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Hemmings, Myra Lillian Davis (1895–1968)

Myra Lillian Davis Hemmings, African American suffragist, teacher, actress, producer, and Delta Sigma Theta founder, was born in Gonzales, Texas, on August 30, 1895, to Henry and Susan (Dement) Davis. By 1910 her mother, a widow, had moved the family to San Antonio and worked as a cook at a boarding house. Myra graduated from Riverside High School (also called the Rincon school or the Brackenridge school) for African American students in San Antonio in 1909 and completed undergraduate studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1913. Local Black San Antonians, including Samuel Johnson Sutton, Sr., helped pay her tuition. While at Howard University, she was a member of the Alpha Phi Literary Society. Later she received a master's degree in dramatic arts in 1947 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

On January 13, 1913, she and fellow Texans, Jessie McGuire Dent, Zephyr Chisom Carter, and Frederica Chase Dodd, were among the twenty-two women, all students at Howard University, who founded the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a public-service organization. She served as the first president of the seminal Alpha Chapter. With Mary Church Terrell’s encouragement, she and other Delta Sigma Theta founders chose as their first public act to participate in the woman suffrage parade on March 3, 1913, in Washington, D.C. She and the other seniors wore their caps and gowns and marched with Terrell in the segregated section of the procession. More than sixty Black women participated in the parade of 5,000 and many, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, openly challenged its segregated structure by marching with White women. On August 16, 1933, she established the Psi Sigma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta in San Antonio and served as its first president.

In 1913 Myra Davis began her teaching career in San Antonio as an English and speech instructor at Douglass High School; she later transferred to Phyllis Wheatley High School (see SEGREGATION and EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS). Her teaching career spanned fifty-one years, during which time she received many accolades for her oratorical gifts and for her stage productions of works ranging from Shakespeare to those of modern writers, including many Black playwrights.

On August 28, 1922, she married John Wilbur Hemmings, a former Broadway actor, in a ceremony conducted by the pastor of Second Baptist Church in San Antonio. The couple owned a home at 520 S. Olive Street and became prominent leaders of the east side. Myra became known as “Moms,” and her husband was called “Pops” by those they taught and mentored. They organized the Phyllis Wheatley Dramatic Guild Players, an extension of the dramatic productions staged by her high school seniors, and the San Antonio Negro Little Theater (see LITTLE THEATER MOVEMENT). Their productions, in which she often acted, played a fundamental role in the cultural life of Black San Antonians from the 1920s through the 1960s. Many were held at the Library Auditorium (later the Carver Community Cultural Center) on the east side of the city. Her husband also worked for the Civil Works Administration, a New Deal works program. In 1944 Hemmings coproduced, codirected, and co-starred with Spencer Williams in Go Down Death!, based on James Weldon Johnson’s work by the same name and now a Black film classic. She also appeared in Williams’s Marching On! (1943) and The Girl in Room 20 (1945) (see FILM INDUSTRY and BLACK FILMMAKING).

Myra Hemming’s extensive activities in the Second Baptist Church reflected her deep religious commitment. She co-founded with her husband the Dramatic Theatre Guild, which, upon her death, was renamed the Myra Davis Hemmings Memorial Theatre Guild. When Hemmings became the first female trustee of the Second Baptist Church, she established a precedent that became a tradition at that historic institution.

The Hemmings also fought for civil rights. Her husband helped Cameron Booker in a challenge of the White primary and spearheaded an effort to establish an African American youth center in San Antonio. She was a member of the National Council of Negro Women, the Business & Professional Women’s Club, the YWCA, the National Education Association, the Texas State Teachers Association, the Alamo Teachers Council, the NAACP, and was Worthy Matron of the Priscilla Chapter No. 329 of the Order of the Eastern Star. In 1953 she was honored by the Exclusive Matron’s Club, sponsored by Lillian Sutton-Taylor, for meritorious work in the dramatic arts. On September 28, 1968, Hemmings, Barbara Jordan, and Frankie Muse Freeman were honored at Delta Day at HemisFair.

Myra Lillian Davis Hemmings died on December 8, 1968, in San Antonio. Her funeral was held at Second Baptist Church, and she was interred at Eastview Cemetery in San Antonio.

In January 2013, in resolutions that listed the founders, including Hemmings, both houses of Congress recognized Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., and the organization’s century of service. In 2021 state legislator Toni Rose introduced a resolution to recognize January 13, 2021, as “Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Day” in Texas. The resolution noted the organization’s contributions in Texas and around the globe through its “Five-Point Programmatic Thrust” work to further economic development, international awareness, political involvement, physical and mental health, and educational development, and acknowledged the roles of Dent, Dodd, Hemmings, and Carter as founders as well as other notable Texas sorors, including legislators Ruth Jones McClendon and Barbara Jordan. The resolution stated Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., had forty-six alumnae and twenty-eight collegiate chapters in Texas. In 2021, according to the national organization’s website, the service sorority had more than 300,000 members and more than 900 chapters in the United States, the Arabian Gulf, Canada, Japan, Germany, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and the Republic of Korea.

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“About SAAC,” San Antonio Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, (https://www.dstsaac.org/about-saac/), accessed November 4, 2020. Detroit Free Press, January 31, 2003. “Founders,” Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (https://www.deltasigmatheta.org/founders), accessed November 25, 2020. Paula Giddings, In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1988). “‘Girls in Caps and Gowns’: The Deltas March for Suffrage,” Women at the Center, New York Historical Society Museum and Library, August 10, 2020 (http://womenatthecenter.nyhistory.org/girls-in-caps-and-gowns-the-deltas-march-for-suffrage/), accessed November 4, 2020. Howard University Journal (Washington, D. C.), February 7, 1913. Phyllis Klotman, Frame by Frame: A Black Filmography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978). Treva B. Lindsey, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017). Sandra M. Mayo and Elvin Holt, Stages of Struggle and Celebration: A Production History of Black Theatre in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016). San Antonio Express, February 7, 1954. San Antonio Light, February 24, 1934; December 7. 1939; May 29, 1940; September 27, 1968. Lillian Sutton-Taylor, Interview by Lasca Fortassin, August 4, 1977, Bexar County Historical Commission Oral History Program, Institute of Texan Cultures Oral History Collection, University of Texas at San Antonio. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998). Washington Bee, March 30, 1913. Washington Post, August 8, 2020.

Categories:

  • Education
  • Educators
  • English and Journalism
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Women
  • Performing Arts
  • Music and Drama
  • Religion
  • Baptist
  • Founders and Pioneers

Time Periods:

  • Progressive Era
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

John Etta Slaughter and Gary W. Houston, Revised by Katherine Kuehler Walters, “Hemmings, Myra Lillian Davis,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 06, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hemmings-myra-lillian-davis.

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February 1, 1995
February 3, 2021

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