exchange of vows by law, the couple was forced to make four different stops before a justice of the peace would agree to marry them. They could live freely as husband and wife in the Northeast, but it was a different matter when they traveled to southern states, including Forrest Davies’ native South Carolina.

“Their marriage was a crime, and the birth of every one of my parents’ offspring was evidence of a criminal act,” Davies explained. “As a child, I wasn’t aware of the risks, but I have to believe my parents were.”

Anti-miscegenation laws were struck down in 1967, when Davies was in the second grade. She was too young to be aware of what that truly meant but would later be attracted to the study of such laws. She is interested in social change and the role the legal system can play in such change.

“It is important to study how transformations like that take place; it gives reason to hope that we can create transformative change on other issues of importance,” she said.

Stacks of papers, journals, and other research were spread before Davies as she sat at her desk I Drinko Hall in late-December. She was cleaning up and preparing for a transition of her own to the Kirwan Institute in January. As its new director, she hopes to help create a society where all people, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, or circumstances of their birth, have the opportunity to succeed.

“Race continues to influence the way we think about each other today, even in the absence of conscious racial animus. Unless we become better aware of that, and squarely face the structural impediments than block pathways to success, it will be difficult to eliminate the racial and ethnic disparities that continue to challenge and disturb us,” Davies said. “A half-century has passed since the successes of the Civil Rights era, and the country has elected its first African-American president.

“But blacks and Latinos remain profoundly disadvantaged on virtually all measures of well-being. As Kirwan’s director, I hope to play a leading role in helping address that.”