Change is slow: Shaneka Davis, Boston’s gun violence and the killing of Booker T. Spicely 

Tucked away in Boston’s Financial District, Suffolk County Superior Court casting a long shadow across its engraved flagstones, Tyrone Britton Ayala joins 1,100 others in the Garden of Peace, a memorial for victims of homicide violence.

Shaneka Davis (NUSL ’14) would walk through the garden to and from work at the Attorney General’s Office, and gaze upon the stone etched with Britton’s name. To Davis, Britton was more than an anonymous string of engraved letters.

A former classmate at Monument High School within the South Boston Education Complex, formerly known as South Boston High School — “a historical site of racism and discrimination,” Davis described it in a recent interview with CRRJ — Britton was 18 when he was shot and killed on August 8, 2004, in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood.

Although she had always wanted “to use the law as a tool for social change,” Davis, who participated in the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic in 2013, said it was the violence she witnessed in her youth that motivated her to go to law school.

Davis lost not only Britton but two other classmates Brandon Summers and another young man she recalled as “Luis” to gun violence during her senior year of high school.

“I saw how poor Black and brown people were treated in Boston, in Massachusetts,” she said, “And I wanted to be the voice for my community.”

In 2013, Davis joined CRRJ’s clinic and began investigating the 1944 killing of U.S. Army, Private Booker T. Spicely.

Spicely, in uniform and unarmed, boarded a bus in Durham, North Carolina and sat in the second-to-last row. When white soldiers boarded, the driver, Herbert Lee Council, ordered Spicely to move further back. Spicely protested, but eventually moved, and attempted to apologize to Council as he disembarked at his stop.

Council shot Spicely twice and continued with his route.

Military police brought Spicely to Watts Hospital, where on account of his race he was refused care. He later died at Duke Hospital. Council turned himself in to police and was charged with first-degree murder, which was subsequently reduced to second-degree murder. An all-white jury found him not guilty after a brief deliberation.

“That case in particular was of interest to me, because as a child I spent a couple of years living in Durham North Carolina,” said Davis, whose father is also a veteran, from Mississippi. Although she was born and raised in Boston, Davis said she “heard about the South and knew about segregation and knew how it was for everyone,” including her own family members. From her own father’s experience, Davis said she could understand what it was like “to fight for your country, and then come home to fight another war.”

Read more about Spicely’s death on the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

About the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.

Davis also learned, while researching Spicely’s case, that her grandmother’s brother was lynched in Mississippi and “there was no real justice for that,” she said. “I know about the horrors that my family members lived through.”

As her investigation progressed, Davis saw the apparent parallels between Spicely’s story and that of her slain classmates. Tyrone’s death was reported vaguely by media outlets, she said. “He was a statistic, and they didn’t see past that.” Similarly, despite serving his country and the circumstances of his killing – committed in broad daylight and with many witnesses – “the authorities, the bus company did not seem to value Spicely’s life,” Davis said. Like her classmates, Spicely was “a statistic for a news article. They never valued these individuals.”

Through her work at CRRJ, Davis said she is grateful to have had the opportunity to humanize and restore dignity to these victims and their descendants. “It was amazing to be able to shine light on who Booker T. Spicely was,” Davis said.

The Spicely piece allowed me to bring life to his name so that he wasn’t just a Black man slain, he was a soldier, he was a family person.

She said her work on the gun violence initiative, completed during her time as an Assistant Attorney General under then-Attorney General Maura Healey (NUSL ’98) honored the lives of her former classmates. “I was able to work to let the community, and current youth, give us guidance on how we can reduce gun violence,” she said.

Since Davis’ original investigation into the Spicely matter in 2014, her report, published on the CRRJ website, attracted national attention, piquing the interest of attorney James Williams in North Carolina. Williams is head of the Booker Spicely Committee that continues to champion for restorative justice for Spicely and his surviving relatives.

“It has been amazing to see the people in North Carolina take it on over the years,” said Davis.

In January 2023, North Carolina Central University Law School officials announced that the Duke Energy Foundation – who owned and operated Durham’s bus system in 1944 – had awarded them $100,000 to create the Booker T. Spicely Endowed Scholarship Fund.

In the fall of that same year, the committee partnered with Carolina K-12 to develop a public school lesson plan incorporating Booker T. Spicely’s case, to be taught to students in North Carolina public schools.

Last December, a North Carolina State Highway Historical Marker was unveiled in honor of Spicely, close to the spot where he was killed. It is the first such marker in North Carolina to reference the term “Jim Crow.”

“I’m happy that there has been some restorative justice,” said Davis. “It’s never going to bring him back but I’m happy that that little bit of research that I did back then reignited such interest in his story.”

Davis recently returned to the law school on April 2, 2024, to hear James Williams’ report on the activities of the North Carolina Booker Spicely Committee.

After graduating, Davis completed a clerkship with Associate Justice Frederick L. Brown, the Commonwealth’s first African-American appellate judge, and a former Northeastern law professor. Then came her time as an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division, before joining the legal team at Boston Children’s Hospital. There, she said, she witnessed first-hand the connection between social determinants of health and the law. This inspired her to return to the university and earn a Master of Public Health in Social Epidemiology from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Today, Davis works for UMass Memorial Health, the largest healthcare system in Central Massachusetts, focused on employment and healthcare regulatory matters. She has been central to the launch of a system-wide anti-harassment training. She continues to deliver instruction on how to reduce and prevent harassment.

“I see the work that I do today as still rooted in social justice,” she said. “It’s come full circle, not necessarily a round one but it’s all come back around.”

Her advice to law students interested in social change is “to get involved, and to be a part of justice,” she said. “Justice sometimes is very slow, and Spicely is an example of that. Just because we don’t always see progress when we want to, doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”

Cover image, left to right: Shaneka Davis, Booker T. Spicely, from the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, and background image is the Garden of Peace, from Wikipedia Commons.

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