John Davis was born January 12, 1921, on Long Island and grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant with his mother Margaret Campbell Davis. Davis was named after legendary African American strong-man John Henry, a father he never met.
From a young age, Davis was an all-around athlete but was never fond of more common sports such as football or baseball. Instead, he became especially proficient in handball and gymnastics, once doing an almost 11-foot standing broad jump.
Davis was introduced to strength training when he was 16, after Brooklyn-based amateur lifter Steve Wolsky saw him lift a 125-pound slab of concrete above his head while playing with friends at Herbert Von King Park, originally called Tompkins Park.
Davis trained at Wolsky’s home gym and it became immediately clear he was an extremely talented lifter. Within a year, he was winning medals and came to the attention of Bob Hoffman, who owned York Barbell Company. He joined York Barbell Company and competed for the club for the rest of his career.
He first gained prominence as a 17-year-old, winning the world light heavyweight crown in Austria, where he competed as part of the U.S. national team.
He remained unbeaten until 1953, when a thigh injury led him to second place finish at the world championships. During the height of his career, he held all the world records in his class, and at the 1951 national championships, he became the first man to break the 400-pound barrier by lifting 402 pounds.
Because weightlifting was considered an amateur sport in the U.S. during Davis’ career, he never made any money off his success. In 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for many years during World War II at the Pacific Theater. He was able to return to the U.S. in 1942 and ’43 to compete in the championships, but could not come back in 1944 or 1945.
The Olympic Games of 1940 and 1944 were canceled because of the war, two games Davis would have almost definitely taken home gold medals. When he returned to weightlifting after the war, he was as prolific as ever and won his first Olympic gold at the 1948 games in London. He followed that with another gold at Helsinki in 1952.
“You know, I won my first world championship in 1938, 10 years ago, when I was 17,” Davis said in an interview in 1948. “Since then, I’ve won two more world championships and seven national titles, and I’ve been undefeated in 10 years. But outside of weightlifting, I don’t think 15 people ever heard of me.”
Although an exaggeration, it was true that Davis never received the recognition he deserved as such a dominant athlete. As a Black man, Davis dealt with discrimination throughout his career, with coaches, other lifters, spectators and the media.
In a magazine column, Davis wrote: During the 10 years that I have been lifting I have broken and rebroken records, national and world’s records alike. At one time or another I have held all of the records in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, without recognition. It seems that I can gain possession of records only during international competition, and even then I can’t be sure of acceptance. I have only the personal satisfaction of having accomplished difficult feats.
In 1953, Davis was dealing with a severe leg injury and lost for the first time since 1937. He tried to make a comeback for the 1956 Olympic Games but tore a tendon in his knee during the tryouts.
Davis was regarded as invincible, remaining undefeated for 15 years of his 19-year career. He was the first African American to win an Olympic weight-lifting title and the only African American to become an Olympic and world champion. He impacted America’s culture and national image with his talent and success and should have become a household name.
However, given weightlifting wasn’t regarded as a mainstream sport, Davis faded into obscurity after his retirement in 1956. He had dreams of pursuing a singing career, being talented at opera, but gave that up and worked as a prison guard at Riker’s Island.
Davis died from cancer in 1984 at 63 years old. He was introduced to the United States Hall of Fame in 1989.
John Davis, we acknowledge the enormous contributions you have made to the sport of weightlifting and your successes, and we honor your memory.
*Sources: starkcenter.org, chidlovski.net, encylopedia.com
February is Black History Month! Every day this month, BK Reader will profile one Black History Maker born or raised in Brooklyn. There are countless Brooklynites — past and present — who have contributed to America’s fabric as pioneers or leaders in art, entertainment, sports, science and government. This month, we present to you 28! Click here to see all of the profiles.