Horace A. Davenport, the first African-American judge to sit on the Common Pleas Court in Montgomery County, died peacefully in his home on Tuesday, March 21, 2017. He was 98.
Davenport was a first in many areas of his life. Though he never sought praise, his life was filled with professional accomplishments, community service and charitable giving well beyond what might have been predicted for a farmer’s son born on Feb. 22, 1919 in Newberry, S.C.
Davenport’s early years coincided with the “Great Migration” of Blacks from the South to what were considered better opportunities in the North.
At the age of 4, he moved from Newberry to Bridgeport with his maternal grandparents. His parents, William and Julia Green Davenport, soon followed with his siblings in tow and eventually settled in Norristown. He was the middle child of seven.
When he was 12, Davenport moved back to the family farm in Newberry to live with his beloved paternal grandparents. His grandfather, who was born a slave, taught him the reality of hard work and the importance of education. This work ethic combined with country-bred commonsense became his hallmark.
At 14, Davenport moved back to Norristown and in 1938 he graduated from Norristown High School as a member of the National Honor Society. He was awarded a football scholarship to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., and was just weeks from college graduation when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
During World War II, Davenport served as an engineer, and was responsible for building and maintaining airfields on New Caledonia, a major allied base in the Pacific Theater. He also saw action at Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Soi Pan. At the time of his honorable discharge he was a first lieutenant.
While on leave in 1944, he met Alice I. Latney, of Washington, D.C., who became his wife on Dec. 8 of that same year. They were happily married for 74 years and had four children.
Courtesy of the GI Bill, Davenport completed his bachelor’s degree at Howard University. He then matriculated to the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a master of science in economics from the Wharton School in 1947 and a bachelor of laws from Penn Law School in 1950. He passed the Pennsylvania Bar on his first try and entered private practice in 1951.
Davenport’s original ambition was to work in insurance law, but he was rebuffed by the company he most wanted to work for. He successfully argued on behalf of a client against that same company several years later while in private practice. Upon leaving the courtroom, the insurance company lawyer congratulated him on the win.
Davenport quietly replied, “If your company had hired me, then you all might have won.”
He was in general practice law, handling cases in criminal and civil law, including insurance, zoning, trusts and estates, and real estate. He developed a specialty area in school law, serving as solicitor for the Norristown Area School District, the Norristown Areas School Authority and the Central Montgomery County Vocational-Technical School.
When he became a founding partner of the law firm Gerber Davenport and Wilenzik in 1971, school law constituted the bulk of his practice.
In 1975 Davenport successfully ran for judge on the Court of Common Pleas, 38th Judicial District of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In 1989 he became a senior judge and used his no-nonsense style to settle cases outside of the courtroom, reducing the backlog of cases from 4,000 to 400. This achievement was noted in 1996 by the Conference of Trial Judges who awarded him a Golden Crowbar Award for his ability to pry settlements out of the most intransigent of opposing parties. He was further acknowledged in 2001 when the Montgomery County Bar Association opened its first dispute resolution center in his name.
Davenport very reluctantly resigned from the judiciary in 2003 when the State Supreme Court revised the mandatory retirement age for sitting judges to 80. He was 84 at the time.
Davenport received numerous awards for his academic, professional and civic achievements. He served as president of the La Mott Historical Society. He was a trustee of Johnson C. Smith University which also awarded him an honorary LLD. As a board member of this historically Black university, he was chair of the Presidential Search Committee and its $6 million fundraising campaign.
He was also a trustee of the Florida Sunburst Scholarship Foundation, which donated $510,000 in his name to the United Negro College Fund in 1979.
Davenport was a director of the Central Montgomery County American Red Cross and served on the Board of Montgomery Hospital and the Montgomery County Bar Association. He was an active member of the George Washington Carver Community Center, the Central Montgomery County Council on Human Rights and the Citizens Council of Montgomery County.
His additional activities and memberships included the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the Civil Rights Committee of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the American Bar Association and the American Trial Lawyers Association. Davenport’s fraternal and social associations included the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the Commissioners, the Ashanti and the Alpha Boule Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity.
He was also a member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Consistory No. 86 of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Prince Hall Affiliation, Northern Jurisdiction, USA, Inc., 33rd degree and the Improved Benevolent Order of Elks of the World, Elmwood Lodge #438.
“Judge Horace A. Davenport was the grandson of a slave and experienced many of the indignities that those of his race have been subjected to over the years,“ his family said in a tribute.
“He was able to rise above these adversities through his respect and appreciation for hard work, his calm temperament and the continual respect and care for his fellow citizens.”
He was preceded in death by his siblings, Edward, Carolyn, Winifred, Mildred, Julius and Katherine.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by: his children, Alice (Alexander), Beverly, Horace Jr. and Nina (Arnold); grandchildren, Melanee, Cameron and Tucker; and great-granddaughters, Kalima and Devyn.
A memorial service is planned for May.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Horace A. Davenport Endowed Scholarship Fund, Johnson C. Smith University, Institutional Advancement Division, 100 Beatties Ford Road, Charlotte, NC 28216.