Colin Davis, Ph.D., always has pursued education - even when an education system turned its back on him. 

Colin Davis, winner of the ’10 Ireland Award for Scholarly Distinction, didn’t have the scholarly background many would assume. He completed school at age 15 and was a tool-and-die maker until age 22 when he quit his job and started studying to be accepted to university. His determination and drive have driven his success.
Colin Davis, winner of the ’10 Ireland Award for Scholarly Distinction, didn’t have the scholarly background many would assume. He completed school at age 15 and was a tool-and-die maker until age 22 when he quit his job and started studying to be accepted to university. His determination and drive have driven his success.
Davis, professor of history, grew up in England in a working-class family in the 1960s and '70s when status weighed heavily on the way people were viewed. He didn't do very well on his 11-Plus Exam as an 11-year-old, which was a crucial test for British school children. Those who performed well on the exam were fast-tracked to a grammar school and prepared for university training. Davis was instead sent to a classic working-class school. 

Davis completed school at age 15. He managed to avoid the usual options for working-class school graduates - farm laborer or butcher - and received an apprenticeship as a tool-and-die maker. "I was clocking in and clocking out every day from age 15 to 22," Davis says. "I was lucky that I got an apprenticeship, but I was frustrated. There was a gap because I always loved history. When I was working I was buying history books and reading history and watching all of these documentaries on British TV." 

Much to the chagrin of some in his family, Davis quit his job after eight years and began to study full-time with an eye on being accepted to the University of Warwick. More than 30 years later thanks to persistence and determination, Davis has a track record of success to show for his labor. 

Davis is considered an international expert in U.S. and comparative labor history. He has written or co-edited five books on the subject and educated thousands of students in the United States, including students at UAB for the past 20 years. Now colleagues have honored Davis by awarding him the 2010 Carolyn P. and Charles W. Ireland Prize for Scholarly Distinction.

UAB presents the award annually to a full-time faculty member in Arts & Humanities, Natural Sciences & Mathematics or Social & Behavioral Sciences for professional and academic achievements and contributions to the university and local community. The prize, made possible by the Caroline P. and Charles W. Ireland Endowment for Scholarly Distinction, comes with a $5,000 cash award. 

"It's truly an honor, and I feel fortunate to be recognized by the committee and by my peers," Davis says. "We have some outstanding faculty at UAB in all the departments. I'm very appreciative, especially since it's an award chosen by my colleagues. That gives it an added quality."

A dinner and lecture will begin at 6 p.m. Monday, April 19 in The Club Staterooms. Reservations may be made by calling 975-0756 or by e-mailing the UAB Events Office at

Labor history and issues have had an impact on Davis since his youth, largely due to his own working-class background and the influence of his mother, a working-class woman who voted for the Labour Party. 

Davis says the disappointment some in his family showed when he quit his tool-and-die-making job was genuine. 

"Some of my family said, 'What are you doing? You're such a waster avoiding work,'" Davis says. "I said, 'No, I really want to do this.' Once I was accepted to university they understood. To them, university wasn't for people like us. We were working-class poor. But once I got to university everything changed." 

Davis took with him more than eight years of experience in labor relations, which gave him real-world perspective. 

Workers were the ones with the power - power that Davis never hesitated to use even as a young lad. If a foreman would look over his shoulder when he was working, Davis turned his machine off to avoid being told what to do. 

"We wouldn't allow the foreman to intervene or involve themselves in the working process," Davis says. "The tool-and-die workers are skilled craftsmen, so they took it seriously. There was a lot of shop-floor power, and I was raised in that environment."

Moving up at UAB

Davis began his undergraduate work at age 24, and his interest in American labor history was born during his three years at Warwick. He wrote to three professors in the United States toward the end of his undergraduate career and was invited to Binghamton University in New York by Melvyn Dubofsky. Davis was offered a position directing discussion groups, and he received a tuition waiver. 

"I thought I'd run over here and get a master's and then zip back to England," he says. "That was 30 years ago." 

Instead, Davis decided to pursue his doctorate, met his future wife and began teaching - something he says now was terrifying. 

"I was very nervous, and the first lecture I gave was a disaster," he says. "But then I found that it didn't really matter because teaching was structured so I could say what I wanted how I wanted, and I eventually discovered that I really loved it."

Davis came to UAB in 1991 and quickly established himself among the faculty and students. He was the recipient of the UAB Alumni/Ellen Greg Ingalls Teaching Award in 1997, and he rose from an assistant professor to a full professor in 12 years. 

Davis has researched and written two books during his time at UAB - Power at Odds: the 1922 National Railroad Shopmen's Strike and Waterfront Revolts: New York City and London Dockworkers, 1946-62. He's wrapping up research for a third book on Trans-Atlantic fisherman in New England and Britain from 1960-1973.  

Colleagues say Davis' books have made important interpretive contributions to his field, pushing beyond an older labor history that dealt primarily with unions to a newer historical study of workers themselves and the way in which they sought to resist top-down work disciplines and control their workplaces.

"Dr. Davis has established an enviable reputation as an innovative and productive scholar during his almost 20 years at UAB," says Distinguished Professor Raymond Mohl, Ph.D. "His record of scholarly publication and productivity only describes one aspect of his academic work at UAB. He is a masterful teacher, has mentored students in the history honor society and advised student editors of the annual Vulcan Historical Review, the department's prize-winning student journal. The Ireland Prize honors outstanding scholarly research, but it is important to recognize that great scholarship is not mutually exclusive with top-flight teaching and engaged academic service."

Davis says his life could not have evolved any better. 

"When the job of American Labor History instructor came open here, it was right up my alley," he says. "Birmingham seemed like the perfect place to be for a labor historian because of all of the wonderful labor history here. It's just been a wonderful journey. UAB's been very good to me. I've been able to establish my career here, and I've also been able to blossom."