Ingenious: A Light on the Prairie

Ollie Watts Davis’ long, illustrious tenure has established her as a U of I treasure

Ollie Watts Davis and William Warfield standing together at a podium on stage reviewing sheet of paper. Ollie Watts Davis (right) credits William Warfield (left) with encouraging her to attend the U of I. (Image courtesy of Ollie Watts Davis)
Ollie Watts Davis’ long, illustrious tenure has established her as a U of I treasure

Ollie Watts Davis, MMUS ’82, AMUSD ’88, has been enamored with lighthouses ever since her childhood. Davis says she collects lighthouse statues because “they serve their singular purpose effectively. I believe [that] I, too, have a singular purpose—to let my light shine out.”  

The acclaimed U of I music professor has directed the Black Chorus for more than four decades and has sung worldwide since making her debut at Carnegie Hall in 1990. 

Davis originally set her eyes on an engineering degree at the West Virginia University Institute of Technology, but that all changed when she joined the school choir and collegiate gospel choir.

“I was able to develop my sensibility and artistry in the collegiate gospel choir,” Davis says.

She planned to attend graduate school in West Virginia when her life took yet another turn in 1979. While practicing for a recital, she says, “I was singing, and in walks Porgy himself,” referring to William Warfield, the legendary Illinois music professor known worldwide for playing the lead in the operatic musical, Porgy and Bess, as well as singing “Old Man River” in the 1951 movie musical, Showboat. Davis was shocked when Warfield suddenly began singing along with her—and even more shocked when he invited her to apply to Illinois for graduate school.

“What was most meaningful,” Davis says, “is [that] he told me that although I would do well at the other schools I was considering, Illinois would be good for me.”

Once at Illinois, Davis was in for another surprise when André Thomas, AMUSD 83, director of the Black Chorus, introduced her to his class as his new assistant—without informing her. Then, in 1981, he told Davis that he had accepted a new job, and she was to take over as director. 

Four students created the Black Chorus in 1968, and four directors preceded Davis. She led the group until 1984 and then lined up a new teaching post. She and her husband, a pastor, prepared to leave, but felt God calling them to remain at Illinois.

“So, my two-year stay turned into a four-decade and two-year stay,”she says.

Davis has had a worldwide impact on the music of Black America. “[Black music] is maybe the most important contribution that has come from the soil of America,” Davis says. “Black music is rooted in the struggle of a people trying to survive.”

She has won many honors, but her impact on her students is her greatest legacy.

Allison Semmes, ’06 FAA, who starred as Diana Ross in Motown: the Musical on Broadway, summed it up in a 2020 Champaign News-Gazette article: “Dr. Davis not only taught me healthy vocal technique and arias in foreign languages, but she also taught me about style, grace, confidence and faith.”