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Manson Adam Davis


It’s been nearly 60 years since he said he was kicked out of high school just two weeks before graduation. As Davis remembers it, his class was getting ready for a party and a teacher walked straight to the high school senior’s desk, reached inside and produced a bottle of peppermint schnapps liqueur. To this day, Davis swears it wasn’t his. The teacher, Davis recalls, told him to leave Washington High School and never come back.

“He came right to the thing, stuck his hand in and pulled it out and said, ‘Oh, schnapps,’” said Davis, who’s now 78, recalling the moment when the teacher arrived at his desk. (His wife believes a student put the bottle in Davis’ desk and told the teacher it was there). “’I’m taking you to the office.’ I never did get back.”

It was 1960 in South Bend. Davis is black; the teacher, white, and, for many of those who’ve heard the story over the years, it was hard not to believe that the severity of the punishment — denying a high school athlete his diploma just weeks away from graduation — was racially motivated.

Officially, Davis has been listed in the records of the South Bend school system as a student who dropped out of high school and never earned a diploma. Unofficially, his story seemed to many like an example of a racially motivated injustice.

But after decades of sharing of his story, the system has reversed course and Davis received something he hasn’t dreamed would be possible: a diploma.

“It feels different,” said Davis, who can’t help but show anyone who enters his West Side home the honorary diploma he was given at a South Bend school board meeting last month. “At least I got some paperwork now.”

The overdue diploma Davis finally received — which officials have called “honorary” — is far from typical. A motion to approve it noted he was scheduled to graduate in June 1960. It describes how he served in the Air Force and was an active member of Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

And, in a nod to the diploma’s fraught history, the measure included the acknowledgement Davis was not allowed to graduate in 1960 and that “race may have wrongly impacted the decision by the district at the time.”

That admission by district officials may be overdue and bittersweet for some of of Davis’ supporters. But School Bend Community Schools Corporation board member Dawn Jones, who played an instrumental role in helping Davis receive the diploma, felt it was an essential step toward righting a wrong.

“There’s very little difference between then and now when you look at the reasons why some kids are expelled and suspended in South Bend,” Jones, who’s African American, said in a telephone interview Monday. “We have been cited for having an overrepresentation of expulsions and suspensions in our schools of African Americans. If you look then and you look now, it’s very similar, and that’s kind of sad.”

She said giving Davis a diploma was more than just a routine measure — it was about the district “correcting things” and taking stock and asking whether or not race affects the expulsion of future graduates.

“This took place in 1960 and is it still taking place now, and what can we do about it?” she asked. “It just depends on who is looking at it, who is making that decision and who is willing to challenge it.”

Although Davis maintains the alcohol found in his desk decades ago did not belong to him, he and his family didn’t challenge the district’s decision. After a stint in the Air Force, Davis went to welding school and held jobs at Studebaker, Allis-Chalmers and AM General.

His father, who was once the pastor of Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, gave each of his children a suit for high school graduation. Davis was the only one who never got one.

“I’ll buy him a suit now,” said Clara, who has been married to Davis for 52 years and is currently searching for the perfect frame for the diploma. “I’m quite sure it would have been altogether different if it had been a white boy who had alcohol in his desk.”

Clara Davis was the one who made sure her husband’s high school senior portrait sits in the front living room of their Sheridan Street home — like a lone candle burning in a window. Now the diploma will sit right next to it.

Of her husband’s story, Clara said: “It’s a lesson for young people to know what other people went through when they were coming up.”

Davis said he hopes people know his story and take from it a lesson of some sorts: If you’ve been wronged, just keep telling people until you find someone who can do something.

“’Cause it can happen,” he said.