Washington Press Club Foundation
Belva Davis:
Interview #1 (pp. 1-36)
June 27, 1992 in San Francisco, California
Shirley Biagi , Interviewer

Go to Session Two | Session Three | Session Four | Session Five
Index | Cover | Home
Page 1

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Biagi: Let's start by asking you about your life now, and we'll go back later, what it is your assignment is and where you are working, because this is oral history. People will not know any of that background. Let's start there.

Davis: I have the title of urban affairs reporter or specialist. I wish I knew what it really meant. I can only give you just a little background on how I got the title. When I first went to work at Channel 4 [KRON-TV], I was working at Channel 9, at the time they discontinued the news, and I thought, "This is it. I'm going to get out of broadcasting. It's all over with for me." The one place I thought I'd never get a call from to go to work was Channel 4. I was president of the broadcasters union, and just preceding this, we had had one of the longest and most bitter performers union strikes in the history of the city.

Biagi: Is that AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists]?

Davis: Yes. I was the president, and I had been walking up and down picketing outside of the station. So I thought, "They're certainly never going to give me a job." But that was the very first phone call asking if I wanted to come work for Channel 4.

Biagi: What year was that?

Davis: That was in 1981. So I said, yes, I did, but I didn't want to be a news anchor anymore. I just thought it was too stressful. I have this blood pressure problem. I wanted to keep reporting, but I didn't want to do that anymore. So they said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "I like reporting on the city and city government, and I love politics. I'm one of those people who find planning committee hearings fun." [Laughter.] "I feel the most important job we do is keeping people informed about what government is doing and what government does and how government action impacts our lives. The news director, Mike Ferring, said, "What do you want to call that?" I said, "I don't know what to call it. All of the things have to do with urban issues one way or the other." "What about urban affairs? Okay, that's what we'll call you." [Laughter.] So that's how the title came about.

Later, I was renamed the city hall reporter, and for a few years, in addition to my office at KRON, I had an office in city hall, and I reported to work there every day and reported on San Francisco government until something else struck my fancy.

Then I got a news director that didn't like San Francisco, so I continued to be responsible for San Francisco city government and was the resource on stories to do with government, but I wasn't given the time to go out and really sit in and spend two or three hours listening to people debate whether they should close off some one-way streets or not.

Page 1

Page 2

Biagi: Did he close the bureau?

Davis: Actually, it wasn't that clean. I just sort of drifted to where I am now. I am doing things called urban affairs, and that is everything from how the health system is or is not operating to very personal stories about how governmental decisions really impact on people's lives.

My most recent story that sticks in my mind is a demonstration. When we talk about budget cuts and doing without and bare bones and so forth, it's always difficult. It sounds so dry and so dull when we use those words, when the debate is happening over budgets. But I did a story about a young woman who gave birth to her son in a jail cell in Santa Clara County last weekend, and she's twenty-five years old, deaf mute. She had the baby in jail. Because, of course, she is deaf mute, she could not cry out. She was in so much pain, she couldn't write a note. The jail had no interpreter basically because of budget cuts. She had her child, she was taken to the hospital, she was given a day with the baby, and the baby was given to her boyfriend, who is fifty-eight years old, who is also deaf. She was taken back to jail.

One of the reasons she's in jail is because she was convicted of possessing illegal drugs. They put her in a program for drug abusers, but they had no deaf interpreter on a regular basis. Therapy is all talking and understanding what's going on. So there she was in these sessions, unable to hear or have a translator. So she just left. They picked her up and put her in jail because she had left the program. Well, the reason they don't have an interpreter is because they don't have money to have an interpreter. So I tried to bring home the impact of these decisions through stories. Very sad.

Biagi: How did you find her?

Davis: Actually, through two or three lines in some newspaper I was reading, about the first child being born in this correction facility. I'll see some small article, and fortunately for me I have the time to sit and call people to see if there's anything to it. Because it's called urban affairs, it doesn't have to have a payoff of any kind. I'm just sort of letting you [the audience] know what's happening around you in government and in these policy decisions that are made.

The more I called agencies, when I got to the welfare agencies to find out about little Vincent, the new baby, "What about him? Who's going to look out for little Vincent? His mother's going to be in jail till next August. Even if she gets out, how is she ever going to be cured? What's going to happen?" The caseworkers are so overloaded, they thought (and they're probably right) that they would not be able to find a better place for him than with his natural father, even though his natural father is fifty-eight years old and deaf and has a twenty-month-old already to care for. They decided that this child would not become part of their case load.

Biagi: What's your hope in doing a story like that? What drives you to do a story like that?

Davis: I want people, when they hear me do the rest of the stories about the hits, runs, and errors of budget debates, hopefully someplace in their memory they'll conjure up this image of this young woman. We [KRON] hired an interpreter and went to the jail and interviewed her and had her tell her own story. When they can visualize the signing and talking about the baby coming out and how there was nobody to help her, what pain she was in, that they will not just hear numbers, they'll hear that pain. That's what I hope.

Page 2

Page 3

Biagi: Since you're choosing your own stories in many cases, what do you think it is in your background that makes that story important to you as opposed to all the other stories that day or that week in San Francisco?

Davis: Early in my career, I used to try to pretend that I'm just like everybody else and I approach a story just like everybody else, and I'm this unbiased blank sheet of paper that came to this job with no history, no background, and I'm going to approach it like every college-educated white guy that's got a journalism degree. Not so. [Laughter.] Not so.

I come from a very poor background where I lived in the housing projects as a child, where my first years in California were spent with my entire family of eleven people who shared two rooms together, where the biggest deal that happened to us was that I graduated high school. So my background is totally different from my colleagues. And because I was the first black female reporter, I wanted to be one of the guys when I started in the business. I didn't want to stand out. I wanted my work to measure up to be as good, if not better, than theirs. Therefore, I wasn't crying out for some special privilege or special look because I was this disadvantaged kid. I'm sure I'm just coming to terms with that, of denial, probably, when I first started to work. But later on, I realized that one of the reasons we need diversity of media is because there are a lot of people out there that share my background, and I don't put it in front of my story, but I shouldn't try to erase it from the background of the story and how I look at things.

I guess when I look at a story like that, I'm looking at people who are powerless to get their message across to decision-makers or even voters who can make a decision about whether they're helped and how. I think that is the wonderment of my good luck in life, is that I can be an instrument to do that.

Biagi: Let's start with your background and go back to the very beginning, the date you were born, the precise date.

Davis: Only this year am I dealing with the date I was born, and I've got to tell you, it's funny, because I can remember the comedies like "Lucy" and the silly things of women in the bygone era before the fifties, you know, about women and their age and how women always lied about their age. Well, to a point, I never did. Then to a point, I decided, "If you want to keep working, you'd better start going soft on this age stuff."

Biagi: How many years did you lose?

Davis: Actually, never more than one. Isn't that stupid? I just thought later that's why I'd finally start 'fessing up. It was so stupid! Why didn't I take five years off or ten years off or something like that? It was just a one-year difference. My colleagues don't like it when I say this, but doing this work is like an addiction, because it does give you so many unexpected highs and charges and really a sense of being at the center of what's important, that the idea that you're not going to be there and you're not going to know all that stuff you used to know gets a little frightening.

So I decided that when it was getting the time that I should leave the business, I would talk about it as much as possible. [Laughter.] If I said it enough, I'd believe it, you know. "You're not going to be doing this next year." I started doing funny little things like I don't always put my press card in the window and park illegally as much as I used to. [Laughter.]

Biagi: Slow withdrawal. [Laughter.]

Page 3

Page 4

Davis: Slow withdrawal.

Biagi: Did you actually ever park legally?

Davis: That is my biggest addiction, which is why I mention it first. I've been hoping the government would settle down so there's one guy in the public information office that I could cultivate, so at least I can go on a year or so after I quit.

Biagi: San Francisco parking is really important.

Davis: Let me tell you, that's like the biggest perk I get. I keep waiting, as they take away perks these days, somebody will say, "Hey, they don't need that." In any case, so I talk about it now a lot. This is a long way, I know, to get around to my age and answer you directly. I am getting ready mentally, and I've set some dates.

I was born October 13, 1932, right in the midst of the Depression.*

Biagi: How did you get along?

Davis: By just sticking to myself and being quiet. A lot of people who know me now in this incarnation would never put it together with this kid who never opened her mouth, extremely quiet, tried to blend into the background and stay out of sight and out of mind. That was the way I got along. Yes, that was it.

Biagi: Why wouldn't they believe that of you now?

Davis: Because now I'm out in front of everything, but then, boy, if it wasn't in a book, I didn't know about it.

Biagi: So you did spend a lot of time reading.

Davis: Yes. It was more real to me than the real world.

Biagi: What were you reading about?

Davis: I don't know. I wish I could tell you. I don't know. Not much made that much of an impression on me, I guess. Mostly I think I read things that had a happy ending. [Laughter.]

Biagi: What about the movies? Did those movies appeal to you?

Davis: Oh, yes, I liked the swashbuckler movies, and Alan Ladd was one of my favorite people when I was growing up. Adventure films, romantic films.

Biagi: How much was it to go to the Broadway Theater?

Davis: Ten cents.

* At the interviewee's request, a lengthy segment of the transcript was deleted at this point. Some of the information was rerecorded in the last interviews.

Page 4

Page 5

Biagi: And popcorn was how much?

Davis: I don't know. I just remember on Saturdays it cost a dime, and I know that in the summertime you could go for milktops on Wednesdays. You saved up. Everybody was encouraged to drink as much milk as possible, so when you got milk out of the bottle, you saved the tops. You just took them to the theater and you got in on Wednesday matinee for milktops.

Biagi: What a deal! That's pretty good.

Davis: I was really great at saving milktops.

Biagi: Junior high was at Lincoln?

Davis: No, I went to Hoover Junior High. Now I truly was living sometimes with my parents and sometimes with my aunt, but I stayed at Hoover. Even when I lived with my aunt in Berkeley, I took the bus into Oakland.

Biagi: Where were your parents living?

Davis: My parents were living still on Poplar Street in the housing project, and that was when the divorce came.

Biagi: That was when you were roughly how old? What grade were you in, do you remember?

Davis: That must have been when I was going into the seventh grade, I guess. I either was just ending the sixth grade or going into the seventh grade.

Biagi: But you still stayed at the same school?

Davis: Yes. Once I enrolled there, I made a friend who's still my best friend.

Biagi: Who is that?

Davis: A woman named Rosemary Prince. Her name is Rosemary Towns now. I'll never forget, the first day of school we both wore glasses. [Laughter.] That was our commonality. We were both scared to death and both loners, and we somehow just migrated. She was an only child living with her mom, and we didn't live very far apart. We just migrated together and we've been friends ever since.

Biagi: Are you nearsighted or farsighted?

Davis: Right now I'm both! [Laughter.]

Biagi: Well, we're talking about early, thirteen or so.

Davis: I've never known how to translate that.

Biagi: Did you have thick glasses or thin glasses?

Davis: Thick glasses.

Page 5

Page 6

Biagi: That's a good way to judge. I would say you were farsighted.

Davis: We both did, and here we were, two people with these three braids, the symbol of little black girls. [Laughter.]

Biagi: Did you still have your long hair?

Davis: Yes. Oh, yes. My aunt did not believe in cutting your hair. The first thing I did when I got freedom was chop that stuff off. [Laughter.]

Biagi: What about dressing you? Did she have a way of dressing you?

Davis: Very modest in everything. Oh, yes. Modesty in everything. Moderation and modesty, the cornerstones.

Biagi: Patent leather shoes.

Davis: That was a sign of prosperity, if you could afford patent leather shoes.

Biagi: So you and your friend Rosemary show up at school. Did you have any particular subjects you were particularly good in or bad in? Or were you good in everything?

Davis: I never could spell. I still can't spell. I cannot spell today, which is why I got out of print and into broadcasting, so I wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. I never could spell. I was always good at math. I used to be very good at math. Loved history. That was my favorite topic. We were good students. There wasn't a lot of pressure on me by anyone in particular to be an excellent student, but just to be a good student, but I put a lot of pressure on myself to get the best grades. I did not want anything other than—I mean, I wanted As, but if I got Bs, I lived with it. No Cs and Ds, no, no, no.

Biagi: Other activities? Did you do anything else in junior high? You were still going to church.

Davis: Yes, and Rosemary went to church with me. She has a wonderful, wonderful mother. In fact, I think her mother had a great influence on me.

Biagi: What is her mom's name?

Davis: Anna Dean. She's a really great lady. I think that's where I started to learn really about parenting, is from her, because she was a person that discussed everything and anything with you. There was nothing that was off limits if you wanted to know about it. No decision was arbitrarily made without explanation if you wanted to talk about it. Experiences that she could enable you to do were made possible. In other words, if we wanted to go to a concert, my mother [Florence Mays] would say, "Well, you just can't go because you can't go to the concert. You'd get out at dark." And Anna Dean's attitude was, "Well, it's going to be late, but I'll take you."

Biagi: She'd make it possible.

Davis: Yes. She was like the mother to a whole group of us young women whose parents were either very involved in themselves or didn't—she had more education than the rest of our parents. She graduated high school. She had maybe gone to some college.

Page 6

Page 7

Biagi: Was she from the South?

Davis: From Texas. She spent a lot of time with the whole group of us.

Biagi: How many kids?

Davis: She later married a man who had a daughter, so she had a stepdaughter. Then there was a woman who lived downstairs from Rosemary who was about our age, so that one. Then there were two other friends who came along later, who joined this group, who we're still friends with, Rosie and her sister, who didn't live that far away. So it was just a whole group.

Biagi: All girls?

Davis: All girls that she sort of would look out for us, take us places, try to arbitrate our fights with one another, and things of that sort.

Biagi: What kind of places did she take you to?

Davis: Sometimes to the movies if we were going to get out after dark, sometimes to concerts that we wanted to go to. I remember one big excursion, once we went to Santa Cruz. That was a big excursion.

Biagi: On the train?

Davis: We went in a car, in two cars. We went to Santa Cruz for the day. It was a lot of planning.

Biagi: Did you go to Playland?

Davis: Yes, because we wanted to go to the beach. I think Rosemary's stepfather worked for the railroad. My mother worked for the railroad. So we had train passes, which is just amazing to me. We had these train passes, but we never went anywhere except to Los Angeles. We could travel anyplace free. So our big deal was—I called her Miss Anna, my name for her—would arrange for us in the summertime to go down to Los Angeles to visit her cousin, so we would get on the train and take overnight trips to Los Angeles. That was our big summer vacation, to spend a week or two with her cousin.

Biagi: Would you say you spent more time with her than you did at home?

Davis: Oh, yes, as I began to grow up. I spent lots of time at her place.

Biagi: Where did you go to high school?

Davis: Berkeley High.

Biagi: What year did you start there?

Davis: I graduated in 1951.

Biagi: '47, you started?

Davis: '48.

Page 7

Page 8

Biagi: Rosemary went with you?

Davis: No, we split up then in schools. She stayed in Oakland and went to Oakland Tech, and I went to Berkeley.

Biagi: Was that because you were living in Berkeley?

Davis: Yes. And all this time when I was going to Hoover, I was living between Berkeley and Oakland all the time.

Biagi: Moving around.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: How did you manage your clothes? How did you keep your things straight?

Davis: I was pretty much responsible for myself. That was the other thing. That's something I used to do, was that Rosemary and I would go and buy these little pieces of fabric, and her mother could sew, but we were terrible. We'd buy these little cheap pieces of fabric and we'd make these skirts. [Laughter.] Well, she was far better off than I am. She actually had cashmere sweaters. I dreamed of owning a cashmere sweater. I never owned one. Never, never owned one. So Rosemary could shop at Capwell's and I shopped at Lerner's. [Laughter.] Sometimes when she got a really nice skirt, we would buy fabric and make me one similar to it.

Biagi: Her mother would do that?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: You would start it and then probably her mother finished it?

Davis: That's right. Exactly. I was very impatient. I was terrible, and I didn't want to turn the little part you had to turn to make the first little seam before you turned it to do the hem. I just had the raw edge. [Laughter.] Oh, dear.

Biagi: That would never do.

Davis: No.

Biagi: In high school, what happened in high school of note? Special teachers you really liked?

Davis: I was living on Ashby Avenue [Berkeley, California], and I was pretty much outside. The latter part of it, I started dating the guy that lived next door to me, but basically it was a very lonely time. I didn't have any close friends.

Biagi: Was it an integrated school?

Davis: Oh, yes. When I say that, I don't know how many kids were at that school, but in the whole school, if there were two thousand students, maybe two hundred or three hundred were minority students, very small numbers.

Biagi: Were you a good student?

Page 8

Page 9

Davis: Well, yes. I could have graduated a half semester before I did, but I wanted to stay in school. I went to summer school every summer. It was something to do. I went to Tech, because Berkeley didn't have summer school. All the Berkeley students went to Oakland Tech to summer school, so every summer I went to summer school. I had a double major. I wanted to go to college, but I was never sure if I'd be able to go, so I thought I'd better learn to really type just in case. Good thing I did, because by the time I was graduated, it was not possible for me to go.

Biagi: Did you have a business major and what else?

Davis: And college prep.

Biagi: So that was overall college preparation, which meant algebra, geometry?

Davis: Yes. I got accepted at San Francisco State. There was no money to go.

Biagi: Had your mother remarried by this time?

Davis: Yes, she had remarried and probably divorced by now.

Biagi: Again? She remarried and divorced. Did this stepfather have a part in your life at all?

Davis: Not much at all. Those are very, very turbulent years. Very, very turbulent years.

Biagi: Did you live with your mother at this time mostly?

Davis: I think during the last part of junior high years I lived with my mother a little bit, because I know two big huge tragedies of life were then. My mother lived in a studio apartment with my stepfather. Where my brother lived, occasionally we ended up there together. One of the things that happened is that one day I remember coming home and trying to light the stove, which is what heated the apartment, and I had the burner on, on the top, and I was trying to light the oven, and I opened the oven to see if it was lit, and the pilot hadn't caught, so the stove blew up. My face got singed and my hair got burned. That was pretty bad. I ended up with no real scars, no lasting scars.

Biagi: What about the apartment?

Davis: Actually, it just blew up; it didn't catch on fire. By now I couldn't see anyway, so I don't know.

Biagi: But it didn't do a lot of damage, as you remember?

Davis: No. It did damage to the kitchen area. I can't recall.

Biagi: Then the other tragedy? You said there were two.

Davis: My brother and I are not close at all, never have been. I think that was the beginning of the total deterioration of our relationship. My brother was angry at me and threw a skillet of hot grease at me, burned my arm pretty bad.

Biagi: How old were you?

Page 9

Page 10

Davis: It was in junior high school. It burned my arm pretty bad. From there on, my aunt said, "The Christian thing to do is love your brother," but we were never in a close relationship. So those were the two single things.

Then my mother and dad broke up. My mother moved in with my aunt, and my father was really—I don't even want to talk about it. Even in doing the book I didn't go through all this stuff, because I can't even get the circumstances right. But my father came over. This was my big growing-up experience. My father came over.

Biagi: This was your natural father, not your stepfather.

Davis: This was before my mother remarried. My father was threatening my mother, because they had broken up, and he had this gun. I remember being very upset, and everybody's running around like crazy. I just decided that this guy was out of control, and I called the police. They came out and they arrested him. I never felt one bit of regret about it at all. That was a big deal, and then my mother moved to this other place, and eventually she married again. So needless to say, I had a very active—

Biagi: That's right. Were you dating? You were dating the guy next door?

Davis: I don't know when that started. That wasn't during this period. That obviously didn't take place until I was getting ready to graduate.

Biagi: The pigtails were gone now?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Your hair was short?

Davis: No, it was not quite as long as it had been when I was small. What happened is I had to take swimming lessons at Berkeley. I had so much hair that I couldn't get my hair under the cap, so enough was cut off so it could be manageable. The real haircut didn't come until I got a job.

Biagi: So you had mid-length hair.

Davis: I wish I could find a picture.

Biagi: Just below your shoulders.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Then you graduated from high school and you've still got this friendship with your good friend. Did you have other friends or people who were important in your life at this time?

Davis: Yes, I had friends, but Rosemary was really the closest friend, and still is. I had many other friends. In fact, at this dinner that we had last night, we formed a club in high school, and some of these people whom I've known since then, later at some point we formed this club called Les Girls. So there was one table last night of the women in there.

Biagi: All from Berkeley?

Page 10

Page 11

Davis: No, because many of us who came from West Oakland knew about Berkeley's reputation and what a great school it was in terms of preparing you for admission to the University of California, so everybody cheated and lied about living in Berkeley.

Biagi: They all went to Berkeley High?

Davis: Many of them did who were in this group. Five of them lived in Oakland and went to school in Berkeley.

Biagi: So at home it was turbulent, but at school you had this circle of friends at that time?

Davis: Yes. I think this must have come right at the end of my schooling, because I spent the first two years at Berkeley pretty much by myself, and I would spend my weekends with Rosemary.

Biagi: And summers?

Davis: I went to summer school and I worked. I got a job when I was fourteen.

Biagi: Your first job?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Which was?

Davis: Working at the Berkeley Five & Dime. I worked there till I graduated from high school.

Biagi: Did you work after school?

Davis: Yes, worked after school and summers. I went to summer school. I kept very busy.

Biagi: And the money you got there, did you have to contribute that to the home?

Davis: Some of it, yes, I did, and some of it I kept to buy my school clothes and books.

Biagi: Thinking about it, when your mother moved in with your aunt [Pearline Lindsey] and you were there, you were working at the Five & Dime, your aunt worked off and on, but you had your mother's salary.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: So that helped.

Davis: But by then my uncle [Ezra Lindsey] was disabled because of the back injury. He was not working. So they got some sort of disability. They bought a house, which was a big deal. So my aunt worked sometimes. My mother worked all the time. I contributed some of what I earned. Basically it [the money] was used to not be a further burden.

Biagi: Did you have any household responsibilities?

Page 11

Page 12

Davis: Yes, I did. My aunt was really a meticulous cleaner, so all of Saturday was spent cleaning, waxing the floors, polishing whatever we had, cleaning the windows. I mean, we went through the house with a fine-toothed comb every Saturday, housecleaning, as well as during the week, the dishes, helped with dinner. My mother was never a manager of anything and never much of a cook, never any of those things. So whenever I was with her, I took care of everything. I paid her bills. Even when she wasn't living with me, I paid her bills. I took care of the bill-paying, would take care of the shopping.

Biagi: Did you have enough money to get along, or were there times when there was not enough money? Were you conscious of that?

Davis: There was never enough money. We got by. We were never starving. One thing Southern people know is how to trade stuff. My mother worked for the railroad, and the guys who did what they called "ran on the road," at the end of the run there's always foodstuff left over, so even during the war we had plenty of butter and sugar and stuff like that, that came from the trains. That's what I remember about the war, the margarine with the orange stuff that you had to put in it to give it color.

Biagi: It was just white?

Davis: It came white, and then you had this little packet of stuff. You'd sprinkle it on and you'd mix it all up to turn it yellow.

Biagi: That was pretty lucky, in that circumstance, to have access to butter. It turned it into an industry there. You said that when you were ready to go to college, there wasn't any money. Did your friend go to college?

Davis: Yes, all of my friends went to college. I was the only one who didn't go to college. My dad had always earned a good salary as a carpenter, and I had gone to my dad to see if he could give me the five-hundred bucks or whatever it cost to get your fees, and he couldn't see his way to do it. So I got married about six months after that.

Biagi: Is that the only place you applied, San Francisco State?

Davis: No, but it was the only place that seemed possible in terms of the money, what it cost, the fees that you had to pay, and so forth. Plus my other friends were going to State. I'm sure I was accepted at other schools, because I had good grades, but I think it was just out of the question. Things like student aid and all that were not readily things that were available. At least I didn't know the system.

Biagi: There was no scholarship that you heard about?

Davis: No. I don't know if it was the whole thing of race or what it was, but I don't remember black kids getting scholarships. I know we really were poverty kids, and I don't know anybody in that group who got a scholarship except the small scholarships that black organizations give. But they were always fifty dollars or a hundred dollars or something. That was a big deal at the church.

Biagi: So now you got married?

Davis: About six months after that.

Page 12

Page 13

Biagi: This has not factored into the discussion before. Who was this fellow that you got married to?

Davis: The next door neighbor.

Biagi: His name was?

Davis: Frank. That's where the Davis comes from.

Biagi: I know how you met him, because he was next door. What was his claim to fame at that point?

Davis: He's a little bit older than me. I think he had graduated from San Francisco State and he was in the military. He joined the air force after graduating from college, so he had a job. He was in the military.

Biagi: He would be about twenty or twenty-one, twenty-two?

Davis: About twenty-two. I think he had graduated. He must have, because he was way ahead of me in school. He was out of Berkeley High when I started, so that meant he would have been out of college. He'd gone away to military. I was sort of out of my friends' lives by then, because you know how exciting it is your first year of college. I really felt like a third shoe. I didn't have any other friend that wasn't going to college.

I got a job, though. If I can remember where I was working, it would be very good. I should remember this. I remember that summer trying to get a job, or maybe it was in the fall. Whatever it was, that was a terrible, terrible time, because it was very difficult for black people to get clerical jobs, and all of the companies had routines. For the phone company, the routine was you always got this great interview and everybody was always very nice, but they'd always tell you that you were overqualified. "You're wonderful, but you're overqualified." Here you have this little kid right out of high school who had only worked at a dime store, and she's overqualified for work at the phone company. So that didn't work. The other big place to get a job was at Metropolitan Life, and they had just the opposite. You had to get more experience. And those were the two places that you could go to apply for work.

So I think what I did is I took the government clerical test and got a job as a GS-2, at the bottom.

Biagi: A typist.

Davis: I must have been to pass the test. So that's what I did.

Biagi: Where did you work?

Davis: I think that's how I got the job at the Naval Supply Center, where my dad had worked.

Biagi: He was, by that time, gone, and he was a carpenter.

Davis: Right.

Biagi: Did you get work just before you got married?

Page 13

Page 14

Davis: Yes. After I got married, I stayed here. He went back to wherever he went to, and I think it was another six months before I moved.

Biagi: Did you have a place to live?

Davis: By then, yes. I went to Washington, D.C. He was stationed in Washington, D.C.

Biagi: You didn't have a separate place to live right after you got married?

Davis: Oh, no. [Laughter.]

Biagi: You stayed home.

Davis: I stayed home.

Biagi: You got married. A big ceremony, small ceremony?

Davis: Big by my standards, but small by anybody else's, because I paid for everything.

Biagi: How much did this cost?

Davis: I bought a long-to-the-floor wedding gown and veil and bridesmaids and all that stuff. I got married on New Year's Day, which was about the stupidest thing that I could think of.

Biagi: What year?

Davis: That must have been '52.

Biagi: How many bridesmaids?

Davis: It seems to me it was four. It was strictly a teenage wedding with no adult input, outside of Miss Anna.

Biagi: What do you mean by a teenage wedding?

Davis: That's what we all were, we were teenagers. I read books again, and we sort of decided what a proper wedding was and went about doing it. The reception consisted of having people over at his house, because they had a better house than we did. His mother was not happy about this wedding at all. I guess that was it. I know it was the day of the Rose Bowl, so everybody watched the football game mostly. [Laughter.]

Biagi: But you had food there at his mother's house?

Davis: Yes. It was a nice little party.

Biagi: How did your family feel about it?

Davis: They resented that the next door neighbor people had always treated them like dirt, so there was this sort of cordial friendliness between the two families.

Biagi: Then you continued to live where?

Page 14

Page 15

Davis: Then my mother and I moved out and took an apartment together.

Biagi: In Berkeley?

Davis: Yes. What I'm trying to recall, by now I had a brother and sister by her other marriage.

Biagi: She had remarried.

Davis: The same one that I told you about when I was getting all mixed up. The quick marriage. They were married long enough to have two children that are eleven months apart.

Biagi: Seventeen or eighteen years younger than you.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Their names are?

Davis: Gregory and Althea.

Biagi: So it's Gregory, Althea, you, and her new husband?

Davis: No, he's gone now. He was very short-lived. The two children and that was it. That was it, and he was gone.

Biagi: And in the apartment.

Davis: Yes, but that didn't last that long, because I soon left.

Biagi: Your husband had left to go to Washington, D.C.

Davis: What I'm trying to remember is where did we stay together. I don't know. I cannot remember. He was only home on leave for a few days, and I don't know.

Biagi: Did you have a honeymoon?

Davis: That's what I mean. Where? That's what I'm trying to remember. I'll remember soon, I'm sure. I think that's why we got married on New Year's Day, because I think he had so many days off for Christmas and New Year's, and I think he may have left two days later.

Biagi: So he went to Washington, D.C., and then you followed him?

Davis: He went someplace else, Texas, I think, and then by the time he got settled at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, that's when I joined him.

Biagi: That would have been, say, June of '52?

Davis: Yes, I think it was. It could have been a little bit later. It was about six months.

Biagi: And you had never been further than Los Angeles.

Davis: That's right.

Page 15

Page 16

Biagi: Other than Louisiana, coming out.

Davis: That's right. This was a big deal for me. I went by train, and my mother contacted all of the sleeping-car porters and all of the other porters on trains, that I was going to be on the train and I had designated people to look out for me along the routes as the crews changed on the trains, and to make sure that I got good meals. I remember I went on the California Zephyr. Oh, boy.

Biagi: How many days?

Davis: Three days. You had to go to Chicago and wait and change trains. That was a scary point.

Biagi: Did you have a compartment or sat in a seat?

Davis: Sat in a seat.

Biagi: But you had good food.

Davis: Oh, yes. Washington was a segregated city then, and I had no experience with a segregated city. I knew there were certain things I wasn't supposed to do, and I just remember being scared to death.

Biagi: How did you know what you weren't supposed to do?

Davis: My mother told me. There were doors and entrances for coloreds and whites, and don't go in the wrong waiting room, all that stuff. Don't drink out of the wrong drinking fountain. I remember stepping off that train absolutely terrified as to, "Where do I go now? Which direction do I move in?"

Biagi: Was Chicago like that?

Davis: No, it wasn't, because there I still had my mother's friends to look out for me on the train. It was only after I got on this system going from Chicago to Washington that I didn't have as many people coming up and asking me how I was.

Biagi: Was the train segregated?

Davis: No. I remember moving around the train and sitting in the observation car on the Zephyr. I don't remember what happened between Chicago and Washington.

Biagi: At Washington, did your husband meet you?

Davis: Yes, but I couldn't find him. Because, you know, it's a train. They don't know which car you're in. I don't remember how long it took us to find each other.

Biagi: Then did you go right to the air force base?

Davis: No. He had an apartment in Washington. Well, "apartment," it was actually more like a room. I got a job right away.

Biagi: Doing what?

Page 16

Page 17

Davis: Clerk.

Biagi: Clerk, as a GS-2, again a government job?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: With what agency?

Davis: It was a regulatory agency that had to do with wage regulations. I want to say wage stabilization. It was something like that, but I know John L. Lewis [was involved], and regulating what people could charge and couldn't charge.

Biagi: Did you stay there a long time?

Davis: I stayed at least a year, because my son was born in June of '53, so I stayed there till he was born.

Biagi: That's what date?

Davis: June 15, 1953.

Biagi: And his name?

Davis: Steven Eugene. I gave back the Eugene. [Laughter.]

Biagi: His last name is Davis.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: You say you stayed till he was born. Did you go somewhere else?

Davis: When he was born is when I discovered I had hypertension. My mother had come out, because I was kept in the hospital for quite a while after he was born. I don't remember going back to work. I don't know. The next thing I remember clearly is that Frank was transferred to Hawaii.

Biagi: In late '53?

Davis: As best I recall, by the time I got to Hawaii, Steven was walking. That wouldn't be that much longer, would it? Kids walk at a few months. I don't remember very much about that. I can't really tell you.

Biagi: A year or two later. So you went to Hawaii with Frank. Did you go to work in Hawaii?

Davis: No, I never could get a job. It was almost impossible for offshore people to get jobs in Hawaii. You just couldn't get a job there. I got a job for a quick minute in a five and dime. That didn't last long.

Biagi: You had that experience.

Davis: Yes. It didn't last very long. I didn't work at all.

Page 17

Page 18

Biagi: How long did you live there?

Davis: A couple of years.

Biagi: Did you live on base?

Davis: No, we first lived down in the Waikiki area and then we got housing out near the base.

Biagi: Were you near Pearl Harbor?

Davis: What was it called? It's a huge base. I want to say Lackland. That's it. Near there.

Biagi: Then his term was up?

Davis: Yes. We came back.

Biagi: You came back to the Bay Area?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: That would have been what year? 1957, do you think?

Davis: Yes. Steven was not in school. These were not happy times for me, so I'm a very good person at just jettisoning stuff. My next clear memory of what happened was that we bought a house in the foothills of Oakland, and that's when Steven started to school. Then my daughter was born in 1959.

Biagi: The date?

Davis: December 23.

Biagi: Her name is?

Davis: Darolyn.

[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]

Biagi: We were at December 23, 1959. That was Darolyn. You are back in Oakland. Where?

Davis: I was living in East Oakland on Seneca Street above MacArthur Boulevard, a nice little place.

Biagi: Did your husband leave the service or did he stay?

Davis: He left the service when we came home from Hawaii, out of the military and went to work for Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard.

Biagi: That's in San Francisco.

Davis: Yes.

Page 18

Page 19

Biagi: So he was commuting.

Davis: Yes. I had a job at Naval Supply Center again. Actually, I was working at Treasure Island, back to the navy. It was a relatively calm period in my life. I was in a unit called forms and publications.

Biagi: Typing?

Davis: No, it was a little more interesting. I was handling secret documents, the manuals for using weapons, all the weapons guides, new systems, and I had a top secret government clearance, issued all of the manuals to everybody out in the Pacific. That was what I did. It was a very small, little group of us that worked because of the sensitivity of it.

Biagi: Had you gone back to a government employment office to find that job?

Davis: I must have. I must have taken another test, because by now I was a little higher up on the GS level. So then I did that. Then that unit was phased out of Treasure Island and transferred because of the Supply Center—I could never get away from Naval Supply Center—and transferred to Naval Supply Center, and I hated it, because I loved working on Treasure Island. It was such a wonderful place. I could drive over near the waterfront and have my lunch, watch the Bay, and there were very few people there. It was a very nice experience.

Biagi: Did your family take care of your kids?

Davis: I had just my son. What did I do? I don't think so. I always had hired babysitters.

Biagi: Then when your daughter was born, did you stop working?

Davis: When my daughter was born, my marriage really had fallen apart before she was born. As many couples, you get pregnant when you're having real troubles in a marriage, you know. When she was born, I had already made very elaborate plans to leave, extremely elaborate plans to leave.

Biagi: Such as? What were they?

Davis: I had just decided what I was going to do. My husband did not want a divorce. By then I was just beginning to grow up.

Biagi: By now, close to thirty.

Davis: Yes. I had already started to write somewhat, and my very first writing job had been—this has always been the irony—working for then what was the first weekly black magazine in the country, Jet magazine. That was my very first job. It really wasn't writing as much as it was sending information. A stringer, that's what I was. I was the Northern California stringer for Jet magazine.

Biagi: How did you find that job?

Davis: Good question. What was I doing that got me that position? How did that work out? I think that was the first paid position I had.

Biagi: In Berkeley?

Page 19

Page 20

Davis: No. I don't even know how I got to this paper. I'm going to try to remember that. It was called Bay Area Independent. It was the second of the black weekly newspapers, because at this point now, all of journalism was totally segregated.

Biagi: The first of these publications was?

Davis: The [Oakland] Sun Reporter newspaper, which still exists, was the most popular black newspaper in Northern California at that time. I wrote a column for Bay Area Independent. I think because I was writing that column, I got the stringer job for Jet.

Biagi: Was the Bay Area Independent based in Berkeley?

Davis: No, it was based in San Francisco.

Biagi: So you went to work for the Bay Area Independent.

Davis: Actually, I wouldn't call it work, because I wasn't being paid. I just wrote this column and they ran it.

Biagi: What was the name of this column?

Davis: "East Bay Social News." [Laughter.] Real clever. "East Bay Social Swirl," that's what it was called. That was strictly nothing, no money.

Biagi: Where were you working?

Davis: I was working for the navy. This was my hobby, a little hobby I had.

Biagi: Had you gotten your divorce at this time?

Davis: I started doing this, but my ex-husband resented it terribly, didn't want me to do it at all.

Biagi: The writing?

Davis: Yes. Didn't want me going to the events, the social functions that go with gathering the news for that kind of stuff.

Biagi: Was it weekends or evenings?

Davis: Yes. But I found it was really fun to write, and I think that's how I got into it, but I didn't know anything about writing. As I said, I never could spell. I think I found a scrapbook with a couple of those, the kind of junk I was writing.

Biagi: What kinds of things were you writing about?

Davis: About who gave what parties. I said the only thing I wasn't guilty of was [what] the woman in the number-one paper, the Sun Reporter [did]. [She] always ended every story with "And a good time was had by all." I think that's the one cliché I was never guilty off. [Laughter.] Oh, dear. I think because I thought she was such a poor writer, that's why I decided I'd try it, so I had to find a place where I could do it, and I found this little paper called Bay Area Independent. But it was really one of the lucky, lucky breaks.

Page 20

Page 21

This is out of sequence, but at that paper I met a guy named Darryl Lewis, who had been the AP [Associated Press] bureau chief in the Far East for many years. Really a good writer, ran out of places to work, and ended up running this little black weekly newspaper. The problem was, he wasn't black. [Laughter.] I became his face. So he worked very closely with me, shaping what writing skills I acquired at that time.

Biagi: He couldn't go out and report on these things necessarily.

Davis: He could, but by now we're getting close to the sixties, and the civil rights movement started really in the fifties. There's black consciousness that's just ebbing and flowing, so we just found that I got better stuff than he did. I just didn't know how to write it, so I'd go out and do it and he'd help me write it.

Biagi: Where were the offices?

Davis: On Turk Street in the Fillmore [District].

Biagi: Was it a very big place?

Davis: No, a small, little office. Darryl was the one full-time person outside of an advertising sales person and the publisher, and I was the part-time person.

Biagi: It was a weekly?

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: How large a paper was it when it came out?

Davis: Maybe ten or fifteen pages.

Biagi: They went out and they sold the ads?

Davis: Actually, later on, by the time I quit my job with the navy and decided to concentrate and try to get into journalism, I did everything. I did more than social news. I covered whatever news there was for the paper. I took the ads, I picked up the ads from Safeway store, I took the copy to the printers, and sometimes I even picked the papers up after they were printed. [Laughter.]

Biagi: You were the distribution department, too.

Davis: Yes. All that the publisher didn't do, I did.

Biagi: Did you ever sell ads?

Davis: No, I never had any skill at selling anything.

Biagi: Obviously this was hot type, you were working with a printer.

Davis: You bet. I can go back in time now and say, "How did I get to this point?" I'm still working at the navy and I started doing this column. That somehow got me in touch with a man who was the editor of Jet magazine. He needed this help, but didn't want to pay very much.

Page 21

Page 22

I had a job, so that wasn't important. I would just gather all the stuff and send in my little script of things, and they spent three times as much money on the telephone telling me how to do the job as they did in terms of paying me for actually doing the job.

Biagi: What was your salary?

Davis: About fifteen bucks a week.

Biagi: And for that what would you do?

Davis: I'd do the social stuff. I fed all the elements of the magazine. I collected social news that went to the society editor. Black magazines of that era were really quick on the first [person] to do anything, and they were also really big on doing lists, best dressed, bachelor list, all kinds of lists, the group of highest ranking black scientists in America. They needed a universal look at all this stuff, but they didn't have a lot of money, so they used people like me to go out. It was really exciting for me, because I'd get to go out and meet all these wonderful people to interview them.

Biagi: Any special people you met that you really enjoyed?

Davis: One whom I became really good friends with and who became Darolyn's godfather was a guy named George Wiley. He started the Welfare Rights organization in this country. When I met him, he was a physicist. I can't remember what was in front of that. It was something-physicist. He was at Berkeley. He was an assistant professor there. Our lives were just so different that we used to spend hours and hours talking to one another, strictly friends. He grew up in Massachusetts in an all-white town, where his family was the only black family, had had no exposure to southern blacks, didn't know anything about the foods that we ate, fell in love with all of this, actually discovered his blackness from meeting me. I introduced him to all kinds of other people, and it was just a wonderful exchange of information, because I knew nothing at all about the Harvards of the world and so forth. He had graduated from Harvard. So we became very, very good friends.

He eventually gave up science as a career and went into advocacy work to help the poor, in particular for black women. He founded the Welfare Rights organization, which became a national organization that still exists. He died tragically in a boating accident.

There are other people. It's just that George is such a special case.

Biagi: So the extent of your equipment in the office to get a story done would be what?

Davis: Actually, I moved up to a portable tape. [Laughter.] It was my notepad and me, and mailing stuff off to Chicago. I think how Bill's [Moore, her husband] and my friendship became solidified, I was always having to make these deadlines and sometimes they'd come in the middle of the night, and he has always been Mr. Good Guy, and he was the one person I could call up and say, "I've just finished this column. I've got to get it to Chicago. Is there any chance you could come up to my house and take it to the post office for me?" And he was a single guy. He would do that. So we became really good buddies, because he was always doing favors for me. He still does favors for people like that. That's his way of relating to people, really being of help when you really need help.

Biagi: Where were you living then?

Page 22

Page 23

Davis: I was still living in East Oakland.

Biagi: Where was your former husband?

Davis: He was still working at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard.

Biagi: And you were still living with him?

Davis: Yes, the beginning of all of this. As I began to get more and more into this whole business of journalism and so forth, we just grew further and further apart. But I have to admit that I changed an awful lot, because we had this kind of relationship where he didn't think when we went out to dances, I should ever dance with anybody. He didn't like seeing women dance in public. Really just a creep. I don't like conflict in my private life. So I just decided I was going to move.

So months in advance, I had arranged to get my retirement from the government, I purchased a car, arranged for movers. He went to work one day, the moving van came and moved my stuff out of there, and I picked up my kids, got in the car, left a note, and said, "Goodbye."

Biagi: You moved where?

Davis: Actually, I knew that I'd have a really tough time of it, so we just took to driving California. I did that for about two months.

Biagi: Is that right? With the kids?

Davis: Yes, in the back of this huge Dodge. The little baby was like two months old, and my son was just a little kid. We drove. We stayed in the Monterey-Carmel area and drove into the Central Valley, stayed outside of Bakersfield, and finally moved down to L.A. He had detectives looking for us. I didn't want to go through a big bad scene, and I thought, "Well, after I go away for a while, things will cool down. He will be much easier to deal with." That was my logic.

Biagi: So you weren't really looking for work on that trip.

Davis: Oh, no.

Biagi: You were trying to stay away.

Davis: I was trying to stay away.

Biagi: Did you stay with friends?

Davis: No, no.

Biagi: Just drove.

Davis: Just us, the three of us. Our biggest thing was to keep Darolyn from falling out of her crib. [Laughter.]

Biagi: I suspect your accommodations were modest.

Page 23

Page 24

Davis: You betcha they were modest.

Biagi: Did you stay in the car?

Davis: No, we always found some small, little motel to stay at.

Biagi: Every night?

Davis: Yes. Oh, yes, someplace. We stayed in places like a week or so at a time, and then we'd move on. I always wonder what my son thought about it. He's never talked about that. The only reason I really moved, what propelled me to move, was when he started to stutter, and we were in Kaiser [Health Maintenance Organization] and I took him to a child psychologist. His father was just too hard on him, really militaristic. I'll never forget the first day he went to school. I could take him to school, but the next week he had to go by himself. I was not allowed to walk him to school. I mean, that was just the rule. There were so many rules, it didn't make sense. He started to stutter, and I said, "We're getting out of here." I wish I'd got out earlier.

Biagi: What did you expect to happen when you finally came back?

Davis: It's pretty vague. I don't know what I expected to happen, but I came back and very quietly got an apartment, the kids and I moved into it, and then the harassment started.

Biagi: From your husband. By harassment, what do you mean?

Davis: He'd sit in front of my apartment every night in his car and watch my comings and goings. On one occasion, I'll never forget, I went out on a date, and I picked the kids up, came home, came to my apartment, put the kids to bed, went into my bedroom, and just before I could turn on the light, I saw somebody under my bed, and it was him. I'll never forget that. I know how people feel to have somebody break into their house. He thought it was a joke. He just laughed. So then he started procedures to prove I was an unfit mother and to take the kids away and all that stuff. So it was a pretty tense time, but I think it helped me grow and become far more independent and stronger.

Biagi: Did you have work?

Davis: That's when I started working so-called full time at the Independent newspaper, making very little money, so I was also working through a temp service doing clerical, in addition, because there are really only two to three days a week the newspaper, on a weekly, where it's really intense. Those are the days you're getting copy and the corrections. The other days I'd work out of a temp agency for extra money.

Biagi: What did Darryl do while you were gone? Did he put out the paper by himself?

Davis: No. You see, the other days are supposed to be reporting days.

Biagi: I mean the two months that you were gone.

Davis: I wasn't working full time then. It was only when I came back. I was still working for the navy. That was why I was able to do that, because working for the navy, you could always, as they say, draw down your retirement, so I could get a lump sum of money. So it was arranging all of that and not having any of the mail come to my house or have him [Frank] find the mail, all of this.

Page 24

Page 25

I used to be in terror that the movers would call to check on some small detail or that that day he'd come back home while the truck was there. Oh, god, I had so many visions of absolute tragedy, that I don't know how I pulled it off.

Biagi: When you came back, you went to the newspaper.

Davis: When we came back, at first I didn't do anything. I just tried to be quiet and not be seen till we got an apartment and got settled in.

Biagi: Was it in Oakland?

Davis: No, we moved to Berkeley. I wanted to be near my mother, but not with my mother. After that is when I went to work for the paper full time.

Biagi: At the huge salary of?

Davis: Oh, God, I think it was like forty bucks a week or something.

Biagi: Which is not enough to live on, still.

Davis: No, so I got that, I got a little bit of money from Jet magazine, and I worked temp. Then I eventually added on doing what's called the social part of the news on radio.

Biagi: How did that come about?

Davis: The original KSAN radio station was a black station, and the offices were on Market Street. At that time this town had five newspapers. It had the News, the Call, the Bulletin, the Examiner, and the Chronicle. There were lots of newspapers. So news-gathering consisted of knowing when the newspapers were going to be out. [Laughter.]

Biagi: You'd go and get the newspapers. [Laughter.]

Davis: Picking up the papers, running to do clippings, gluing them or stapling them to a piece of paper, and running into the microphone and reading the first two paragraphs or whatever it was. Sometimes every now and then you'd get a rewrite. I would go to the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] meetings, rallies, church gatherings, and all that stuff. Then I would report and read what I had written, basically various items that were going to be in a column. It all became the column. So I did that.

Biagi: How did you get that job?

Davis: Just by approaching them. I didn't know anything about broadcasting at all.

Biagi: Were they in San Francisco?

Davis: Yes. I hung around the station, had everybody tell me fifteen times how I really didn't want to do this, but finally I pestered and pestered enough, a few guys—some are still around, John Hardy, in particular, who was really quite good, he knew the business and he had the educational background, etc.,—just gave me some tips of going home, reading before a mirror, watching my enunciation, tape recording what I said, looking at my expression and remember that even on radio, though nobody could see me, carry through my facial expressions because it helped

Page 25

Page 26

my voice and my delivery. If I was talking about something happy, to smile. Don't try to give happy news with a sour face. Just ordinary kinds of advice.

So by now I decided I was going to write and I was going to be in radio, and I was going to be a disc jockey and I was going to learn to do real news. I just kept doing it.

Biagi: Were there any other women at the radio station?

Davis: Not at this station, but there was one other black woman in radio then, a woman named Jeannie Blevin. She played jazz music after midnight.

Biagi: She was where?

Davis: She was in Oakland, and I'm trying to remember what the call letters were. I think it was KWBR, if I'm not mistaken.*

Biagi: What year are we talking about now?

Davis: Probably this is all happening between 1959 and '61. It's in that time period. I went to work at KDIA, which would be '61. All this stuff was going on from the time my daughter was born until when she was two.

Biagi: Where was KDIA at this point?

Davis: It was still in Oakland.

Biagi: But were there any women on the air at KDIA?

Davis: No. It was all men.

Biagi: Disc jockeys as well?

Davis: There were no women on the air at all.

Biagi: It was my very favorite radio station. It was a clear signal, just fantastic.

Davis: We had these great guys, many of whom are still around. This guy I'll never forget, because he's still on the air. He's the voice-over on the Olympic spots now. His name is [William Mercer] Roscoe. Everybody had a handle then, and he had this thing he used to say. "Hello, Mommy-o! Hello, Daddy-o! This is your (something) Roscoe!" He did all this rhyme on the air, and he had this huge fan club. My car broke down or something, so I bought the old company station wagon, which was really a piece of junk, but it had the call letters on it. I'd drive around in it with the kids, and people would say, "Are you Mrs. Roscoe?" [Laughter.] Oh, dear. They were a great bunch of guys. A guy named Don Barksdale was on the air, "Jumping" George Oxford, all these great guys with personalities. That's where I really started to learn about news. Our news director was a guy named Louis Freeman, who was just a wonderful, brilliant man.

* At the interviewee's request, part of the transcript was deleted at this point. The material was rerecorded in the last two interviews.

Page 26

Page 27

Biagi: You talk about the golden age of radio in this city, that was really a time, a wonderful radio time.

Davis: A great time. When I finally got my show on the air, my Saturday broadcast was a live broadcast, and we brought jazz artists like Horace Silver in, who played the piano on the show. We'd have an audience in. It was so hokey, it was like you dream it up and then you do it.

On my show, one of the main sponsors was Foster Farms Chicken and Del Monte Cling Peaches, so all of our lunches, I would get the chicken from Foster Farms, I would fry the chicken. This became an al fresco lunch with Coke or Pepsi that we'd get free from the sponsors, and Wonder Bread would do the bread. This was the lunch we'd serve people. You could come down and sit. Remember this was exciting stuff! You could sit in the radio station and watch us eat chicken and cling peaches and Wonder bread and drink Coke. [Laughter.]

I don't know what else we'd do. I'd spin records, and we'd always have guests coming in, whoever was in town. By now I was branching out. Whoever was at Enrico's, at the Hungry I, wherever people were appearing, the Jazz Workshop, they'd be invited to be the Saturday guest. I'd interview them and sometimes they'd perform. I mean, that was how I met Bill Cosby, when he was at the Hungry I, when he was just starting out.

Biagi: Let me back up a little bit now. You're at KDIA handling traffic. Are you badgering everybody to get on the air? What was happening?

Davis: I was unrelenting! Because I was handling traffic, I really was blackmailing the salesmen, because I was the one who placed their spots on the air. I was the one who gave them avails [available time periods] for spots. I determined whose spots got the best placement. [Laughter.] I did the logs. I did the continuity. I did it all. I was a one-person operation. Even before Bill and I were married, he'd have to come in for the weekend logs or holiday logs. The kids came, and we all did the logs. Well, I say the kids. Deedee was too little to do anything. She went to sleep. That would keep Steve busy.

So anyway, I did that until finally the new salesmen, who could never get good times, finally sold me and a show to a company called Beauty Pleat. They became my sponsors. They made drapes on a wire thing that went like this so they always hung right. They were sort of wavy like that.

Biagi: So they weren't pleated at the top.

Davis: No. A woman owned the company. We remained friends for many years after that program. She moved.

Biagi: What was her name?

Davis: I can't remember her name. She moved to Contra Costa County, finally. At the beginning of all this, her shop was on Telegraph Avenue. You think about women. I never thought of the gender connection or anything like that until later in life, and I realized that it was a woman-owned business that gave me my start, and I don't think we were smart enough, or our consciousness was raised enough, to even think about it in those terms, but that's what happened.

So this poor guy, Bill Morrison, who had come to work there, because KDIA was a black radio station, but we always had at least one white salesperson besides the sales manager and the

Page 27

Page 28

owners, of course, and so Bill Morrison was new at this and he was really trying to get—I mean, it was something to get drive time. You could sell it, but if I told you there was no space to put it on the air, and you didn't get money till these spots ran, so—

Biagi: The salesman got paid commissions that way. [Laughter.] You were a good person to know.

Davis: So Bill sold my show and we became lifelong friends. He's still in radio, selling radio someplace around town. He stayed at KDIA for years and years. So that's how I got started with the Saturday show, and then finally every day.

Biagi: So on Saturday it was mainly a guest show.

Davis: It was a fun show.

Biagi: How long did it last?

Davis: Two hours.

Biagi: What time?

Davis: Ten to noon.

Biagi: You talked and had live music. Did you ever play records, too?

Davis: Oh, yes. That was it, mostly music.

Biagi: I only listened at night.

Davis: I played soft jazz, lightweight music, sort of a blend of everything.

Biagi: Did you have to choose the music, too?

Davis: Yes, that eventually became Bill's job, or most of it, especially the Saturday show. He almost always chose the music.

Biagi: You mean your husband?

Davis: My husband. He chose almost all of the music for that show. He was a freelance photographer, so he had far more time and was more flexible than I, anyway.

Biagi: At what point did you get married?

Davis: We got married in 1963.

Biagi: You married a music director as well as a husband.

Davis: [Laughter.] Yes.

Biagi: So by 1963, your show was on Saturdays?

Page 28

Page 29

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: It had been on since '62, maybe?

Davis: Yes. I wasn't there very long before I was on the air. It was a matter of months.

Biagi: You were holding everybody hostage. [Laughter.]

Davis: It was just a matter of months before I was on the air.

Biagi: "Get this woman out of traffic."

Davis: No, no, no, I still had to do traffic.

Biagi: You did traffic during the week, and then Saturday. So you still had that job.

Davis: I was still doing that, and I was still doing the column. I never gave it up.

Biagi: For the newspaper.

Davis: I didn't quit writing that column until I went to work for KPIX in 1966. The winter, December of '66, I quit.

Biagi: At KDIA, what year did you start the daily program?

Davis: That I have not been able to reconstruct. I don't know. I've thought about it for other occasions, and I don't know when it went from one to the other. I think there must not have been much of a gap, because there's no period where I could see fighting to get on every day once I was on; it just sort of like flowed one into the other. My memory of it is of working six days a week on the air.

Actually, that's not true. What I did was an hour during the week and two hours on Saturday. I got that mixed up. I had one hour every day and then two hours on Saturday.

Biagi: And you still did traffic?

Davis: I still did traffic.

Biagi: You didn't work on Saturdays other than the radio show?

Davis: Excepting to finish up all the work I hadn't done the rest of the week. [Laughter.] Actually, without traffic and the continuity books, you can't stay on the air. You don't know what you're doing. So I had to finish, and I had to have it ready for Monday to start to sign on.

Biagi: Did you have a handle?

Davis: Actually, no. I was very straight, very straight. Bill's a big jazz fan, so I played a lot of jazz. I love introducing new recordings. At that point you could play anything you wanted to play. It didn't make any difference.

Biagi: Did you voice-over the ads, too?

Page 29

Page 30

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Did you have Beauty-Pleat draperies in your house?

Davis: Boy, did I!

Biagi: Did you really?

Davis: Oh, yes, indeed. That's my key sponsor. If people had to come to my house and see what Beauty-Pleat drapes looked like, yes.

Biagi: Chicken and peaches and Wonder Bread, that was at the station.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Was that your sponsor the whole time?

Davis: They were with me all the way, all while I was there. I only left there when the whole radio business changed and everybody went to formatted radio. That's when I left KDIA. I tried it and I just couldn't do it, because I remember the signal thing was that they had a clock with arrows on it on the wall,* and you had certain things you had to hit at those precise moments. It just was too much. I was never able to manage it.

Biagi: Did you start looking for work?

Davis: Yes, and so now came another patchwork of existence again. This would have been maybe about '65. Then came another gray period. Bill worked at a place called the Camera Shop in Berkeley. Actually, he did printing for a lot of famous photographers like John Brennis and other people who didn't want to do their own lab work. He did custom lab work.

Biagi: Bill's last name is?

Davis: Moore. I became women's editor for the Sun Reporter. By now, in between there someplace, I had switched. The Independent had just about gone under, and I had switched over and started to write for the Sun Reporter, so my column was now running in the Sun Reporter. So when the radio thing came to an end, I started working full time for the Sun Reporter and became women's editor.

By then one of my hobbies had developed almost into a job. I was running a thing called the Miss Bronze California Beauty Pageant, which, in my own crazy way, was some sort of my own little private protest. I don't know how you'd approach it, but in those days black women were not accepted in the regular state beauty contests, there had been some incident about this, so I just decided to start one for black women. I didn't just decide; that's wrong. A friend of mine in Los Angeles, who was a photographer for Jet and Ebony, I used to work with him on some shoots, and he was running this pageant called Miss Bronze California.

I asked to run the Northern California half of all of that. We ran these beauty contests from Fresno and Modesto and Sacramento and San Jose, wherever there were pockets of black

* It pointed to the exact time when you had to give the time, weather, etc.

Page 30

Page 31

people. We put these things on. I wrote my own rules for it, so it was a beauty contest, but it had all these funny titles, like Miss Refreshing Smile, which was for the friendliest, kindest, nicest girl. We had a talent winner; that was just for talent. There must have been like five different kinds of scholarships, and so there was something for everybody.

The big deal was that women who thought they wanted to be in film or TV, our winners from here would end up going to L.A. to compete. This was my first exposure to Hollywood, because part of the winnings was to get the girls a screen test, and get them into studios on tour, introduce them to people who were film stars, all of that.

When I think about this, I think, God, if a psychiatrist gets hold of this, "This woman is really nuts." [Laughter.]

Biagi: Why would they think that?

Davis: Because it was true. [Laughter.] Anyway, getting back to the Sun Reporter, I'm women's editor.

Biagi: Where is Miss Bronze in this?

Davis: I'm doing that all the time, all the while I was at KDIA.

Biagi: Was it just one contest here?

Davis: Oh, no. It took months, because you're holding them all over the place and they're all functions that attracted anywhere from five-hundred to a thousand people.

Biagi: And you're getting paid by—

Davis: I wasn't getting paid. [Laughter.]

[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]

Biagi: So here we are, you're doing all this work.

Davis: Here we are. We're running these contests. Now when I finally get to be women's editor at the Sun Reporter, a lot of these women want to be models. So I think, "Aha!" I approached stores like Macy's, the City of Paris. I can't remember the major stores downtown. I'd say, "We're doing fashion spreads in this magazine and we reach this many people."

Biagi: Which magazine was this?

Davis: In this weekly newspaper. "We're going to this audience, and this is the median income of these people and they're shopping in your stores. I'd really love to do fashion spreads on what you have and feature stories and other things about your company, but I can't do it unless you're going to use women of color in your ads as models for you." It actually worked. Finally, they hired a few black women. So the women from Miss Bronze pageant who wanted to be models, I sent them on to interview for these positions.

Biagi: They would be in the ads in the publication?

Page 31

Page 32

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Clever. Clever. Kind of a little bit like the traffic thing you did.

Davis: Yes. It was kind of fun. I enjoyed that. I had fun with that. Then I went to work for KJAZ. I didn't do a lot of on-air work at KJAZ, mostly clerical stuff, doing their logs and traffic and all kinds of stuff, and occasionally got on the air there, because you really didn't get paid there. There was a guy named Pat Henry, who owned it, and half of his business was done in trade. "You need some new tires? We've got a sponsor here. We'll get him to give you some tires in lieu of paying us or we'll give him some spots if he'll give you some tires." Got a little bit of money, but most of it was barter.

Biagi: That's in the city?

Davis: No, in Alameda. KJAZ is still in Alameda.

Biagi: Child care for your kids?

Davis: We'd get housekeepers who would come every day. It sounds ridiculous, but my children really led pretty ordinary lives. I'd always figured they'd go to school, they'd come home and have dinner at a regular time, so they did a lot of hanging around with me in the evenings when I was doing the Miss Bronze pageant. When I'd travel up and down the state on the weekends, they'd go. They thought it was great. They became great hotel kids. They knew how to order from room service before they could talk. [Laughter.]

Biagi: Something you wish they hadn't learned.

Davis: Yes.

Biagi: Bill was working at the Camera Store still?

Davis: Bill and I got married in '63. 1966 was a very rough year for both of us. Bill lost his job. The Camera Shop closed down its custom lab in '66, so that must have been the year that I left KDIA, because that's the year that, between the two of us, we earned four-thousand dollars. But that's also the year we bought our first house, because I decided, "If we're both going to lose our jobs, we're never going to be able to buy a house if we are unemployed. So let's buy the house before we lose our jobs, even though we know it's going to happen next month." [Laughter.] So we bought this house in El Cerrito for $18,000.

Biagi: That was quite a bit.

Davis: Yep. So there we were with this house, and between our unemployment and whatever, we could keep up the $143 a month house note. I can remember that clearly. [Laughter.] We had this little patchwork. He was a freelance photographer and I was freelance.

Biagi: Was there any time you were nervous about the $143?

Davis: Not hardly. I think it was the real security of having a partner, having somebody to share. It had been so long in those years when I was really hanging out there, this was like a piece of cake. So we went through that year, the KJAZ year, just little bits of this, that, and the other,

Page 32

Page 33

but we got by okay. Actually, on the surface it looked like we were leading a fabulous life. [Laughter.] It really did.

Biagi: Going to the hotels with the kids, traveling.

Davis: Yes. Every now and then I'd get fifteen dollars from Jet, or maybe even forty or fifty if it was a really big story. I sold a couple of things to little teeny publications. Never a lot of money. It was just a year of growth.

Biagi: Were you writing?

Davis: I was writing all the time, all the time. Constantly writing something. Not anything great. I mean, not real writing. This is like reporting of events writing. It actually couldn't have been that bad, because along with this Miss Bronze thing, we also published a catalog, a book with it, so we had these books that we were constantly putting out also.

Biagi: The pictures of the models?

Davis: The pictures of the girls and the histories of the girls and ads from the sponsors and all that. So we did that. Bill took the pictures, and my cousin then owned a charm school, and the girls, on Saturdays, learned how to walk, how to sit, how to get in and out of a car, basic things that many kids from poor neighborhoods don't learn, how to set a table, how to use silverware, how to order in a restaurant. And they also had to do community service. They had to do Candy Striper. They had to do some kind of volunteer work. I mean, what kind of beauty contest is this, you say, but they had to do community service, they had to go through all this charm school training, and all of this business to be in this. So it wasn't like putting on a bathing suit and getting into this thing. Where we dreamed all this up from, I don't know. We just decided this was a way to improve these young women. Fact is, last night two of them came up at this dinner where I was being honored, after all these years. They still have reunions, the Bronze girls do, and they're all fifty years old. They're not that old, but certainly many of them now are forty. So they still have their little reunions, they still see one another. It was really a bonding relationship for them.

So we were doing all of those things, so it seemed like a very exciting time, even though we were starving to death, practically. The next year I landed the job on TV.

Biagi: You say "landed." Is it like you walked in the door? No?

Davis: I told you how much I read. I was reading something in one newspaper one day, an interview with a woman named Nancy Reynolds, who was the anchor, along with John Westin, at Channel 5 KPIX. I had been reading all these things about the wave of the future in communications, television, and if you were making any long-term plans, this is where you needed to go, because radio was then going through these horrible throes of trying to decide what it was, and newspapers were crunching down. News and the Call and the Bulletin were merging, newspapers were going out of business. So the whole communications business was just going through an evolution, and so I'd read all these things about the future and decided my future, then, should be in TV.

Page 33

Page 34

Part of all that was I read this interview about Nancy Reynolds, and one of the things it said—and I don't even remember when I read it—was what a great friend of the Reagans Nancy Reynolds was, and that her uncle, I think, was a senator, a famous Republican senator. She had said that if Ronald Reagan was elected governor, she really wanted to go work for him, she'd consider that such a great thing.

So the next day after he was elected, I wrote a letter to KPIX. I called and asked for an appointment to see the program director.

Biagi: Never mind that they'd never had a black reporter.

Davis: Never mind. Or never mind that she's never said she's leaving! [Laughter.] I mean, she never told them.

Biagi: She was the only woman there, wasn't she?

Davis: No, Wanda Ramey was there.

Biagi: So there were two women.

Davis: There were two women. Wanda did the noon news, and Nancy was the evening anchor.

Biagi: You'd never been on television.

Davis: No. But I wrote them a letter and I said that my theory was that to do television, you had to be able to write, you had to be able to speak, and the other thing is you had to be able to deliver it on the air. Well, I already had two of those things going for me, and I thought I could pick up the third if given the chance. That was my theme.

Remember this was the mid-sixties when the civil rights movement was on and there was lots of pressure to integrate anyway. At that time, only one black had been hired in the Bay Area TV market, and that was just a few months before. Ben Williams had also been the first black reporter hired by the Examiner, had been hired away from the Examiner after only a few months by KPIX. So Ben was there.

All my friends said, "Why are you trying there?" I forgot to mention, because it's such a bad experience, I had been going around applying for work. I forgot something real important. I'm ahead of myself. With this Miss Bronze thing, I wanted it on TV, so I went to Channel 2. There was a man named Ian Zellick who ran public affairs. We pressured and pressured, and he finally agreed to give us some time on the air if I would produce the program. Well, I didn't know beans about TV. I didn't know what a producer did, so my next step after seeing Ian was to go to the Oakland Public Library, where my friend Rosemary now worked, and we went into media and we looked up what a producer did, what a director did, so we could figure out what all the jobs were and what it was we had to do to produce this program. [Laughter.]

Anyway, I produced these programs and I hosted them. A guy who wrote for the Richmond Independent wrote a very kind article about me, in which he was saying it was time for TV to do something and that I did a good job, and surely someplace in the area there should be some spot where I could work. So armed with that little press notice and all of this other stuff, I started calling station managers, trying to get a job. The place where the most pressure was being applied was at KGO, and I'd been applying there. I had one of my next all-time bad experiences.

Page 34

Page 35

Biagi: What do you mean by pressure?

Davis: From the NAACP and other organizations in general, speaking out on the fact that the media had to diversify, it had to integrate, it had to have some diversity to it. But nothing was happening.

The place where they were writing to management, in touch with management most, was at KGO. I've got to remember the guy's name, because he's still around, the manager then. It's a famous name in broadcasting. He was the manager at KGO. I finally got an appointment after weeks of pressure to see him, and he looked at my material and I got this little curt interview, and at the end of it, his comment to me was, "Well, we're not thinking of hiring any Negresses right now, but if we ever do, we will certainly consider you." And I remember going home thinking, "He doesn't know that I'm not a tigress or any of those other animals, and he doesn't know that he's insulted me. So what do I do about this?" I just decided that anyone who was that insensitive, anyway, no matter what anybody did, I wasn't going to win that battle.

So I set my goals then on going to KPIX, and then my friends said, "They've got the only black in TV in the area. Why would you go there?" I said, "Because that happened and I know there's going to be this job." So I did, and that's why after I saw that thing about Nancy, I called the next day to say if she decided to leave, I was really interested in being considered. They didn't know what the hell I was talking about. Of course, they gave me the usual thing, "Why don't you write us a letter and fill out these papers."

So I had a little notebook, and I said, "Better yet, can you just let me come in and show you my material?" Nancy Reynolds is mad as hell at me, because I don't think she'd been offered a job. This was the day after the election. Before the end of November, they had offered her the press secretary's job, and we became friendly after that. I apologized. I wrote her a letter of apology for doing that.

Once they knew she was going, then they opened the job up, and I thought, "God, I'm never going to get this job." But I do remember getting a call from the guy who was the program manager, saying to me that he had sixty-seven applicants for that job, but I could come in and do a stand-up for them so they could look and see how I looked on film. So I show up at KPIX and I don't even know what a stand-up is. [Laughter.]

Biagi: You didn't go to the library again, did you?

Davis: I didn't, and I didn't know what it was, so I went up to this cameraman named Steven Pastzy and I said, "I have to do a thing called a stand-up." He was just a wonderful Hungarian character, and he had this great accent. "Don't worry, baybee, I take care of you. Don't worry, baybee, I do it all." [Laughter.] So Steven took me on and he told me, "You write something on the paper, you remember it, and I take care of the rest." And that's what we did. I did the stand-up.

Of course, that wasn't the end of it. Another few days go by, and then they said, "Come in. We want you to go in the studio. We want to see how you look on the set." They brought me in and I had different people come in and do role model, where I had to interview and talk to them. Then finally Lou Simon, the station manager, came in and I met him.

Then I went back and had an anxious, anxious time waiting. Finally, I got a call from George Moynihan, who was the program manager, who's still in broadcasting somewhere.

Page 35

Page 36

I saw him at an Aspen retreat. They said, "We think we want to hire you, but there's a problem." I'm thinking, "Oh, God." Then they said, "You're about ten pounds overweight. How quick do you think you can lose it?" [Laughter.] Oh, dear. So, of course, immediately—

Biagi: How much did you weigh? Do you remember?

Davis: I never thought of myself as fat, but I guess because I have a round face, and I still look much heavier, I think, on TV than I am.

Biagi: And because the camera certainly adds weight.

Davis: Yes. I went on this rigorous grapefruit and steak diet. [Laughter.]

Biagi: [Laughter.] Where did you find that diet? I never heard of a diet of grapefruit and steak!

Davis: It worked! You ate grapefruit three times a day, drank grapefruit juice before every meal, and, of course, the real secret was the no sugar and fat, basically. You could eat starch as long as there was no gravy or butter or anything like that on it. You could eat all the steak you wanted, as long as it was lean meat. And that's the diet I went on, and the weight just went off like that. Of course, I also went on an exercise routine. Plus I think I could have wished the weight off. [Laughter.] So that was my saga of getting started in TV, before the real troubles came.

Biagi: We'll stop now.

Davis: Okay.

Page 36

Go to Session Two | Session Three | Session Four | Session Five
Index | Cover | Home

© 1993, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.