Specific Pioneering Contributions
Philip Davis, LLB, was an historic social work pioneer as he undertook various roles as settlement house worker, industrial labor organizer, vocational bureau founder and administrator, and author. Davis was also instrumental in supporting Joseph Lee’s emerging Playground Movement in the U.S. (both in Boston and Chicago) to help children find suitable areas for recreation in crowded American cities.
Davis is renowned for his 1915 book, Street-Land: Its Little People and Big Problems, that realistically portrayed the Dickensian conditions of city street children in Boston, while urging civic leaders, such as Boston’s Mayor James Michael Curley, to act on behalf of these abandoned children.
Having worked briefly as an immigrant child laborer, Davis saw first-hand the dire working conditions in the late 19th century New York City garment industry. Upon his graduation from Harvard (A.B., 1903), Davis worked as a national organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, advocating for cessation of child industrial labor, union representation for workers, and improvement of squalid conditions in factories.
While a resident and worker at Boston’s Civic Service House in the North End of Boston beginning in 1901, Davis networked with key figures in Boston's educational and vocational reform movements. He worked as a supervisor for the Boston Public School system (1906-12), overseeing minors who worked as newsboys. He also directed a nationwide study on delinquent boys for the National Federation of Settlements from 1913-15. Beginning in 1909,
Davis was promoted to Director of the Civic Service House and ran an educational outreach program for immigrants, teaching civics, naturalization, and English classes. Along with his colleagues, Meyer Bloomfield, Ralph Albertson, and Lucinda Wyman Prince, Davis helped recruit Frank Parsons, considered the founder of the vocational guidance movement in the U.S., to teach classes at their settlement house through a program called the Breadwinners’ Institute. The classes attracted dozens of immigrants and won the financial backing of philanthropist Pauline Agassiz Shaw. This educational program, managed by Davis, eventually established itself as the first vocational guidance bureau in the U.S., maintaining executive offices at the Civic Service House and branch offices at the YMCA, the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, and the Economic Union. Each satellite office employed a vocational “Associate Counsellor” who assisted hundreds of immigrants and other urban poor find suitable employment that matched their skills and aptitudes with jobs in the community. Davis was highly successful in this trailblazing role at Boston’s Vocation Bureau within the Civic Service House, ensuring that Parsons’s vision took root and expanded beyond the Bureau to meet the needs of hundreds of individuals who relied upon the advice of these vocational counselors to advance their careers.
A cousin of Chaim Weizmann, former President of Israel, Davis was born into poverty in Motol, Belarus in 1876 and changed his name from Feivel Chemerinsky upon his arrival at Ellis Island in 1890. At age 13, he began work as a presser in New York’s garment industry shortly after arriving at Ellis Island, attending night school after putting in 15-hour workdays. Given the sordid conditions he experienced, he moved to Chicago to reside with his brother and sister-in-law while spending the rest of his teenage years being tutored in English and civics by Jane Addams at Hull House.
Davis attended the University of Chicago for two years (1899-1901) and, with Addams’s endorsement, he returned to the East Coast to study at Harvard University, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1903. He later continued his studies in law at Boston University, receiving his LLB in 1914, focusing on emerging employee rights and unionization issues. He wed Belle Shomer in 1904 and had two children, Frances Parsons and Phyllis Bella.
Davis’s role as advocate for abandoned street youth became well-known with the issuance of his 1915 book titled Street-Land: Its Little People and Big Problems. In the same year, Davis and Maida Herman Solomon edited a comprehensive textbook titled The Field of Social Service that was used to train professional social workers. Davis and Mabel Hill also wrote Civics for New Americans, and Davis edited and authored a chapter in Immigration and Americanization (with Bertha Schwartz) in 1919, both intended to assist in the acculturation of new immigrants.
Davis’s books helped to refute many widely believed myths about immigrants, including widely-held views about racial inferiority of persons from Eastern and Southern Europe. In 1952, Davis completed his autobiography, And Crowned Thy Good, that summed up the most important facets of his fascinating life.