ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – Today would have been the 81st birthday of the first African American Heisman Trophy winner Ernest R. Davis, more commonly known as Ernie Davis.
His early life revolved around the Twin Tiers, according to Rachel Dworkin, the archivist at the Chemung County Historical Society.
“So he was originally born in Pennsylvania lost his dad young and ended up moving here as a child,” said Dworkin. “He was very much involved in athletics “
Davis played sports like basketball and football, but he also spent much of his time getting involved with the community.
“He also you know volunteered his time at the neighborhood house and was involved in that sort of activities you know with youth sports and that sort of thing,” said Dworkin.
Unfortunately, Davis lost his battle against leukemia in 1963 at an early age of 23.
“He died young and tragically, and he was exceptionally popular at his wake,” said Dworkin. “Here in Elmira at the neighborhood house over 10,000 people came. It was packed. And that’s just, you know, an example of how people in this town loved him.”
To honor the legacy of this Syracuse University running back, typically the Economic Opportunity Program hosts a luncheon featuring his memorabilia, according to Anita Lewis, vice president of community and donor relations at EOP.
“You know, as part of us carry legacy is really to celebrate his birthday every year,” said Lewis. “That’s what the Ernie Davis Community Center building used to be named was the neighborhood house to actually set on this location where EOP is, and similar services, you know back then that we do now. “
However, this year, due to the pandemic, it was a grab-and-go event.
His inspirational story lives on through a scholarship in his name for student athletes like him.
*Interesting fact*: Ernie Davis was also the first African American prom king in Elmira.