Keeper Bio: Davis, William Roscoe

William Roscoe Davis

Date of Service: 1870-1878

1812: Born near Norfolk, Virginia on Todd’s Farm to the son of a white sea captain & enslaved woman of mixed race.

1837: Marries Nancy Moore

1861-1865: William and his family flee to Fort Monroe to seek self emancipation.

1870-1878: Served as Principal Keeper at Old Point Comfort Lighthouse, VA. His beginning salary was $660/year and his ending salary was $500/year.

1904: William Roscoe Davies died on November 19, 1904 at the age of 92.

William Roscoe Anecdotes:

Born a slave on Todd’s Farm around approximately 1812 near Norfolk, Virginia, William Roscoe Davis was the son of a white sea captain and an enslaved woman of mixed race. Davis was taught to read and write at Todd’s Farm by his owners, which was highly rare in those times. He was later sent to Shield’s Farm in Hampton Roads, where he later became overseer of the farm.

In 1837, William Davis married Nancy Moore, an enslaved woman owned by a very well-known family in Hampton, Va. Nancy was meant to be legally freed by her master when he died, but his son refused to honor his will. Before the Civil War, Davis was allowed to work as a “pleasure boat operator” at Old Point Comfort, where he was able to save a considerable amount of money. Davis used $1,800 of this money to sue for his wife’s freedom. The case would drag on for over 10 years, but Davis eventually won the suit in 1859. Unfortunately for Davis, he had to wait until the Civil War started to be with his wife and children.

During the Civil War thousands of slaves, along with William and his family, fled to Fort Monroe to seek self-emancipation after General Butler considered them “contraband of war”. Davis was then put in charge of distributing food and clothing to the contraband, which became a financial burden on the U.S. Army. Davis decided to travel north to raise money for the refugees at Fort Monroe, where he was fortunate enough to meet the head of the American Missionary Association. Working together, Davis and the AMA raised a significant amount of money which was sent back to Fort Monroe.

After the war, Davis and his family returned to Hampton, Va., where he served as pastor at a small church for a time. In 1870, Davis was appointed principal keeper at Old Point Comfort lighthouse at Fort Monroe, where he remained until 1878. His beginning salary was $660/year, and his ending salary was $500/year.

While serving as keeper, “many of the better class negroes throughout Virginia used Old Point Comfort” as a vacation spot. Since there were no public beaches that allowed African Americans, Davis made sure that the beach in front of the lighthouse was open to anyone that wanted to use it.

After leaving the lighthouse in 1878, Davis and his family lived in a house on Lincoln Street in Hampton, where he would spend the rest of his life making a living as a vegetable gardener and minister. In his later years, Davis was a well-respected man by blacks and whites. Davis “could be seen daily, with a basket of food on his arm and a small bible in his pocket, visiting the sick and the needy of the town.”

William Roscoe Davis died on November 19, 1904, in Hampton, Virginia, at the age of 92. He is thought to be buried in what is called the King Street Cemetery, in Hampton.

 Sources:, Chesapeake Chapter Database; Davis, Arthur P. “WILLIAM ROSCOE DAVIS AND HIS DESCENDANTS.” Negro History Bulletin 13, no. 4 (1950): 75–95.

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