Belva Davis and her half-century of blazing trails
By Charles Russo
“An accident of fate.”
That’s how Belva Davis characterizes for me her initial entryway into a long, distinguished career as one of the most storied broadcast journalists of the past half-century.
I’m somewhat surprised to hear “accident” as a component of that equation, but I assume that Davis — even in retirement — simply possesses far too much humility to credit it to any kind of personal ambition.
But before I think to follow-up on the issue of fate (accidental or otherwise), we’ve already shifted to discussing a few of the many high profile interviews she conducted during her career, with the likes of, say, Malcolm X (“Brilliant”) or Fidel Castro (“Charming, charming, charming”). In fact, it was difficult to not just float out the names of cultural icons, and then simply sit back to listen to Davis’s first-hand account of them: Muhammad Ali? James Brown? Miles Davis? Huey P. Newton?
In this respect, Davis’s career renders like an intricate tapestry woven with notable figures and key historical moments, all set against the backdrop of her trailblazing presence as an African American women within the nation’s homogenous media landscape. Factor in the eight Emmy awards to her name, and there lies my earlier skepticism.
Fate? Sure. But an accident?
Belva Davis arrived to the Bay Area as a young child when her family relocated from Louisiana to Oakland, California. She graduated from Berkeley High School in 1951, and although she had been accepted to San Francisco State, she simply couldn’t afford the tuition. So she entered the work force, held a variety of jobs, and took classes when and where she could; “whatever it took to get the next job,” as she puts it.
Her formal start in journalism came later in the decade when she began freelancing for a few different African American publications, including the increasingly influential Jet magazine. Her initial writing was rarely credited to her, but typically absorbed into the columns of better-known journalists. Not that it bothered her: “I wasn’t looking for any bylines or anything,” she explains, “it was just great to read my own words in print.”
The jobs rarely paid much — an occasional $5, or bridge toll fare to cover something in San Francisco. But her freelance gigs began to add up in terms of both experience and recognition. Eventually her work caught the attention of a local radio producer, who invited Davis to read her columns on-the-air. Before long, she was hosting her own women’s show. “The men at the station shrugged, and left it up to me,” she writes in her autobiography.
Hearing Davis reflect on her early career, there is certainly a serendipitous quality to how it gained momentum, particularly in her telling of an exclusive interview she landed with the biggest entertainer of the era.
“Yes, Frank Sinatra gave my career a huge lift early on,” she explains with a laugh.
Present among a sizable crowd of reporters waiting outside of his trailer during a series of shows at the Cow Palace, Davis hoped to merely get a quote. Instead, she somehow got a private interview.
“He came to the door smoking a cigarette,” she recalls, “looked at the crowd of reporters, and said to me — ‘Girlie, you can come on.’”
Alone in the trailer speaking with Sinatra, Davis struggled to conceal her trembling hands, which caused him to remark, “You have nothing to be nervous about. Besides, the day I walk on stage and I’m not nervous, is the day I quit.”
Yet for every such lucky turn Davis had in her career, from the radio show to the Sinatra interview, there are hard fought counterparts to match. Those early days freelancing for Jet were full of long hours, lean paychecks, and menial labor. And if she was treated to generosity at the Cow Palace for one assignment, it was sheer hostility there at the next.
Covering the Republican National Convention (and the Barry Goldwater candidacy) in 1964, Davis arrived to find the atmosphere “unmistakably menacing.” As the crowd grew agitated on the second day during discussions surrounding civil rights, Davis and her colleague were forced to leave the arena in a hurry as a barrage of racial epithets and flying debris rained down on them.
It was a terrifying though pivotal moment for Davis, and one which cemented her resolve to commit to a career in journalism. As she would later write in her autobiography, “I wanted to broadcast the reality of my community to those who could not otherwise imagine it.”
“I miss seeing you on the TV.”
I haven’t been speaking with Davis for long before someone at the cafe we are in recognizes her and stops to say hello. It’s not entirely surprising when considering that Davis’s television career began with KPIX-TV back in 1966, when she was the first African American female correspondent on the west coast. Over the nearly half-century of broadcasting that followed, Belva became a perennial personality of Bay Area television, covering the region’s biggest news events (the Free Speech movement, Jonestown, the AIDS crisis) and garnering several Emmy awards in the process.
“How long have you been retired now?” her walk-up fan asks.
Davis signals 5 years and laughs.
At 85, Davis has a peculiar definition of “retirement.” She has stayed busy with a variety of organizations in recent years, such as the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Most notably, she has sat on the Board of Trustees at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, where she just spearheaded their ambitious new exhibition — Revelations: Art of the African American South — which stands out as a first-of-its-kind at the DeYoung (while also shaping up to be the museum’s longest running exhibition).
In discussing her time working on the board at the DeYoung, Davis cites her initial involvement with the museum, in this case as well, as “accidental.” Having listened to Davis speak on her career, I’m not as surprised to hear her say it this time around. Yes, she had some opportunities come her way, though she simply remains understated on the ambition, tenacity, curiosity — key traits of a great journalist — which positioned her for them to happen. Besides, her legacy says it for her.
Yet, I am surprised to hear her admit to being nervous about her upcoming event at Stanford, where she will participate in an ongoing series on Bay Area history. Davis expresses some pre-show jitters that the students may not come out to fill seats and listen to her in the evening. Inevitably, it makes me think of what Sinatra said to her — “the day…I’m not nervous, is the day I quit.”
Well, Davis may have retired, but she certainly hasn’t quit.
Stanford Arts presents San Francisco Stories: Belva Davis — A Pioneer in Journalism on Tuesday, October 24th, in Cubberley Auditorium on the Stanford Campus, at 7.30p.m. The event is free.
Belva Davis’s autobiography is titled, Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism, published by PoliPointPress
The current exhibit Revelations: Art from the African American South runs at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco until April 1st, 2018.