Ilus Winfield Davis (1917-1996) Papers (KC0375)
Mayor, Kansas City Missouri, 1963-1971; Member of City Council of Kansas City 1948-1955.
Ilus (Ike) Davis was born in Kansas City and grew up on the city’s east side. His father, Dean Davis became an assistant prosecuting attorney for Jackson County the year of his son’s birth and named Ilus after Ilus Lee, a friend of the family. Ike attended Sanford B. Ladd School and Central High School, and he was in the first freshman class at the University of Kansas City (now the University of Missouri-Kansas City). There he helped found the school newspaper and a chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, a Boy Scout service fraternity, and was a member of ROTC. After finishing his bachelor’s degree, he earned a law degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1939 at the age of 22. He helped put himself through college by selling shoes.
Immediately after graduation Davis began work with what was then the Gossett, Ellis, Dietrich, and Tyler law firm but was called to active duty with the Army in early 1942. He served for 13 months in Manila, where he was in the strategic planning section of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s command.
Returning home in 1946, he met and married Beatrice Buecking, the daughter of a prominent Kansas City banker. The Davises had two children, Christopher Dean in 1951 and Carolyn Dalton in 1954.
Davis, backed by the Citizens Association, was elected to the City Council of Kansas City in 1948. A year later he became a partner in the Dietrich, Tyler and Davis law firm. His decision in 1956 not to seek re-election to the council may have started early rumors about civic retirement, but shortly he accepted an appointment as chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Municipal Revenues. In 1957, he was designated city member on the board of directors of the Kansas City Public Service Company. He was elected president of the Missouri Bar in 1959. Davis also served as a director of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra. In business he not only was involved in law, but was chairman of the board of the Baltimore Bank & Trust Co. and director of the North Hills State Bank and the Blue Ridge State Bank.
Early in 1963, Davis became the Citizens Association candidate for mayor in close voting that failed to produce a majority of the board of governors for him. Clinton W. Kanaga, Jr., Davis’s principal opponent for the nomination, received 113 votes while Davis garnered only 103. However, Davis held the recommendation of the executive and advisory committees and an association by-law required a vote of more than 69 per cent of the governors to overturn his candidacy. Immediately following the announcement of the vote Davis was nominated on a voice vote by acclamation.
On March 26, 1963, Davis was elected by a narrow margin of only 1,810 votes in nearly 110,000 cast. When he took office, Davis found a city hall mired in severe financial problems; a city staff devastated when many members of the professional staff had resigned in conflict with the previous administration; and the remnants of the old Pendergast machine regaining power and returning the city to a spoils and patronage system. Davis put an end to all that. His integrity beyond question, Davis proved to be a fair, practical and visionary mayor and is commonly rated by local and national observers as one of Kansas City’s most effective mayors.
Kansas City had a “weak mayor” system, meaning that authority was in the hands of the city manager and the mayor presided as a member of the council. His duties also included appointing council committees and their chairmen, members to city boards and commissions, and cutting ribbons, making proclamations and welcoming visiting dignitaries. Even in a “weak mayor” city, Davis as able to rebuild the City Hall staff; win voter authorization of some $230 million in bonds and initiate construction of Kansas City International Airport and dozens of lesser projects; fund municipal workers’ pensions; revive the city Municipal Arts Commission; secure passage of the city earnings tax; and significantly expanded park land. In addition, Davis and the first two black persons elected to the council, Bruce R. Watkins and Earl D. Thomas, made civil rights a political priority and won passage of the first public accommodations ordinance in the nation.
However, Davis years were not without friction. When in April of 1968, on the day of Martin Luther King’s funeral, high school students from central city schools began a march on City Hall, Davis met and led them until confronted by law enforcement officers. Joined on the front steps of the City Hall by civil rights leaders, Davis tried to calm the crowd. But then a police officer fired tear gas, and several days of rioting and arson followed. During that time six persons were killed by gunfire and dozens were wounded or injured.
Davis also faced bitter opposition to his public accommodations ordinance—passage of which he called “the most emotional and one of the most difficult battles of my term,” and counted as his most important victory. One of the first acts of the City Council during Mayor Davis’ term was approval of the ordinance providing for equal treatment of all residents in public places. A demand for a referendum election slowed enforcement. Davis and other council members pleaded with voters to register and in a special election on April 7, 1964, the ordinance passed by a narrow margin of 45,476 to 43,933.
“At the time I left for the United States army in 1942, a black man could not buy a ticket to a baseball game at Municipal Auditorium unless he sat in a segregated section underneath the clock,” Davis said. “A black man could not play golf on a city golf court. He couldn’t go to the Philharmonic. By custom, he was not welcome to shop in a Downtown store—can you imagine that a black doctor had to send a white man to pick out a hat for him?” “It was not a popular ordinance,” Mr. Davis said. “People’s ideas don’t change easily. But I realized if we lost, it was going to be a slap in the face to every black or minority in this city.”
Davis also led the campaign for a fair housing ordinance and oversaw the formation of the city’s Human Relations Department. He started the Human Resources Corporation, the city’s agency to carry out the Great Society programs of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Never too busy to participate, Davis presided over the often contentious and raucous meetings of the corporation’s board of directors.
Davis’ biggest setback was voter defeat in December of 1969 of a proposed package that included a one-cent sales tax, a half-cent earning tax increase, and $143 million in general obligation and special assessment bonds. A year later, the earnings tax increase easily gained voter approval, but by then Davis had earned a reputation as a high-tax mayor.
Davis chose not to seek re-election to a third term in 1971. He returned to his partnership in the law firm of Dietrich, Davis, Dicus, Rowlands, Schmitt & Gorman, which in 1989 merged with a St. Louis firm to become Armstrong, Teasdale, Schlafly & Davis.
In early 1973, two years after Davis left office, then-Governor Kit Bond appointed him to the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners. He was elected president and remained on the board until 1977.
An active member and life elder of Country Club Christian Church, Davis ritually sat in the balcony with his long-time friend, Clarence M. Kelley, former Kansas City police chief and FBI director.
Rarely smiling or joking in public, Davis was always businesslike, and many who knew him regarded him more as a statesman than a politician. Reinforcing that image, Davis, who was widely known as “Ike,” assumed a role of elder statesman after he stepped down as mayor. In private, Davis had a wry sense of humor that surprised those who did now know him.
Davis also had a banking career as a director of Baltimore Bank, his wife’s family bank, and North Hills Bank. He negotiated the merger of those banks into the Boatmen’s system and was a director for many years of Boatman’s Bancshares, Inc. His civic roles included service as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City and chairman of the Kansas City Corporation for Industrial Development. In 1982, he was appointed co-chairman of a blue-ribbon committee supporting voter approval of an increase in the state gasoline tax.
Other organizations and institutions with which Davis worked over the years included the Kansas City Downtown Minority Development Corporation, The Kansas City Port Authority, the Downtown Council, the Nelson Gallery and University of Kansas City boards of trustees, the Kansas City Crime Commission, the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, and the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.
He continued to dabble in politics until the early 1990s. Before the 1991 campaign, he was a member of the “Monday Morning Club,” a group of civic and business leaders who handpicked Brice Harris, an administrator for the Metropolitan Community Colleges, as a candidate for mayor.
Davis suffered Parkinson’s disease for several years, but was active until mid-July, 1996. Ilus W. Davis died September 4, 1996 at the age of 79.
See also the Charles N. Kimball lecture by Gerald W. Gorman, Ilus Davis: Exemplar of "The Greatest Generation"
The papers of Ilus W. Davis, two-term mayor of Kansas City and important public figure, are rich in historical significance. The collection consist mainly of documents and correspondence, but also contains photos, annotated day-books and yearly calendars of events, appointments and phone calls, an large collection of newspaper clippings, and memorabilia. The largest concentration of materials is from Davis’s two terms as mayor (1963-1971). There are also materials from the pre-mayoral years and from the years after Davis’s time as mayor when he was one of the preeminent public figures in Kansas City.
Much of the mayoral material focuses on the operation of city government, confronting the issues of a growing mid-sized city, and developing and managing the resources. There is also a significant amount of material related to the interactions of Kansas City with the state of Missouri, with particular attention to legislation in the state capitol, and ongoing contact with Missouri senators and congressmen in Washington.
Beyond this, there is a rich mix of materials that represent a microcosm of the struggles and challenges of America and American cities during the 1960’s. The defining issues facing Kansas City during Ilus Davis’s tenure as mayor were: the importance of national and international transportation; the growth of big-time sports; racial strife; contentious union issues; and the struggles of the inner city resulting from the growth of the suburbs. The Davis collection contains extensive materials related to all of these issues. In addition there are materials on the growth of organized crime; the challenges of providing health care, especially for the poor; and the problems insuring the availability of quality education.
The years of the Davis administration were not without strife and confronting change. Union issues absorbed much of Mayor Davis’s time and energy, particularly negotiations with the fire fighters, and the long building trades strike that slowed completion of KCI and the new stadiums. Also well documented are concerns with medical care for the poor, the Hospital Hill “crisis,” and the development of the University of Missouri at Kansas City Medical School.
The major crisis of the Davis years, however, was the 1968 riot in Kansas City following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The collection contains an wide range of documents and correspondence covering all aspects of this crisis, including the background of race relations in Kansas City. Documents, studies, reports and correspondence highlight the efforts of the Commission on Human Relations, and the attempts to pass the Equal Opportunity ordinance and the Public Accommodations ordinance, and outlining the work of Saul Alinsky in Kansas City between 1964 and1968. Equally extensive are the materials related to the management of the riot and its aftermath by Mayor Davis and the police department, the work of the Mayor’s Commission on Civil Disorder, the investigations of police department activities, and the public response to the handling of the riot.
The collection also documents Ilus Davis’s career as an important civic leader, after his years as mayor. Two groups of files are particularly comprehensive: Davis’s two terms as President of the Board of Police Commissioners; and his lifelong interest in education at all levels. During the 26 years after Ilus Davis’s two terms as mayor, he was an active participant in most all of the major civic organizations and activities in Kansas City.
The Ilus W. Davis Papers are broad in their range, rich in their depth, and are a gold mine for the researcher interested in the history of the second half of the 20th century, in the Midwest and in America. ca. 1933-1994.
200 cubic feet.
© WHMC-KC, University of Missouri
Friday, August 08, 2008
Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City
(816) 235-1543 WHMCKC@umkc.edu