Leaders remember President of Washington Teachers Union after tragic Easter Sunday death

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Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis, affectionately known as Liz, died in a two-car crash on April 4. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

The well-known and beloved President of the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU), Elizabeth Davis, 70, died tragically in a two-car crash on the evening of Easter Sunday.  With her sudden passing, local and national leaders alike are paying tribute to the WTU President, who is being remembered for her kind and strong nature, more than 40 years of service to education and fierce leadership.

“We have lost an icon,” said Mysiki Valentine, who is running for the At-large seat for the D.C. State Board of Education. “Liz, as she was known by friends and colleagues, was not just a union leader. She was a mentor, confidant, and tireless advocate. Liz was a teacher’s teacher. Liz embodied a duality that you rarely come by in public figures. When she spoke, her voice commanded your attention. When she told you to give her a call or send her an email, you did it. You listened to President Davis not because she was some caricature of a union boss, but because you knew she cared.” 

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) also weighed in on Davis’ contributions to society and the magnitude of her loss.

“We’re stunned by this horrific tragedy. Liz Davis was an intrepid, accomplished leader who led the educators and school staff of the District of Columbia admirably since 2013, including through their latest effort to reopen D.C. public schools safely and equitably. She never failed to show grace under pressure and adapt to her surroundings, and she consistently worked directly with legislators, parents and students to make the D.C. public schools more just, equitable and excellent—fighting for funding, creating stability for educators and opportunity for students, and bringing the focus back to teaching and learning,” Weingarten said  in a statement submitted to the AFRO.  “As an educator for more than four decades, Liz had an impact on countless lives and helped bring respect to her profession by prioritizing the needs of students and the voices of teachers. She did her job and lived her life with a smile, and with hope and fierceness for the city’s schools, its kids and her members. We mourn her sudden passing and keep her family, friends and loved ones in our thoughts.”

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Though born in North Carolina, Davis moved to D.C. with her mother at a young age. 

Her passion for equity and education began years ago as a student in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).  In the 1960s, she staged a walk out at Eastern Senior High to protest the lack of African American history and culture included throughout the curriculum.

“That was the beginning. It was exciting. It was exhilarating. We were organizing,” Davis was quoted saying in an interview in February according to the Washington Post.  

When she was hired to teach drafting at Jefferson Middle School after graduating from the University of the District of Columbia, the principal was furious as it was a class traditionally taught by men, but she continued showing up to work and eventually recruited young women to take the class as well.

This level of activism often got Davis transferred to different schools, but her advocacy and tenacity made her beloved by many.  During the highly contentious tenure of Chancellor Michelle Rhee from 2007-2010, Davis was extremely critical and outspoken on the leader’s teacher evaluation system that led to the firing of hundreds of D.C teachers.  Davis was still fighting against that system and those firings at the time of her death.

She became President of WTU in 2013.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser took a moment of silence in honor of Davis at a press conference on Monday and said she was sorry to hear of the WTU President’s passing..

“I have gotten to know Liz so well and am so devastated by her tragic passing,” the Mayor said. 

Davis was driving South on Maryland 301 towards Bowie at the time of the car accident.  According to the initial investigation, John Starr, 68, was stopped at a red light when Davis’ vehicle struck his car from behind.  Starr, a celebrated Annapolis musician and teacher, died at the scene.  Davis was taken to Prince George’s Hospital Center, where she died. 

Valentine emphasized the magnitude of Davis’ contributions to local education and advocacy work.

“It cannot be understated just how important Liz Davis’s life and work were to so many people,” he said. “Her dedication to the betterment of our city’s public schools; to the protection of her fellow educators; and to the children and young people of the District of Columbia will never be forgotten.”

Washington Teachers’ Union tweeted that details of Davis’ celebration of life are forthcoming.