For more than thirty years, Belva Davis has been reporting on the San Francisco Bay Area. As the first African-American broadcast reporter on the West Coast, Belva Davis has an unusual perspective on the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and California's constantly changing cultural landscape.
She has interviewed Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and migrant rights crusader César Chavez. Married to William Moore, a television news photographer (for KTVU-TV, Oakland), Davis is literally immersed in the news business every day.
Born in Monroe, Louisiana, and raised in Oakland and Berkeley, California, by her mother's family, Davis could not afford college. With no formal training in journalism, she learned about journalism by freelanding for Jet magazine and writing for an East Bay black newspaper.
She landed a daytime show on the local black radio station, and then, when a KPIX-TV (San Francisco) personality quit, Davis decided that she would replace her. She trained herself for television by reading news copy in front of a mirror. Davis was chosen for the job over sixty other applicants.
So began a television career that continues in 1993. Davis covers urban affairs for KRON-TV in San Francisco. She has been honored with several dozen journalism awards during her career, including national recognition from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ohio State, San Francisco State and the National Education Writers Association. She has won five local Emmys, a Certificate of Excellence from the California Associated Press Television and Radio Association for "best live coverage," as well as being honored for "Outstanding Achievement" by Delta Sigma Chi.
She is also active with Women's Forum West and she is a board member of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, Blue Shield of California, and the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
April 26, 1993
[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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Biagi: Did you get work just before you got married?
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?
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.
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.
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?
Biagi: Clerk, as a GS-2, again a government job?
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.
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.
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?
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?
[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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Let's start talking a little bit about Channel 5 [KPIX] and the women's angle here.
Davis: When I arrived, Nancy Reynolds, of course, was an anchor, so she was the sidekick to John Westin, who was the original unknowing sexist of all sexists. [Laughter.] He was not an evil person by any means. It's just that he was a product of his era and of the environment that was the prevalent one then. Women had these special little corners in which they lived, in the news business, anyway.
Wanda Ramey co-anchored the midday. It was mostly a women's audience, so it was very natural to do garden shows, the softer side of the news. It was not anything to be ashamed of. Our consciousness had not been raised to the fact that there was anything wrong with that, and I'm sure that women who did women's news made a tremendous contribution. I was a women's editor of my newspaper, and I didn't see anything wrong with it. It was my corner, and I was proud to own it. But later on, as we began to see and discuss more, coming out of the civil rights movement, equity, women's eyes began to open and they wanted a little bit more.
So now I start in a job in an office where there are only four full-time reporters. So what do you do if you're going to have only four full-time reporters and one of them is a woman? You say they're going to do everything. So I think I probably suffered from the trial by fire to see how much I could take, how far I could go. I do remember my very good friend now, but in those days, my buddy who's really a cops-and-robbers guy, Lou Calderon, was one of the first cameramen I worked with, and it was Lou's job to see what my breakpoint was going to be.
Biagi: Does he really admit that?
Davis: Now he does, yes, but then it was just fun and games. Everybody was in on it. There was nothing wrong with it that they could see. The thing was to see how I would hold up when I saw my first body, how I'd hold up when I saw the first blood on the street.
Biagi: How did you react when you saw your first body?
Davis: He will never know. [Laughter.] I still remember it today, I can tell you that, and I also still remember my first hot chase with bullets flying, and it all happened within the first two weeks of my employment at KPIX. There was a robbery, and there was a hot chase with the cops, and we were in the car tearing at such tremendous speeds, and we had terrible cars in those days because KPIX has always been pretty tight with a buck. So we're chasing and they're firing at the police, and somehow we got between them and the cops. For Lou, this was fun and games. He's on a two-way talking to the office. This is big stuff. He can let the guys in the office know what danger we're in. So he's speeding along, talking on the two-way, driving with one hand. I was working with Fred Zender then. Fred's on the desk. Then they say to Lou, is there any way he can get his Bell & Howell out and shoot. He says, "Well, I could let Belva hold the steering wheel
while I try to do this, but I don't think that she—we could try to do one of those things where we could change positions, but I don't think she's up to it." They were doing all these things. Well, I'm so scared to death. I didn't say a word. Anyway, we got through that day without wrecking the car or getting hit, and I was stoic, so they don't know what I thought.
But then within days, there was another shoot-out at a drugstore on Oak Street, in which a guy was really killed. Then within days of that, we came across the body of a woman over in Alta Park where rigor mortis had set in, and it was just amazing to me. I had heard about this, but the fact that when they turn this body over, they can never straighten the legs out, you know, and so forth, and we got there before the cops, of course, so you never put anything on the air unless it was covered in those days. Never, never. Not all this stuff we see today. Sheets went over anybody in any injury and no names came out till the first of kin [was notified], and all those niceties of the business that were exercised. I guess first of kin is still a consideration, but quite often it goes by the by these days.
Biagi: You bring up one thing that is important, the fact that he mentioned a Bell & Howell. You're talking about film here.
Davis: Oh, yes, we're talking film. We were still in black and white film. It was a long time before we got to color. We were the last station to get color film, even.
Biagi: What did that mean for covering the news? The timing?
Davis: You had to have everything in the processor by three [p.m.], and we didn't even have our own processor. We used to have to take it over to Diner's.
Biagi: Diner's is what?
Davis: Leo Diner's to have it processed. In fact, the cameramen all met up at this one place, because everybody was getting their film processed at this same spot over in North Beach at that time. We had sound cameras on film, but in a situation like this, you just pulled out the sixteen millimeter. All you needed was a picture, so you could voice-over it. Just getting a picture was a big deal.
Anyway, Lou's most famous comment was, when asked for an assessment of how I would do, his assessment was that I wouldn't last two weeks. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Do you think there was a conscious effort to test you?
Davis: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, definitely.
Biagi: Would this be a group agreement in the newsroom?
Davis: This is fun and games at the old gal's expense. Of course, I wasn't an old gal then, but the guys were just having fun.
Biagi: It was all guys and you?
Davis: Oh, yes. Geri Lou Cheney, the secretary, was the other woman.
Biagi: What was the newsroom like then? How big was it?
Davis: Small. There was Pat O'Brien, Rollin [Post], Ben Williams, and me. There were four of us. We were it. We covered the entire Bay Area, and that's big. You've got to remember that before Ben arrived, it had been Rollin Post and Pat O'Brien. Then Ben Williams was added and then I was added, so now we had four people in this newsroom, and that was it. So you really got to do everything, and we hired casuals on the weekends, but since we didn't have a forty-hour work week, I worked a lot.
Biagi: You mean a forty-hour work week requirement.
Davis: They didn't have to pay overtime at all.
Biagi: Because you weren't a union shop?
Davis: We were a union shop, but we didn't have—listen, network news guys just got a forty-hour work week in the not too distant past. They used to not want forty hours because they thought if they had a forty-hour work week and they were on a hot story, they'd be pulled off because they (management) would not want to bill it to overtime. They fought it, especially the Washington correspondents. They did not want it. But in any case, I ended up just being called, because I was the last hired, all the time until finally about a year later, it was the month of February where I ended up working every day for the whole month. I didn't have a day off for a month. Based on my time card, the union was able to go in and bargain for a forty-hour work week, showing abuse.
Biagi: How did that happen?
Davis: Because I complained. Don Tayer heard about it, I think through Bill Hillman. I complained. I was not a union person, and that's how I became a union person for life. I was complaining about it, because I still had two kids at home. A year later, Bill was then strongly in contention for the job at KTVU, where he still is.
Biagi: What job was that?
Davis: As a cameraman, apprentice cameraman at Channel 2. So I could see this is going to be trouble down the road if he has a job and I have a job and I'm working with no days off. He stayed home my first year and took care of the kids while he ran his freelance camera business, but everything was done from home, and he made his own schedule. He was the housefather long before the liberation movement for women started. He is just a terrific person. We decided as a family that I had a shot at it, and we were going to give me the best chance I could without having to worry about the kids.
Biagi: So he was helping you at home.
Davis: Oh, yes. He was the one getting the dinner and taking care. Deedee was not yet in grammar school.
Biagi: When did he go to work at Channel 2?
Davis: I think it was March or April of the following year, '68.
Biagi: So he was home for a year, '67. It was February of '68 that you had this month of work?
Biagi: So he was able to stay home, but he went to work at Channel 2 then.
Davis: Our whole idea when we went into this was that I had the shot, I'd get it, and I'd try to really do my best. He would pick up whatever the slack was at home, and my goal would be to get him into the photographer's union.
You've got to say that we didn't set small goals, because there was not a black person professional commercial television news photographer in the state of California. So here we were going to try to break the color barriers in this union, and the reason was because it was one of those old rules where to come in you had to have three union members sign for you to become a member. What helped us, of course, was the whole environment in the country in terms of the civil rights movement and people realizing that things had to change. So by the time I learned the names of the guys that I worked with, Bill had one good friend, Will Sobey, who he'd gone to school with in Oakland, where he got his degree in photography. Will Sobey, of course, had pledged to help Bill get in, but it was up to me to get two people from Channel 5 [KPIX] to sign up. So I started working on them.
Biagi: It sounds like you were spending a lot of time together.
Davis: Of course, yes. We certainly were. Anyway, we succeeded.
Biagi: Did you see it as breaking the color barrier, or did you see it as getting Bill a job?
Davis: I think it was both. I don't know how we really sorted that out. He was a good photographer. We knew he belonged in the business, and we didn't see it as an impossibility. We just didn't see it as an impossibility. We knew that somebody had to do it one of these days, and we just decided it was going to be him. We had a very good friend who is another still photographer, the guy that started this Miss Bronze pageant, a great photographer in Southern California who had been trying to get in.
Biagi: Still had to get the recommendations.
Biagi: So who were the other two people who gave the recommendations?
Davis: The guy who was the shop steward, a guy named Ralph Sandino. Ralph Sandino was the leader. I cannot remember the name of the other person, but two people in our newsroom signed for Bill. It was a time when TV news was just beginning to grow and become important and starting to make money for stations. The civil rights movement was under way, which spoke to the need to expand. And we'd been thinking about getting into this business.
Biagi: This time and earlier, you talked to me yesterday a little bit, when we stopped the tape, about your experiences as a black reporter and how in some cases it was a benefit to you to getting stories that other people wouldn't have had access to. I'd like you to talk about that and the early stages of your career.
Davis: Here I come into this television market with all my experience having been limited to covering blacks, because that's all I could do. There was a period when I tried to get a job as a newspaper reporter. I guess you know that. I mean, just take that for granted.
Biagi: I didn't know that.
Davis: Just take that for granted that if I was a writer and a fighter, then I would have been trying to get a job with newspapers, too.
Biagi: You didn't tell me about that.
Davis: I did try to get a newspaper job. It was so hopeless that it wasn't even worth mentioning.
Biagi: Even San Francisco Chronicle?
Davis: That was the last paper in the world that would have hired me. That was like the most conservative paper in the area. I was trying for things like the Call, the Call-Bulletin, and the Examiner. Even with the Hearst reputation, there was a consciousness on the part of the local people that things had to change.
Biagi: Did you go for interviews or just write letters?
Davis: Wrote letters. I never even got an interview at all, but I did meet Mildred Hamilton, retired many years ago, at the Examiner during that time, and a couple of other women feature writers who were very kind to me, did stories about me, in fact, and about my dreams and so forth of breaking the color line in this whole era. I guess the reason I bury that so is in my pursuit, my emphasis changed, because I just started looking at the future and decided, "If I'm going to beat my head against this wall, I might as well beat my head against the wall of the future," and that's how I saw TV. So my efforts to get a job in the newspaper business didn't have the vigor of my efforts to get a job in television.
Biagi: You talked yesterday about Malcolm X.
Davis: I was working for a black paper then, at the Independent. Race relations were so raw and the Black Muslims were so nationalistic, their reaction, I always figured, they tried to put themselves at the opposite post of the most avid white racist. They tried to appear the same in terms of blacks. Whites were devils and they wouldn't speak to them and all this. So they had a real problem, in particular Malcolm X, in even talking to whites.
Biagi: You should explain what he did.
Davis: He just would refuse to talk to a white reporter. Somebody black had to be sitting there, even though the white person would ask a question. He was very strict with it. It wasn't enough for the white person to ask a question and me to sit there as an interpreter; I had to actually say, "He wants to know—" [Laughter.] I had to repeat the question.
Biagi: You said your editor went along with you in one case and asked the question, and Malcolm X would answer you.
Davis: Yes. I would take notes, and Darryl would take notes, too, of what he'd said.
Biagi: Did it happen more than once?
Davis: Oh, yes. Because San Francisco at that time was a good organizing community for the Black Muslims. We had a very active Black Muslim community here. Mohammed Ali was converted during that era. In fact, one of the pictures that I've spent my life regretting not having was a visit of Mohammed Ali when he came out to visit the Muslim community and he took what's called a stroll down Fillmore, which was strictly the black street then. He did it more than once. I don't know what day of the week it was or anything, but I've told you that quite often my children worked as much as I did, because they went where I went, and whatever was happening that day, Bill was taking still pictures and I was working, so my daughter came with me. She was a little toddler. He walked the whole street carrying our daughter on his shoulder and in his arms, so there are all these pictures of her, and I don't have one today. I wish so much that I did. Of course, we ran that in the paper, but I don't have a tear sheet, nor do I have a picture. I had it for many years, but in the moves or doing things, it got lost.
So there was this interest, because now you had Mohammed Ali, the world boxing champ, in this community, and people wanted to know more about them. Then you had this fireball, Malcolm X, who was "stirring up trouble," as they said in those days. So people wanted to know more about them. I don't know whether this happened all over the country. I can only give you my experiences here.
Biagi: What was your reaction to Malcolm X?
Davis: I thought he was just a dynamic person. You know how there are people that you can meet, and whether you agree with what they say or not, it's sort of like the Ross Perot* phenomenon. If you're in an audience with him, he's got your attention. There's just no ignoring his presence unless it's so noisy that you can't hear him. If he's speaking and it's quiet enough to hear, there is just something about the ability to deliver and to keep you going. In a different kind of a way, but that same kind of human magnetism in delivery.
Biagi: Even in a one-on-one, or two-on-one interview with your editor there.
Davis: Right. In the first place, he was extremely well spoken, with a wonderful vocabulary, self-taught, and was saying things that nobody had ever said before. The whole business of Eastern religions and the worldliness of people of color, the threads to other civilizations and Egypt and all of that, we never heard of any of this. I mean, I didn't know anything about it. My education was in California, where there was no such thing as black history. We were never mentioned in any sense. At least blacks who grew up in the South had a sense of our history and who they were and where they came from. In California, you never got any of that. None. Nothing. Our history books were so erroneous that it's a wonder that any of us really understand ourselves at all.
Biagi: Are there other people that you covered where being black had an advantage?
Davis: Yes, because there was a lot of activity around race relations, and that was the news of the moment, whether you were in a general market or covering minority for minority press. So if you had connections—don't ask me to say when, but there was a guy named Andy Hatcher, who is black, who became the first assistant press secretary—I guess it had to be under Kennedy—
* Ross Perot, for a period of time, was a potential candidate in the presidential election of 1992.
who had been editor of the Sun Reporter. So we're now getting these jobs that had been unheard of. I knew Andy Hatcher and I knew people far up in the government. Because it has been a closed and separate community, if you were black, you tended to know your community so well all the way up the line because as the black press, that's who they talked to.
So I knew and had access to Martin [Luther] King [Jr.]. When I was in KDIA, this is where he came to address "the people." The man who had been his best man at his wedding was one of our salesmen at our station, so he was a regular in our station.
Biagi: Who was the best man?
Davis: Frank Clark.
Biagi: So he had that connection, so he would come to your station, but also because it was his audience. Was there ever a time when those stories came to town and people came to town that were relevant and you would argue to cover them, and the news director would say, "That isn't news"?
Davis: No. Lou Simon did something right after I came, in a staff meeting. They welcomed me and then said things like, "We know you know your own community and we know you know what news is there, but now you have to realize that you're here to cover all the people. I want you to move out and have people in all the communities get to know you and know your skills as well as people do in your own community." I think that was his way of saying he didn't want me pigeonholed.
So, of course, I took that and ran with it, and tried to make sure that I got access in covering all kinds of news. So my whole thing was not to be pigeonholed into just covering issues in and around race relations, and I was adamant about that. In fact, I had very strong feelings that my white colleagues needed to know the black community. They needed to learn and they needed to be there at events that revolved around race more than I did. I understood it. They needed to understand it. When they understood it, they could maybe explain it to the viewers better, because they would be in the learning process along with them. So I made those little speeches.
Of course, we had very little race trouble in San Francisco, but let me tell you, when we did have our little mini-riot, there I was immediately on a Sunday in Hunter's Point for that. My husband had done a few freelance still jobs for AP, but, boy, were they on the phone to him that day. [Laughter.] In fact, his picture was front page in the Examiner the next day after the Hunter's Point riot.
Biagi: Why was that?
Davis: Because they needed black faces to get in there. They had learned from Watts that they needed black faces when there was trouble or their reporters got into lots of problems. So Bill did the front page picture.
Biagi: Did you ever feel at risk in those situations? Were you ever scared?
Davis: Actually, no. I was in far more danger on UC Berkeley's campus. But even so, I think if you're going to do a job like this, it was almost as though when you get up and you're on the clock, you put on a special armor and from there on in, the invincibility, the shield is around you.
At least that's the way I operated. I just never gave deep personal thoughts to that. Because, I think, consciously or unconsciously, I always felt I was on trial for courage, I never let it get in my eye. I didn't. I never felt afraid. I've been tear-gassed many times by the time I got to covering Berkeley every day and San Francisco State.
I guess if I were ever afraid, my biggest fear always was of the police. Especially when I was dealing with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, I was always afraid.
Davis: Because they were so vicious. They were really, really vicious. One of my friends who was working for Newsweek or Time, Ed Caldwell, was just beaten to a pulp by the police at Berkeley.
Biagi: During a riot?
Davis: Yes, during a demonstration. But the worst part was that after they beat him, they dragged him by his feet down a flight of stairs, where he hit his head on these concrete steps so many times. I'll never, never forget that as long as I live. Never forget that.
Some of the officers in particular, because I was this short, little black person, I remember one day just really tried to humiliate me. With our press passes, we were supposed to be able to go in and out of police lines, and I remember I was right out by Sather Gate [University of California at Berkeley] one day, I started to try to go through the police line, and my colleagues had been going in and out. I was down at the end of this line, a whole line of "blue meanies," as we used to call them, and somebody thought it was a great idea to just fool around with me. There must have been fifteen cops, and they just took me by my shoulders and just spun me all the way down the whole line of cops to the end. At that point, you were really angry and feeling really bad, but you've got to be professional. It must be like a drowning person, thinking, "What do I do when this is over?"
Biagi: What did you do?
Davis: The last guy, I just stopped and I knew I had to stand still for a minute and not move, because any move I made could have been the wrong move, because my inclination was to slap him, and I knew that striking an officer, I'd be really done for. I just stopped, and the kids started yelling and screaming, so I didn't have to do anything. But I was glad I took that moment. It's like everything stopped when they started this. People couldn't believe what was happening. You know how the breath goes in and it comes out, and then the kids started yelling and screaming and throwing things at them, so I didn't have to do anything. But it was so bad that I actually got a letter of apology from Sheriff Madigan.
Biagi: Do you think you were singled out because of race?
Davis: God, yes.
Biagi: Because you were small?
Davis: All of those things.
Biagi: You were a woman.
Davis: Yes. They wouldn't touch one of those guys. Sure, it was, again, fun and games. I was the end of the joke on many occasions.
Biagi: In those situations, was that usually your strategy?
Davis: A cool head was a real thing. I had to not lose control. That was it. If you're out of control, you're lost already. I figured that out from the beginning. I could never win any battle if I was not in control of myself, and I'm not sure why I came to that conclusion and I don't know if it was a way of avoiding trouble, but I know it generally worked in the end. So that was my deal.
Biagi: Was there ever a time when you lost control?
Davis: Very seldom. Basically every now and then in the office, as Ben [Williams] would say, the volcano would erupt, but it had usually taken a lot by then. I know when I lose control, I'm truly out of control, totally out of control.
Biagi: You have a hot anger?
Davis: Oh, God, yes. I might tell you anything at that point. So every now and then in the office I'd go off. I remember on one occasion I got into it with one of the cameramen, I don't know who it was, but it was really a toe to toe. I remember Ben Williams invited the guy out into the alley. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You're kidding! It got that hot?
Davis: It got that hot. I realized then I had to cool this down. Ben's job is going to be on the line here. I always knew, too, that in the real tight moments, I could count on him. Right or wrong, he was going to be there for me, and that's why I used to always say I'm really a lucky person that I landed in the newsroom where I did to have to go through these trials. I knew that the future for other women, how I behaved was going to impact them.
Biagi: You did know that at the time?
Davis: Oh, yes, I knew that. I knew that because of the way they treated me. Part of what they were doing had to do with race, but a lot of it had to do with my gender. So I really took that as a responsibility and tried to do the job as well as I could.
Biagi: Were there stories at that time in KPIX that you did that you are especially proud of, that had a real meaning for you?
Davis: In the beginning, let me tell you, I had a film editor friend, who is still my friend, Richard Scott. We are the ones who got together and did the big anniversary party for the KPIX newsroom last year, which was just a wonderful thing. People came from all over the country for it, because we were such a wonderful family of people in the late sixties and early seventies at KPIX.
Richard Scott used to tell me that people tuned in to the news to see the newsmaker, not to see the reporter. He was teaching me without really knowing how much what he was saying would impact on how I performed in this business, how I performed in this business all of my career. That was that a reporter was a conduit of information, and our job was to bring to the
public opinion-makers and those who were the newsmakers, and that if I wanted to indulge myself, go get into a room with some of my friends and have fun.
So in my early stories, I very seldom appeared on camera, because whatever time I had, I wanted to give it to the person who had been speaking that day or showing you what had happened that day. My mother used to be so upset by this, because here's her daughter who's now on television and you never saw me, or very seldom saw me. There were a couple of things working there, too. I was not sure I was ready to be on camera. [Laughter.] I'm not sure I was quite ready for prime time.
I'm trying to think of stories. There are so many stories that I did that I'm proud of and was there for them. I think the work that I did in covering Berkeley and the demonstrations and riots, I'm proud of as a collective body of things.
Biagi: Were you there every day?
Davis: Almost. For a period I lived in El Cerrito, so it was easier for me to just drive into Berkeley and meet the cameraman. So we met in Ray Colvig's office there in public information, is where we rendezvoused every day to figure out what the war plan was for the day, who was demonstrating where.
Biagi: Did you feel that the demonstrations were a staged operation? Many people since have said, "We really didn't understand what we were doing. We would wait, demonstrations would begin, and we'd film the demonstrations, and then we gave the impression to the world that this was Berkeley."
Davis: Yes, but I think it's like saying that if you're out here on Clay Street and a car smashes into another, you're not going to pay attention to it because fifteen other cars are going down the street without hitting each other. I've never bought that theory of people saying that this is the whole of anything. It is impossible in news to get the whole of anything. What news is, is the exception, and at that time the demonstrations were the exceptions and they were disruptive to thousands of people's lives. So there's no way you could have ignored that or not covered it or not been there for it. It was happening.
So, no, I don't agree with that. I think there were a lot of angry people. Remember, this is not like two or three-hundred people; these were thousands of kids and other hanger-ons who went through getting their heads cracked open. It isn't as though they got off scot free. Getting their heads cracked open and getting tear-gassed and chased and all of the other stuff that went with it, a lot of people's lives were ruined totally throughout this period. In fact, most of the leadership ended up in complete disarray one way or the other, from Mario Savio on to Bettina Aptheker and all of those early folks. They didn't gain fame or fortune from having done this. Fame, yes, excuse me, but certainly their later lives didn't prove that it was all worth it, so to speak, personally for them. Maybe overall in what they accomplished in bringing some issues to the forefront, yes, but they paid very heavy, heavy personal prices for this.
Biagi: I remember some people who covered demonstrations telling me that before the demonstrations began, the cops and the demonstrators would all be buddies and they'd talk and everything, and then come the appointed time for the demonstration, and the cops would line up in one place and the kids would line up in another and do battle. Was that the situation?
Davis: Oh, no. Absolutely no. No. There often was an attempt to negotiate, "We want to march from here to there," or, "We want to do this," but certainly not when they'd go in and take over a hall and thousands would fill it. There was nothing friendly about that at all, no. No, I didn't get that feeling. I certainly didn't get it at San Francisco State. They were riding in on horseback with clubs swinging. Do you think that's a nice, friendly agreement? No way. I think people have gotten confused over later, more planned and organized demonstrations that came about once people learned the power of the media and how to use it. But at the beginning, that was not the case. We missed a lot of it. They just happened spontaneously.
I can remember probably the day that I felt—I don't even remember why or what this demonstration was all about, except it was one of the worst days, probably the worst day. I don't even know what year it was. Certainly Lou Calderon could tell you about it. But it was the day that [Governor of California Ronald] Reagan decided to spray the campus with pepper gas. Is this a friendly arrangement here? "You go off and do your job and I do mine"? By now they were—they were tear-gassing us from the sky, and the reporters were down there eating it along with the students.
So when the helicopters were ready to come, people were really angry about the tear gas, number one, and about the pepper gas, number two, but they really by then were angry with the media, as well as with the police.
I remember getting caught on Bancroft [Avenue], and they set Lou's car on fire that day. He was hit by something. He still has double vision from being injured that day. I was with a cameraman named Gerd Rausch, and we were at Telegraph and Bancroft, and we were surrounded by thousands of kids in this car. It was the day Rector was shot. That was that terrible day.
So we're trying now to get across to get back down out of the midst of this stuff, and our car was surrounded. They had already set one car on fire, and they were rocking our car from side to side. Well, one thing about being the token person, the liberal students gave me a little bit more of a break. I could talk to them better than a lot of other reporters. So we didn't know what to do. The cameraman was freaking out here. So I said, "Okay, Gerd, I'm going to open the door. You just keep driving very slowly. I'm going to start talking to them. Just keep going. Eventually I'm going to get out of the car. I'll meet you at this place."
So I started yelling, just screaming obscenities. "What the hell do you guys think you're doing?" We started screaming, and they were screaming, "Fuck the media!" (I'm whispering this.) [Laughter.]
Biagi: But they were yelling.
Davis: They were yelling, and I was screaming, and they were going on about how terrible the media was, what we were doing, and we were part of the establishment. So while I'm fighting with them about why they're burning media cars and so forth, Gerd is inching the car down. They loved the debate of the moment, so now they've got somebody in the media who would be stupid enough to stand there and debate with them. So he inched the car very slowly while I'm fighting and got out of there. Then what broke it up was the cops started the march down the avenue and everybody had to scatter.
So then my big deal then was to find him and the car and get the rest of my story. But we ended up on Haste, which is the street right down from where the shooting had taken place.
We were facing down these blue guys in uniforms with rifles cocked, and we know by now they're using live ammunition. So that was a tough day. That was one of those days when you just operate on adrenalin. I'm sure I was probably frightened, but you didn't have a lot of choices. So those who say that this was a friendly little arrangement and so forth, they weren't there. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Did you have access to interviewing central figures in the demonstrations personally, or were you just covering them from afar?
Davis: No, I interviewed everybody and anybody.
Biagi: So that means Savio and Aptheker?
Biagi: Who else?
Davis: I wish I could tell you, but my mind has slipped. Why it slipped back to those names, which were the earliest names from the start of the Free Speech Movement, I cannot remember the mid-names, but it, too, will come. They all come back.
Biagi: When you spoke with them, what would you say their major anger was directed at?
Davis: It was so far beyond anything I understood. You've got this high school kid who's not traveled and doesn't know worldly issues, trying to understand. Their whole thing, I think, was focused on the institutional problems in this country. Their whole dialogue centered around institutional inequities and change institutionally, and wanted institutions to change. That's what I'd say was really the bottom line.
Biagi: What sparked it all?
Davis: I wish I knew. I grew up in Berkeley, and what was going on was so foreign. I mean, as a kid I used to play along that little creek that runs through Berkeley. These kids were like foreigners to the students that I knew at Berkeley. So part of that, that was a problem. I had such respect for the university, I used to almost feel like I should tiptoe when I walked around the campus. And here were these wild people screaming and yelling and talking destruction. I just truly didn't understand it, so I tried to understand.
I think the other thing is that the movement and the anger changed and reconfigured so many times from free speech to civil rights, antiwar, to women's rights, all of these movements were being born almost simultaneously and ebbing at different times. So it was a constant change in trying to understand what was going on. Coalitions would form and break up. From interviewing Adam Clayton Powell after his speech at Sproul Plaza, to Stokeley Carmichael, who was there, the people who were worried about the institution of Berkeley opening its doors and so forth, they were all fiery, but they were all talking about different things, to Joan Baez, who talked about peace, to even some of the early environmentalists. All of this is all mixed up in my head because I could never tell where one began and the other ended. It all started and it just kept going.
Biagi: It went on for some time.
Davis: Oh, yes.
Biagi: You were there quite a bit.
Davis: Yes, and I covered the demonstrations at the Oakland Induction Center by the time they had moved there, getting up at four in the morning to get your position to watch, to see what was going to happen.
Biagi: Isn't that where they brought the buses in?
Davis: Yes. A lot of this happened when the police would start to clear the area, and it was always done with great force. I always wonder what happened to all those people who were beaten, who were hit over the head, whose skulls were cracked. I wonder later in life what became of them, how much permanent injury was sustained and so forth.
Biagi: Did you cover the people's park demonstrations?
Davis: Not a lot of that, but I covered some of it.
Biagi: Some people have felt it was a trivial incident.
Davis: By then drugs were—it had lost the intellectual edge for me. Yes, it was a different kind of a crowd. Or maybe I was just burning out by then. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Could be.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: You're in that era now, and you have to remember the times.
Davis: Right. That part of my life was so filled with high moments that I can't put things in context ever. When I think about it, it's a big block. You see Robert Kennedy, and I can tell you a singular story about him, fortunately not about that tragic moment, but one that almost ended up in tragedy for all of us. He had been in the Bay Area. I became fascinated with covering the American Indian struggle, so I had been doing stories about the plight of the American Indians. He, of course, was interested in the American Indian movement. So I don't know who arranged it or why it happened, but he decided as part of his campaign to take a helicopter trip up to Yreka, up to the Yurok Indian reservation. It was way up north, sort of over from the coast.
So they chartered a helicopter, and a whole group of us got on this chopper. It was after a day of campaigning, late in the evening, but we were going to get there before dark. Well, as California weather will go, we were flying up there and the fog comes in so heavy that it's just unbelievable. We lost our way. The Yreka airport closed down.
Biagi: You're in the helicopter?
Davis: In the helicopter, lost, with Robert Kennedy. We were having this wonderful time. I'm sitting next to him all the way up there, so we had a long personal chat, we talked about family and friends and all this stuff. Then we learn that the airport is closed down, something is wrong with one of the instruments, and we are in trouble. Well, in any case, it worked its way out. I don't know whether it was radio communications or what happened, but we ended up finally
being able to land there very late at night, and we had planned to be there earlier, drive over to the reservation. I don't know what was supposed to happen, but I know I had no luggage, so we must have planned to come back. But it didn't happen.
Biagi: Did you stay overnight?
Biagi: Did you go to the reservation the next day?
Davis: No, the Indians came to the airport.
Biagi: That would have been when?
Davis: This was shortly before his death.
Biagi: That was the last time you saw him.
Davis: The last time I saw him. I'd covered him other times when he'd been in the valley with César Chavez* or in town. He, of course, didn't know me from Adam.
Biagi: What about other people of the period? Did Martin Luther King show up in town quite a bit?
Biagi: Had you done quite a few interviews with him?
Davis: Oh, yes, lots of interviews with him. My most memorable day of covering him was one of the funny stories. He was by now aware that the movement had to move from civil rights into the peace movement, that there had to be some connection with the whole problem of Vietnam. Joan Baez had been a firm supporter of him because of his non-violent stand, and she had been arrested. I'd covered the demonstration where she'd been arrested in Oakland and had been sentenced to the Alameda County Santa Rita jail, and she was in there serving whatever sentence they decided on at the time.
So on the day of her release, he had decided to come and wait for her and greet her, because he said when he'd been jailed in Alabama or Mississippi, wherever, she had been there, so he wanted to be there for her. The Alameda County Sheriff's Department had a terrible reputation in those days. It was pretty bad. So they just decided, because they knew that this media crowd and King were there, she was the last person of the day that they let go. She was supposed to be released like at eight o'clock in the morning; it was near dark before they let her out. It was a rainy day and it was very cold and very dreary, and he stayed all day.
Every time there was a group coming through the gate—we were still shooting with film cameras, these big huge Pro 400s, I think they were called. We had the worst. Channel 5 [KPIX] was the number-one station, biggest, ran nineteen ratings in the news, and had the worst equipment and cars in the business. That was the way it was. So we'd grab this huge, heavy camera and run over to the gate, because they wouldn't let us stay there permanently, ran up to the gate to see if she was being released, and I chatted with him there all day, off and on, just because I had known him through Frank Clark. It was just such a memorable day. Joan Baez
* César Estrado Chavez (1927-1993), labor organizer and founder of the NationalFarm Workers Association (NFWA), 1965.
Page 51 wrote a book and wrote about this day. We became very good friends during that time. She wrote about it from her standpoint and, of course, I knew what had happened outside the gate that day. So it was great. We enjoyed talking about it.
Biagi: If you had to give a number to how many times you covered King, how many times?
Davis: I couldn't even tell you, because I was covering him before the white press. I covered him as a black journalist at KDIA Radio. That's where I first started to try and learn the news business from a man named Lou Freeman, who ran our small news department. I wanted to be his field reporter, so I'd get my little tape recorder and go out and do things and gather actualities. It wasn't part of what I was doing. After all, I'm already the traffic manager, doing continuity* in addition to that and running my own show, but I wanted to learn news, so Lou would let me go and do these things.
Along with that, I got a lesson in news judgment from him, how to make decisions in news. So I would go out to the Church of God in Christ, which at that time was one of the biggest churches physically, where crowds could gather when Martin would come to town to speak. Sometimes they'd have rallies at the Oakland Auditorium. These are major events in the black community, but they were not major events for the major media. So I started covering him from that point of view.
Biagi: That would have been in the early sixties?
Davis: Yes, before TV, even. So I can't even tell you. Many, many, many times. Many times.
Biagi: What were your impressions of King then?
Davis: He was a man with terrific charisma, a deep sense of understanding human nature, and an ability to really move you just in a regular conversation, almost thoughtlessly throwing lines. You'd go, "Oh, did you hear what he said?" [Laughter.] I wish I could explain the dynamics of talking to somebody like King. There was a fire that came from Malcolm X, a good sense of logic that came from him, that engaged you intellectually and oftentimes spirited you. There was a quality that came from a conversation with King that felt nurturing, giving you more of a sense—he touched your humanity. He really had a way of doing that. So both were very powerful. They were powerful in different ways.
Biagi: Other than the incident in Yreka and incidents and times that you spent with Kennedy and King, were there other incidents with those two people that are memorable?
Davis: As a journalist, I was part of the whole crowd, but I was always impressed with [Robert] Kennedy's ability to be at ease on those marches with César Chavez, when he'd come down to those hot valley meetings and they'd set off marching here or there. I would often look at him and think, "Here's this guy from this background with these bearings, this wealth. What happened to bring him to this philosophy?" I think about that sometimes as to why. I try to make some judgment oftentimes as to how much of this is for politics, how much is sincere, and generally would rationalize it that, truly, if you wanted to be a successful white male, there were many other ways to do it. [Laughter.] I just decided that obviously this was something that had to come
* Continuity is the timekeeping department of a broadcast station, which makes sure that all the advertisements run when they are scheduled.
from some sense of belief of fairness that he had somehow gotten along the way as he'd grown up. But I used to think about that. "Why is this guy down here in this dirt, in this heat, tramping around here, with all of his millions back home? Would I be doing this?" [Laughter.]
With King, you realize what a comfortable life a good Baptist minister could live. I used to always wonder where he got his inspiration. I looked into that and finally found a person who had been his mentor, became an avid fan of that particular person, and later on in life became chair of a small educational trust headed by Dr. Howard Thurman, who had been Martin King's inspiration and mentor. I wanted to know. I've always wanted to know what happened to get you here. [Laughter.] Oh, dear. So I did a little research on that. More than a little. Some of it came out of interviews, trying to understand that.
Biagi: To take a little side road here for a minute, you said you love to read, that you're a real reader. Are there particular books that you really enjoy and that have really been central?
Davis: I don't know if I'd say books, but I'd say when I'm troubled and trying to center my own life, I'll read Howard Thurman. I sure do. He's a universalist, you know. The very first church founded as an interracial church in this country was founded by him and a rabbi and another Protestant minister. They founded a church called the Church for the Fellowship of All People. He was a disciple of [Mohandas K.] Gandhi and believed in nonviolence, believed in a universal humanness. I think that speaks more to my own personal view of life in the world. In fact, on my wall in the office, a friend of mine who is a wonderful calligrapher, a woman who is an eye doctor and surgeon, is also a Thurmanite, and she calligraphied my favorite little passage from Thurman, so it's on the wall in my office. Sometimes I can just walk in there and see it big.
Biagi: And it says? Do you remember it by heart?
Davis: I don't. That's why I have it on the wall so I can read it. It starts with how good it is to center down, and it brings you to centering within yourself. So that's the beginning line. I guess I just pick up something of Thurman's and start to read it. He wrote nineteen books, and there are numerous tapes and other things. He was the dean of chapel at Boston University for many years, had been the dean of the chapel at Howard and Morehouse, a very, very well-respected theologian, named Man of the Year by Life magazine at one time, which was unheard of back in those days for a black man.
But in terms of other readings, because I eventually started to anchor the noon news—the way you get famous people was when they wrote a book—so I can tell you I must have read parts of hundreds of books. Oh, dear, parts of hundreds of books. I was always reading, but I could very seldom finish anything.
Biagi: The night before.
Biagi: As we move into the late sixties, early seventies, you're still at KPIX. How long were you there?
Davis: I was there for eleven years. I actually didn't go on the air till '67, and I worked there full time. Actually, my face didn't appear on the air until '67, and I worked there until almost the end of '77. Then I went over to KQED, but continued to work twenty hours a week for KPIX—doing a program called "All Together Now."
Biagi: In that period of time after 1970, what's going on in San Francisco?
Davis: I became very involved with the coverage of the Black Panther party. Those were my exclusive signature interviews, too, because I had grown up in West Oakland, where these guys came from. I knew Huey Newton before he was Huey Newton, head of the Black Panther party. The woman he had been engaged to was one of my little Miss Bronze gals. So at various times in their brushes and so on with authorities, I did extensive interviews with them.
One of my great little stories, I've never gotten to the bottom of it, but I can remember Bill and I went on one of our much treasured vacations to the Virgin Islands. I really used to work very, very hard, so we were really looking forward to this. We were on the island of St. Croix, and I get a call from the station to tell me that at this particular time Eldridge Cleaver, who was in Europe, in Paris, or somewhere, Algiers or someplace, wanted to come home, and Kathleen Cleaver was looking for me because if he came, he would only come home if I would agree to come and do an interview so that he could get his side of the story out, and that was going to be part of their negotiated deal for his reentry, and would I come home from my vacation to do this interview. Well, needless to say, that was one of those real numbers for us, but we decided to do it.
Biagi: You did?
Davis: I did the interview from the Alameda County Jail, the one and only interview that they allowed, and it was distributed all over the country.
Then a few years later, Huey Newton was in Cuba, so when I went to Cuba, that was just when [President Jimmy] Carter was having this flirtation with normalizing relations with Cuba, Ron Dellums decided to lead a congressional delegation to Cuba, and it was a delegation of all black officials.
Anyway, this group of black people went to Cuba, and when I get to Cuba, who is the first person that I see when I get out of the car coming from the airport? There's Huey Newton waiting on the steps for me. [Laughter.] Oh, dear. So I did my Huey Newton interview in Cuba talking about the conditions under which he wanted to return to the country. They were worked out and he eventually came back. That was a very exciting trip to Cuba.
Biagi: Your coverage of the Black Panthers, was there ever a time where you felt torn or you had loyalties, personal or otherwise, to these people because they had come from your neighborhood, they were people you knew?
Davis: I tried so hard, ridiculously so, to be evenhanded as a journalist, that I tried to look at it always trying to see all sides of everything, and nobody can see all sides of everything. I tried very hard to. I was never accused of being biased in my reporting. Thank God for that. I really wasn't. I mean, I got letters always telling me to go back to Africa. I used to always wonder which part of that vast continent was I supposed to go to, since I didn't have any idea what my connection would be, and I got lots of hate mail along the way, but I never got letters saying that I had slanted a story, even when it came to dealing with war and peace and the Panthers and so forth. Later on there would develop trouble between us, hard trouble between me and the Oakland Police Department, but not at that time. In fact, I was an acceptable person to come into the jail and do those interviews.
I remember when Bobby Seale was finally picked up to be sent to Chicago for the Chicago Seven trial. It was a Sunday again, and somehow I was found and brought to the San Francisco Hall of Justice and treated very poorly, incidentally, by the sheriff's deputies at that time, because one of the things he wanted to do before he left was to give an interview before they shipped him off to Chicago. He had really great fear for his life in being sent to Chicago. He was really afraid to go there. I remember they locked me in this holding cell with him for the pre-interview and just went off and left us for the longest time. I was yelling for somebody to come back and they didn't. So finally they brought the cameraman in and we did the interview.
Biagi: Were you scared?
Davis: No, I just knew they were being difficult. They locked me in the cell with him. It wasn't like a visiting room or anything of that sort, just sitting in this holding cell. I'll never forget, because I kept looking at the floor a lot. The walls curved up like this.
Biagi: What about the Marin County shootout and the trial? Did you get involved in that?
Davis: I got involved in the trial coverage eventually, but my story about the shootout ended the Sunday before the shootout. A friend had invited us to a party. We were on this circuit. All of the leftish organizations, you knew who they were and so forth. Somebody had invited us to a party in the Mission District, an antiwar group, and at that party was Angela Davis and Jonathan Jackson. We had spent chatting time with them, just talking about the world, inequities, and things of that sort with this young, quiet kid, Jonathan Jackson. He seemed like the nicest young man. But we had seen them that Sunday, and the next week there was a shootout. I've got to ask Bill. Obviously we left town. I don't think we were here when the shootout happened. But after that, I became very involved because of Angela Davis, because I was Belva Davis, and there was a perception out there. They knew she had a sister, that I was her sister. So I became the object of a lot of hateful mail.
Biagi: As if there aren't a lot of people named Davis.
Davis: I know, but for some reason—
Biagi: You were visible.
Davis: I was visible, to the point that a group in Contra Costa County decided to make threats against me.
Biagi: What do you mean by that?
Davis: During the Patty Hearst trial, there was a plot to kidnap my daughter. That was quite serious, because that one involved the police and the F.B.I., and she had to have special security. That's why we moved out of El Cerrito.
Biagi: When did you move?
Davis: By now she was in junior high school. It was whenever Patty Hearst was kidnapped.
Biagi: That would be early seventies.
Davis: Whenever that was, that was during that time.
Biagi: You were still at PIX?
Davis: Yes, I was still at PIX.
Biagi: This was before '77.
Davis: Yes, before '77. I remember that Joseph Alioto was mayor, and he had heard about this. Joe Alioto is a fine guy. I remember speaking with him about this. He said that his grandchildren were going to the Convent of the Sacred Heart. There were lots of consulate kids there, and that would probably be a good school to put my daughter. So even though it was late enrollment and all that, we got her into the Convent, and we moved to Larkin Street and Lombard, which was about three blocks from the station, where I could go home and check on her and where she would come to the station after school.
Biagi: What about the Patty Hearst kidnapping? How did you spend your time on that story?
Davis: I was anchoring the noon news, so every single day we were doing live shots from the Hearst house. We did extensive coverage. I remember when Catherine Hearst decided to do her appeal, they called me and I went down and did an interview with Catherine.
Biagi: Her appeal for Patty.
Davis: Yes. Then she did a news conference after that. But that was as much because of my co-anchor, Dave Fowler's relationship with the family as it was my own.
Biagi: Why do you feel now that you became a target or your family became a target from that story?
Davis: Because they said if black people had kidnapped this white girl, they were going to kidnap a black person's kid. So that was it. That was the logic in it.
Biagi: Did you get notes at work?
Davis: I didn't even know about it. I didn't know about it till the police came to me. The police showed up at my house saying that there was a serious matter they needed to talk to me about, that they had uncovered this and had some leads and some evidence that this was going to happen.
Biagi: Were you still at that point the only black person on air?
Davis: No. Being the dean by now, you become a little bit more of a focus. Of course, it was the number-one station, period. I don't know by then whether I was anchoring, because I moved through anchoring all the different shows, not just the noon, but the six o'clock, the eleven, anchoring all at one time or another. So I was probably the most visible black person there at that time.
Biagi: Did you have second thoughts about your business?
Davis: Actually, no. I think it probably just affirmed my belief that I needed to keep doing more. I was concerned definitely about her. In fact, Earl Sanders, he's a friend of mine, a police officer, was really a great guy in explaining to me that people were there. I didn't see them, but they were there, and not to worry.
Biagi: Let's go back a little bit. We're still at KPIX, you've gotten the Black Panthers covered and Huey Newton and the Marin County shootout, Patty Hearst. Other notable stories that you were doing at the time that you took particular pride in? When you were anchoring, were you reporting and anchoring as well?
Biagi: You would anchor at noon, then go out and report, or vice versa?
Davis: Right. I never stopped reporting. I guess my next big story, I did an interview with a guy and it was my first Emmy, so of course I'll remember that. It was a guy who was at that time California's longest termed prisoner, named Robert Wells. He'd been in jail longer than anybody in the whole prison system and he was at San Quentin, he'd been on Death Row and had been off and so forth. He'd originally gone to jail for receiving stolen property. Red Nelson, the warden, and Bob Wells had become fairly good friends. Nelson liked him. He liked me. So he arranged for me to do some interviews with Bob, and so I went in to San Quentin.
Biagi: What was that experience like?
Davis: Actually, I had been in and out of San Quentin a lot.
Biagi: I hope no one takes that out of context. [Laughter.]
Davis: Right. Wanda Ramey and Dick Corolla, her husband, still are very closely tied to San Quentin and doing work with prisoners there. So they had a very close relationship with the authorities at San Quentin. Through Wanda, I think, I learned about these programs that they did for prisoners, where they brought in outside groups to entertain.
From my radio disc jockey days, I had maintained close friendships with a lot of black entertainers, so I would contact them about doing shows and appearing at San Quentin. Another guy named Sam Skinner, who is a sportswriter today, worked with me at the Sun Reporter, another person who was instrumental. Anyway, a group of us worked to bring shows to San Quentin. I would come with these groups of people to San Quentin, James Brown, I got B.B. King, just a lot of well-known names to come in. So from that way there was another relationship. So I was used to going in and out of that prison for that reason.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: Do you want to go on about your years in San Quentin?
Davis: The whole thing about it, I did this interview with Bob Wells and this story got picked up nationally. Bob Wells then became sort of a folk hero of some sort, this guy who went to jail for receiving a suit of stolen clothes forty-seven years later still there.
Biagi: Was that his only—
Davis: Oh, no. He got into trouble in jail and eventually got into a fight with another prisoner. A prisoner was killed in the fight. So he spent a long time on Death Row. But now he's an old guy, and he became a hero. It was always, "Free this person," "Free that person," so he became one of those people to be freed, and the story got picked up by the national media. Eventually Bob Wells was freed. I had been doing stories about Delancy Street, a drug and prison
rehabilitation program, and it was just starting, so John Maher decided to take on the Bob Wells thing. So Bob was finally let go. I followed that story from that very first interview, which, as I said, won actually two Emmys, to his release.
But the problem was, by now my relationship with Bob had become symbiotic. He'd adopted me. So he lived forty-seven years behind bars and he didn't know anything at all about living outside, so every time he was in trouble, he'd call me and he just became like my ward. He just couldn't manage life on the outside. He didn't live very long. But I always just felt such a responsibility because I was in the midst of helping to get him out. He never really adjusted. I don't think he was ever happy outside of prison. But Warden Nelson thought that he should be freed, and he knew he was going to be retiring, so he gave him all the right recommendations. They finally sent him off to Vacaville and did some evaluations, and the day he was freed, the media was there from all over the world. I mean, he actually became an international person.
Biagi: It all began with your story.
Biagi: You take pride in that.
Davis: Yes. I'd heard about him because of this other association of going to the prison for doing other things.
Biagi: Any other stories?
Davis: I'm trying to at least stay in the same era. What are other stories? Well, my Jane Fonda story. There's a mystery to this story. If I could solve this thing, if I could get somebody to tell me the truth—I'll tell you the story and then I'll tell you the reason why I want to ask her, but I don't know how to ask her about it because then I would be saying, "Were you lying when you did thus and so?" But it starts with the fact that I was the kid who did all the extra hours, so it meant I worked a lot of Sundays and a lot of Saturdays, in addition to my regular work. You didn't get off, as I told you, because of this forty-hour thing.
Jane Fonda had just come out of this terrible marriage to Roger Vadim, and she'd been reading about what was going on in this country and the flower children. Oh, I didn't even talk about covering that. That was my Sunday coverage, the Haight. I forgot all about that. Anyway, she'd heard about it, so she had just had a baby and was coming back to this country and was reading voraciously, trying to find out what was going on in America, trying to get her own bearings as to what to do with the rest of her life. So she ended up, I don't know how or why, but where I came in, it was Sunday, Jane Fonda was in town, she was in a small apartment above somebody's bookstore on Haight, a famous bookstore, but up top there was an apartment.
She was available for an interview, so I went out, and there was this attractive woman sitting in the usual tie-dyed apartment, mattress on the floor, tie-dyed spread over it with this little baby. It was sort of like an encounter session. She wanted to interview me about what all was going on and what did this mean and when was that, and she had question after question. She was just trying to get a firsthand look at what was going on in America. I remember I almost didn't get a story on, because I couldn't get away from her, because she was grilling me so. [Laughter.] I must have spent a couple of hours or more with her.
Well, the reason for the unbelievable part is some years later, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown had a fundraising thing, a women's luncheon in which he brought leading women from Hollywood, Sherry Lansing and Jane Fonda and many other big names, Maxine Waters, the congresswoman. They were all on this panel. Jane Fonda was there, so I went over to her and I said, "I'm sure you won't remember me, but I met you at a point in your life when you were really trying to make some decisions. I remembered it because of your appetite for information." She said, "I know who you are." She rattled off the circumstances. Well, I still think to this day Willie Brown probably told her this story, but I don't know, because she just looked me straight in the eye and related. She probably remembers the day, but she might not remember who the reporter was. She said she did. She said, oh, no, that it had been a very important day in her life. Then she thanked me.
Biagi: You ought to ask Willie.
Davis: He denies that he told her anything. Anyway, I've always wondered if she really did.
Biagi: We can return to the Haight now.
Davis: That one was really something. That started out as such a sweet movement. I can remember my first day of real consciousness about it was a rally on the steps of city hall, when whoever the group was sang, the first time I heard "If You Come to San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear a Flower in Your Hair." It was just—oh, just really touch, touch, touching. I remember standing there thinking, "Oh, God, you're a reporter here. Get out of this! You're getting into this!" [Laughter.] Because all the things they were saying were so idealistic, about love and brotherhood and fellowship and equality, and you just wished so much that this could be the real world instead of some dream circumstances that they had concocted for this little enclave. Then, of course, soon after that came the blocking of streets in the Haight and the cops in the Haight, and it was the same old Berkeley story.
Biagi: You saw a pattern.
Davis: Yes, it got worse and worse as the weekends would go by.
Biagi: Do you remember any particularly notable incidents or does it all kind of flow together there?
Davis: I guess out of that, David Smith at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic stands out as being an angel of the time, really an angel of the time, because these kids were fooling around with so many things put into their bodies that they didn't know what to do with. Here was somebody there to address their ills with no questions asked.
Biagi: There was a lot of criticism of that, wasn't there?
Davis: Yes, but he was needed, because these kids were in all kinds of trouble. They didn't know what to do with themselves. They were so sweet when you'd see the ones who were coming into town on those first weekends, you know, really looking for this Utopia, and, of course, it doesn't exist. But it was sort of a sweet time, still, because there was no more sympathetic community they could have gone to. I mean, there had to be certain kinds of chemistry for this to happen. But watching that movement grow there and the music around it and the innocentness in the ingestion of some of these drugs, the circumstances under which it happened. My husband has always been the music person, and he would make me go to Winterland for music concerts.
I can remember sitting there and being so overwhelmed by the marijuana odors that I'd get sick. You'd be sitting there and marijuana cigarettes were being passed up and down the aisles. It was just freeflowing, passed from person to person. That whole environment, I guess it was seeing it from the beginning and seeing it go through its transitions and then seeing the sadness on the other end.
Biagi: Let's talk about your activism in the union. It comes into play at this point, doesn't it?
Davis: Yes, it does. I didn't know anything about unionism, but then I found out that these guys could really make my life much better, and along with all that, as I told you, I never asked anybody how much money I was going to make.
Biagi: It might be historically interesting if you can remember your salaries at some point in this period.
Davis: I'll tell you, I was making what to me was a lot of money, a lot of money. I was making two-hundred dollars a week.
Biagi: This is at what point?
Davis: This is in 1967, I was making two-hundred dollars a week. I thought I was rich. Because you've got to remember I had just come off of a year where we made no money.
Biagi: Four-thousand dollars together.
Davis: Right. So this was like we had hit the jackpot. Then I found out it was far less than what any of the men were making.
Biagi: How did you find out?
Davis: I only found it out when the program manager came to me and said, "We want to raise your salary voluntarily." Of course, then I realized something was wrong.
Biagi: Did you get paid for weekend work?
Davis: Flat salary. You got two-hundred a week whether you worked eight hours or no hours.
Biagi: When they called you, what was the incentive to go in?
Davis: I don't even think I thought of it as a punishment. If it was a good story, it was a good story. I didn't think about it till it was just used to excess. I think that was the only time. I'm sure I didn't have a lot of time off in January, and then you go through twenty-nine days without a break, you're bound to be tired.
Biagi: So it was the March after that February that you started asking around?
Davis: Actually, I think I said something. I'm sure it was through Bill Hillman. He said did Don Tayer know about this.
Biagi: Don Tayer was?
Davis: He was the head of the union at that time.
Biagi: Is this AFTRA?
Davis: Yes. Actually, I don't know a lot about what went on in between that. It's like they asked me for my time sheets, I gave them my time sheets, a lot of stuff was going on. I knew I had to join, I had paid my fees, but I had this mixed feeling about the union going in, and I'll tell you why, because when I was in black radio, they wouldn't accept us. We couldn't become members of the white union, because they said that we should be in the technicians union, we should have been in AFTRA if we had been in any union. So we were in no union. The reputation of unions as being biased was very strong. They were actually the gatekeeper to keep—like my husband, they were saying to him, "We'll hire you if you can get the union to go along."
So I didn't think of unions in particular as being friendly. So I don't think I got aboard till I saw that you could make a difference, and I heard from the leadership that they also wanted to see changes. So then I became an active union member. But even within the union itself, it was still trying to shed the last vestiges of racism. Even the constitution had biased language in it. That happened even maybe during my first convention, they were cleaning up language.
Biagi: What happened after they got your time card?
Davis: I don't really know. All I know is that then the bargaining started between the union and the station, and there was an agreement reached that we'd get overtime after forty hours a week, and I was a big hero. [Laughter.] That's all I know. But I was so busy during that period of my life, I really was. Money never has been my big—I don't know how to manage it. I earn probably less than anybody who's worked this many years to be in this market, because I've never had a big salary. When I started to climb up the salary scale was when I resigned at KPIX and took a huge salary—in fact, this is something that's interesting. When I resigned and knew that KPIX was changing and it was time for me to do something else, KQED could not equal my salary.
Biagi: Being a public station.
Davis: Right. I think I was going to have to take a fifteen or twenty-thousand dollar a year salary cut to go over and anchor their news. Here again, and I don't know how it happened, but the big guys got together and we reached an agreement that I would continue—because KPIX wasn't sure. I was hosting their premier minority program called "All Together Now," which is a multi-ethnic show that was very popular, prime time. Bill Osterhaus had been the station manager at KPIX. He by then was the station manager at KQED. He got together with George Reising, a guy who was the station manager at Channel 5, and they agreed that I could continue to host the "All Together Now" prime time show on Channel 5 while working a five-day anchor job at KQED.
Biagi: And that made up the difference in salary?
Davis: That gave me an opportunity to make up the difference in salary, so I did that the entire time I worked at KQED. I worked forty hours a week there and twenty hours a week for KPIX.
Biagi: When did you sleep?
Davis: I realize now why my heart is giving me trouble. [Laughter.] I've been pushing it for a very long time. So that's what I did.
Biagi: The twenty hours a week, when did you put those twenty hours in?
Davis: Fortunately for me, the KQED show, I came to work at noon, because our news didn't go on the air until 7:30 [p.m.]. So my hours started at noon there, so I'd work in the mornings [for KPIX]. See, by now the "All Together Now" program was done like an "Evening Magazine" show. It was done in the field, all of the bridges, the stand-ups, the location shoots, the interviews, and all that. Entertainment stuff, if we were doing a nightclub scene or something, I'd do that in the evenings afterwards.
Biagi: Your union activism, you became quite visible.
Biagi: You just didn't turn in the time card.
Davis: No, no. After that, what I decided was it was a good way to be an activist within then acceptable realms and still be a good reporter. I could go out and work for equality as a good unionist, so I soon became involved with the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, which I'm still national chair of within the union, and decided to use the power and resources of the union for the things that I cared about most, and that was trying to get a fair shake for everybody.
Biagi: What did that involve in the early days?
Davis: Actually, it started in trying to win over my own members. A great deal of it was working within the membership, the structure of the union itself. They were a near lily white union. There were no high-ranking officials that were minority. In fact, when we would have our EEO meetings at the national convention, they wouldn't even give us a room to meet in. We'd have to meet in the restaurant, in the cafe, or around the pool, or at lunchtime.
Biagi: And you could, there were so few of you.
Davis: That's right. We were fortunate enough to get to be delegates to the convention.
Biagi: In the early days when you had your meetings, how many people were there?
Davis: No more than ten, and that is if we counted some people who were office staff.
Biagi: That's in a union of how big?
Davis: About 45,000 people. So we would have our meetings and we'd come up with our agenda items and our list of demands and changes and so forth, and try to fashion resolutions and get them passed within the union itself. We dealt with staffing and having the union make strong statements about diversity.
Biagi: Did you ever get involved in lobbying in Washington?
Davis: Yes, that came much later. That came real late in my career. By the time I was comfortable enough to feel that based on how people had responded to me from up and down the political spectrum, that I was viewed as a person that tried to be fair and tried to be even-handed in my reporting, I felt that my reputation was strong enough there that if anybody was going to
take the risk, and also because I was the longest termed person, if anybody's going to take the risk, then it ought to be me. So, yes.
Then we started from this committee to organizing annual conferences, and eventually those conferences led to a meeting in Washington. As part of those conferences, we invited FCC commissioners to come and address us, as well as industry leaders and government people. Then as changes began to take place within the commission and the Congress was considering means that would even open the door more and make it easier for the companies to not hire and to not keep statistics on how many—
Davis: Deregulation came about. Our big problem with the Congress had been this whole business of keeping statistics. It's something employers had been trying to get out of for years. So that was the year, the year when the FCC and the Congress were considering dropping the requirement that employers keep logs on the make-up of their stations and records of how they were serving the communities, even though now their license didn't depend upon it the way it had in the earlier days.
Biagi: This was in the eighties?
Davis: Yes. We just felt that there would be no way to win the battle if there was no record, so that was what pushed me to the wall, and that's when we did our first lobby trip and really went to Capitol Hill. I called Don Edwards, local congressman who has a long history on civil rights, and asked for instructions on how I could go about doing this.
The amazing thing was that the union itself had no lobbyist. They were represented through the Department of Professional Employees, which covers all professional employees, all different kinds of unions, and one guy there who is speaking for all these different groups. So they had no lobbyist who spoke at all on broadcast issues alone.
Biagi: "They" meaning broadcast employees.
Davis: Yes. So there was no one speaking for us. My union management sort of went along. They were certainly not out in front of this, because they were afraid of the Washington bureau network guys who just thought this was awful. My feeling was, "You can stay at home if you want to, but we're going. And basically that's what we did, so we did these conferences that really were forerunners of where they're finding themselves today, where we really started to try to understand how the industry operated and how to have some impact on it.
I must say that people at the FCC [Federal Communications Commission]—in fact, it's really funny, because a lot of this I'd have never been able to do without help from the National Association of Broadcast Minority Department. There's a guy that runs a Minority Department there who knew the Washington system inside out, and his department was always publishing papers on the status of minorities in broadcasting.
Biagi: He probably wanted the statistics, too.
Davis: Of course, yes. So I'd get a lot of my information from stuff that Dwight was mailing out about what was going on in the industry, and it was really my guidepost, because I didn't know where to start with all of this stuff.
Biagi: And they're still keeping statistics.
Davis: Yes. So what I did was to find our union members who came from the districts of the congresspeople we needed to talk to, and had them make the appointments with those people, and then we came around with our little road show. By the time we were doing this for the third time, the union leadership was pushing us out of the way to be the ones to do it, because they had other issues by then that they were concerned about.
So we were making the appointments and we were the forerunners. It was a minority convention and it turned into something totally different. That was part of what we did.
Biagi: Other changes you think you had an effect on within the union?
Davis: I was involved in this. No one does anything single-handedly. As I told you about how the EEO Committee [of AFTRA] was an outside committee, then I became very active with the women's committee and decided that the women and minorities had to join together, because we were both outside. So I was very active in being a bridge. Then as minorities began to separate their issues from women's issues, that was a pretty tense period. We decided on the strange kind of a configuration where I became sort of an overall chair of a many-armed committee of minorities, the women, the seniors, and the disabled. I sort of tried to coordinate all of this.
Biagi: Did you have a title?
Davis: I think I was just called the national EEO chair. Then there were chairs of these various groups. Certainly when it came to the Washington lobbying situation, we tried to bring all that together into one effort.
Biagi: What were the other issues that you took up with the same fervor?
Davis: I guess the last time we were in Washington, we were more into women's issues by then. I'm not sure why, because I remember one of our first calls was to Pat Schroeder. I know we went back and talked about the [Americans With] Disabilities Act, because actors, in particular, who are disabled really have a complaint. At that time, if there was ever a role for a disabled person, it never went to a disabled person; it went to somebody else who went to a disabled person to learn how to act disabled. I think we flowed with the times. If the big agenda issue was the Disabilities Act, we did a lot of talking about that. I remember the year the Civil Rights Act expired and they had to vote it in again, we were very active that year on the Civil Rights Act and talked about what it meant.
Biagi: Did you visit members of Congress?
Davis: We held a major news conference that was covered by sixteen cameras.
Biagi: You were counting. [Laughter.]
Davis: Yes. We were told about that. But we did hold a major news conference on that, that got national coverage. Nobody in management ever said I couldn't do it. I always said to the news director and manager, "I'm going to do this."
Biagi: Have you ever felt that your activism affected your professional career?
Davis: I never thought of it that way, but I don't think so.
Biagi: It hasn't put you in jeopardy?
Davis: I don't think so.
Biagi: I know union activism in some professions can do that.
Davis: The beginning of the story, when I was talking about getting hired at [Channel] 4 [KRON-TV] I think that took the edge off that fear for me, because I thought if ever you're going to pay a price, if you're president of a union that's just struck somebody and you picket up and down in front of the station for days, then they turn around a few months later and hire you, you tend not to think of it as having been that big a liability. [Laughter.] I'm not saying that it isn't in some places, but I've never felt it directly impacted my work.
Biagi: We'll stop now.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Let's talk about June 1968 and Robert Kennedy and move forward from there today. What do you remember about that time, and how involved were you at all in that event?
Davis: I wasn't involved at all, except as a reporter, except to cover the local reaction, and we all did that. Everybody in every major city in America, I'm sure, did that. But I think because of the fact that it happened in California and he'd been in the Bay Area just days before the event, we all felt very personal about his murder, and sort of felt that heroes didn't have much of a chance, if you indeed considered him a hero, which most of us growing up with my background in this area, we certainly felt.
Biagi: So your reaction, then, to Bobby Kennedy's assassination?
Davis: It really was a melancholia. When that happened, I can remember exactly where I was when John Kennedy was shot, exactly where I was when I found out that Martin Luther King [Jr.] had been shot, and now this. It was like the third strike, and do you go back to the plate again? Is it really a new ball game, or how do you go from here? So it took a little while to focus, and I was not alone in that. Many people felt that way.
Biagi: As a reporter, your job was to cover Bay Area reaction, that kind of thing?
Davis: Yes, but it was more a melancholia, I think, for the country that this was the way that we as a nation were solving our problems, and if that was our choice, then what was this other stuff about, our belief in democracy and using the democratic process to create change? So no matter where you place yourself publicly as a conduit of information, you have your background to carry with you all the time. Being a black American, my hope had to be in the fact that the system works, and whatever happened to diminish that then diminishes the possibility for my children for the future and so on. So I think it was probably not thought out that well, but that was a contributing factor. So while I realized my job was to report the facts and other people's reaction, there was this background going on inside of me. Of course, the antiwar demonstrations continued.
Biagi: Which you covered quite a bit.
Davis: A lot. An awful lot. They became more and more hostile. The action and reaction of those in authority to people who were protesting became more vigorous. Hard lines were being drawn. Loyalty to country was always the top of the list, depending on, of course, what group you're talking to. So there was all of that going on. Then just the issue of race in all of this continued.
Biagi: Where was the issue of race, would you say, at this time? How was it being addressed?
Davis: The fact that the majority of the people dying in Vietnam were black, the majority of people dying in Vietnam were the uneducated and the poor, and then the internal struggles within the organizations that were trying to do something about it was being splintered. The women's movement was just being born, and the use of drugs was getting heavier and heavier. Things were not very pretty. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So in 1968, then we have our new president, and we go into the decade of 1968 and 1972, the presidencies.
Davis: I think that's the period I was truly referring to, was what happened following '68, when things started to deteriorate a little bit.
Biagi: As a reporter, what kinds of evidence did you see that the country was in a melancholy state that you think it was? Or is that just your reflection now?
Davis: That was my personal perception. I don't know that that was shared by lots of people, but to me, whenever people's reaction to circumstance becomes more extreme, more extreme measures are thought to be okay, to me that's a sign of desperation and some loss of hope, because when you're hopeful, you're willing to try to stick with whatever is going on and work your way through it. But when you feel that nothing's happening, then you want to go and bomb the Bank of America building and all the other kinds of things that started to happen.
Biagi: So in 1970, '71, '72, in San Francisco, what kinds of stories were you covering? Were you still doing general assignment and working for Channel 5?
Davis: Yes. I was there until almost the end of the seventies, '77. In between all of this, and I'm no good today at remembering the dates, but in that era we had the activities of the Black Panther party, we had the Patricia Hearst kidnapping, we had the rise of the SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army], we had the free food giveaway connected with the Hearst kidnapping.
Biagi: That would have been about '72, I believe, was Hearst. Wasn't that the issue then?
Davis: I covered that, because I was anchoring the mid-day news program. We covered every day something about that story.
Biagi: What kinds of things?
Davis: All of the progress. There's a lot more here to tell, because we actually had some members of the SLA on our program. We had the rise of Jim Jones and that group.
Biagi: So for somebody who's not from San Francisco and not of this era, you'd almost have to explain to them what that meant, what it meant to cover Patty Hearst or how it started for you.
Davis: I wish I could tell you. There's so much, that I think I'll probably have to go back and refresh my memory. I can only remember the highlights, the highlight of knowing that she'd been kidnapped that that there were black males involved in it. I could remember back to the real fear in black males during the Zebra killings, which was much earlier, when all the black males were stopped and questioned because of this group of men who were killing whites, although they killed black people, too. But basically they were out to kill white people. After the SLA incident and the fact that we knew that these were black males involved, I worried a lot about relatives and friends and so on who might get mistaken and caught up in this.
I remember the negotiations with them through the media, some of them through our station, because the Reverend Cecil Williams had a program on our air and a close tie to KPIX, so we were very tied in to all of that. It's just beginning to come back a little to me.
Biagi: The Symbionese Liberation Army, for people who won't recognize the name SLA, was composed of whom?
Davis: Radicals who wanted to change the system, very left wing, mixed-race group, kidnapped Patty Hearst, wealthy heiress, supposedly to gain money to feed the poor, to do good works, but it never happened. I think that, for me, anyway, their objectives have always been confusing for me to understand. I never quite understood what they were doing. I thought they were such bright, intelligent people, most of them, because of the papers that they wrote, the long recorded messages and speeches that they would leave for us reporters in telephone booths.
Biagi: They would leave tapes for you to pick up?
Davis: Yes, demands.
Biagi: Did you do that?
Davis: I did not personally, but our station was sometimes the target of the calls to receive the messages. Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide [Memorial] Church, which was sort of a home for alternative views of all sorts and a saving base for many young people involved, runways that got involved in drugs, it was a place that parents came to look for their lost children, and because of this reputation, his activities in this area, was seen as a person, sort of a bridge between the alternative culture and [unclear].
Biagi: His church is right downtown.
Davis: Right in the heart of the city. So because of our connection there. He also was a close friend, or at least an acquaintance, and became a close friend to the Hearst family because he tried to negotiate her freedom. I guess my clearest memories—and there are others, and maybe we'll go back and try to do this again—were of the trial itself even after. I'm skipping way in time here. The actual trial itself. That's because we broadcast live reports every single day from the trial, and quite often those reports, in fact, F. Lee Bailey would arrange for a news conference convenient for us in our newscasts.
Biagi: He was defending the SLA.
Davis: No. Patty Hearst. So every day we would carry a report from that trial.
Biagi: Where was the trial?
Davis: The federal building in San Francisco. But prior to that, as I go back, when the Hearst family decided to make its plea for Patty Hearst's release, my co-anchor, a guy named Dave Fowler, knew the Hearsts quite well, so they became ardent viewers of our program, because we often had the latest information. So when Mrs. Hearst decided to make a personal plea for Patty's return, I got a call to come down the peninsula to their house one night and there was this watch of reporters from all over the country, scores of them who hung out near this tree near their driveway, and the Hearsts would come out and give briefings on how they thought—well,
Mr. Hearst would, anyway, often. But when she decided to talk, I got a call from Dave saying, "Come down. Catherine Hearst wants to do an interview with you," and I did.
Biagi: That was the first time you interviewed her?
Davis: That was her first interview. After that, she came out and made public statements, but I did the first one.
Biagi: Where was the house, on the peninsula?
Davis: Yes. I can't remember if it's at Atherton Hillsborough.
Biagi: In that neighborhood.
Davis: Hillsborough. That's it.
Biagi: So what did she say in that interview? Do you remember? Or do you just remember that it took place?
Davis: She was pleading for her daughter's release and asking them not to harm her.
Biagi: So this is in the days really when you could have put that on live. So did you?
Davis: No, it was taped.
Biagi: A taped interview.
Davis: Filmed interview. I guess in those days we were not as happy about—I mean, now you do everything live, but then it was really a special deal.
Biagi: It was expensive and technologically difficult, I think, so people didn't do it often.
Biagi: So then the events at the trial. You remember covering it every day.
Davis: Covering it from a strange point of view, not from the courtroom, but from our show. I mean, talking on the phone with our reporter who was there every day preparing for the first [newscast], because the twelve noon show on Channel 5 [KPIX] was the first newscast of the day. We had the only mid-day news, because that station pioneered—the first noon news in the country was the noon news program at Channel 5. So we were the first news of the day. Sometimes I'd go down just so I could get the feel of it, so I wouldn't lose touch with it, what the real trial was all about, but most of the time it was through the live coverage.
Biagi: Then the food giveaway.
Davis: I remember covering one of those. I still feel this sense of dismay.
Biagi: And the arrangement was? I'm trying to remember in my mind exactly why the—
Davis: The Hearst family had to provide a certain amount of food, and for some reason, and I don't recall why, the Black Muslims were chosen to distribute the food in black communities to poor people.
Biagi: Not just in San Francisco, then? It was the Bay Area?
Davis: All over the Bay Area. It was like a food riot. They would sort of bring in food into a poor neighborhood and stand at the back of a truck and throw it into a crowd, and people would scramble for it. It was very degrading and often turned into real confrontations and fights, because people would scramble for turkeys or whatever. It was just not handled well at all. But the Hearst family donated thousands of dollars that was never, to my memory, quite accounted for.
Biagi: The idea was they would give the food back and then what would happen?
Davis: We'd show on the air that they were actually giving the food. Members of the SLA would see that that condition had been met, and that somehow would lead to her release. It did not, of course.
Biagi: Ultimately, when she was released, where were you and how did that come about? Do you remember? Were you still reporting on the news?
Davis: Still reporting on the news. I'll only tell you the part of it that I covered, and it was sort of anticlimactic. I can only remember—and believe me, there's a lot more to this story, but I'm hitting peaks, because she was living with a woman named Wendy Yokimura, and I actually was there when Wendy was captured, so I must have been there when Patty was captured also in this Bernal Heights community near—I think it was Precita. I think that was the street, near a small park. That was it. She had gone out walking or jogging. We were at the house and picked up Wendy.
Whatever happened that day, I was there, and Wendy Yokimura somehow, I guess in talking with her or in coverage of the way we did it, by the time she was, of course, locked up in Santa Rita, I contacted her or she contacted me, and I tried to do interviews with her, obviously did it. I did it. Because when she was released, she sent me some artwork. She's an artist. I was looking for that the other day. It was a very small, very beautiful ink drawing, I think it was. So there's a lot to that relationship. It must have gone on for a while, to the point where there was a thank-you letter and a piece of art, and there was an interview. I was there at her capture, and I interviewed her in prison and all of that. But I can't recall the rest of it right now.
Biagi: So we move into '72, another election, and we have Watergate going on nationally. What's going on locally in San Francisco of note that you remember through that five years until '77?
Davis: Shirley, this is not a good day. I can't remember. Why don't we turn the tape off for a minute.
Biagi: Sure. [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: Let's resume here. We're in about the mid-1970s. First of all, I want to ask you, in 1977, you said you left KPIX to go to KQED. How did that come about?
Davis: As now I can see that it wasn't such an unusual time. Well, no, it was an unusual time. The news business was just going through a change. It was when happy talk was coming in and story lengths were being cut, and reporter option on whether a story was a story was going out the window, and newsrooms were really becoming producer-driven. It wasn't, for me, a very happy time. I had worked in an environment where they sent you out on a story and you went in, you looked over the facts, and if there was news there, you called in and said you had it. If it's not, you say, "Hey, there's nothing here. Let's pull out," and nobody questioned you. Of course, we've evolved into that is not the case anymore.
Biagi: How did that change at that time, then?
Davis: That's the beginning of the consultants, the beginning of the research to determine what people wanted to see versus what they ought to see. That was the beginning of that evolution. I just found it uncomfortable. So there was an opportunity that presented itself. A person I had worked with at Channel 5 called me up and said, "How would you like to do this?"
Biagi: "Do this" meaning?
Davis: Come over and be the anchor for KQED's much touted nightly "newsroom" newscast, which was a challenge, because there, at that point, had not been a woman sole anchor of an evening newscast who's black. Well, not even a woman sole anchor, black or white. Nobody had done it. So it was a real risk.
Biagi: This was a public television station.
Davis: Public television station.
Biagi: Doing an hour's news?
Davis: It was an hour, yes.
Biagi: That was a very aggressive thing for a public station to do as well.
Davis: Yes. Actually, how they described the show, we would go an hour if necessary, if we had an hour of news. If we had thirty minutes of news, we'd do thirty minutes of news. That's how we started. Of course, that didn't last, because that became a programming nightmare, but that was our first charge, was that we would only bring you the news that was worthy of reporting; we would not fill it in with a bunch of stuff that was a waste of your time. I remember saying those words. [Laughter.]
So anyway, I was approached by a man named George Osterkamp, who is now the San Francisco bureau chief for CBS News. I was approached by George Osterkamp to come over and be the anchor of this program. Since it was a pioneering effort and all of that stuff, of course, I was really interested, but I was under contract to KPIX and I still had two years to go on my contract. So I didn't know how I was going to work that out. Well, as they say, boys will be boys. At that time, the station manager for Channel 9 [KQED] was a person who had been the station manager at Channel 5 [KPIX] previously. These Osters get mixed up, but the station manager was Bill Osterhaus, and my news director was George Osterkamp. So it gets to be a little confusing when people try to remember that. Anyway, Bill Osterhaus and George Reising, who was the station manager at Channel 5, somehow met, got together, and decided that I could go and work at KQED there as long as I continued to do this prime time minority current affairs program that I'd
been hosting, for them at KPIX. I think what they did not want at that time was to lose presence. Needless to say, I was the only black woman working at their station KPIX. [Laughter.]
Biagi: What was the name of your program at Channel 5?
Davis: It was called "All Together Now." I must say they gave it good resources, it had good placement, it was on Saturday nights at 7:30, and it was a very highly rated, well-received program, and I was very happy for the opportunity to do it. So I accepted the job at Channel 9, which was truly a forty-hour work week, and I agreed to give as much as twenty hours a week to the KPIX program. And that's what I did. It worked out because my hours at Channel 9 started at noon, and I worked from noon to 8:00, 8:30, and I could do my Channel 5 work in the mornings. So it sounds like a lot now, but it didn't seem like very much then.
Biagi: Just a long day every day during the week, then.
Davis: Yes, but we grouped the hours so that I would sometimes work six—hardly more than three days a week. We split the hours, so I'd start earlier and do something.
Biagi: What time did the show go on at Channel 9?
Davis: It was on at 7:00 or 7:30, various times. It jumped around—7:00, 7:30, 8:00. It depends. It varied.
Biagi: So you had essentially sixty hours of work a week.
Biagi: On Saturday did you work at all, except for the show?
Davis: Sometimes I did some of those hours for Channel 5 on Saturdays, because we did an entertainment segment on there, and ofttimes we did our interviews. In fact, some of those hours would end up after I left Channel 9. If I was doing, say, James Brown at the Stone or something, I'd go there for a show that started at nine, record some of the live performance or maybe do the interview before or after the performance. So it worked out. It was a busy life.
Biagi: What about your family at this point? Where is your family?
Davis: Both my children are now out of high school, and my daughter is, at the end of that time, in college in Los Angeles, and my son is away from home. He was an airline steward by then.
Biagi: So those responsibilities were taken care of.
Davis: Yes. I had some other relatives who lived with me, younger people, but they basically were just people we were trying to give a safe haven to. So it was okay.
Biagi: And Bill's still at Channel 2?
Biagi: Let's move into the era of Gerald Ford, because we're at 1978 now. If you'd like to comment on your exposure—
Davis: Actually, it was before '78, what I'm thinking of, because I was working at Channel 5, and I was one of the anchors at Channel 5. It was during Gerald Ford's visit to San Francisco and our station somehow got—because Westinghouse is very big on governmental affairs, politics, community issues nationally as a company, the president of the company then, Don McGannon, was a person who did a lot of programs on civil rights issues and issues of interest to communities.
Anyway, we had a Washington bureau that was pretty influential, and a lot of commentators, Rod McLeish, those kinds of voice people, so we had pretty good connections. Somehow we got the White House to agree to a half hour exclusive interview with people on our station, and the anchors were chosen to do that interview. So fellow anchor Ron Majors, myself, and Rollin Post were selected to go and set up at the St. Francis Hotel. Boy, we had three or four cameras, shoots. It was really a big deal. The president was making a speech, I guess there in the hotel, was staying there anyway, so we did our interview with him, which was very interesting, and as he was leaving, he started to go out the door, turned around and came back, because he had not shook hands with me on his way out. Everybody started smiling. He turned around. Ron always said that I got these extra points for being brown. [Laughter.] So he came back, because we were taking pictures, of course, as he was doing all these handshakes, and he hadn't shaken my hand. So he came back and he shook hands with me, and we chatted for a few seconds.
He turned at the elevator and went down, and we all went over to the window to watch. Of course, when we went to the window to watch was when Sara Jane Moore fired the shot at him, so we were watching out the window, yelling and screaming with the action, and we could see them push him into the limousine and speed out of there. So after that, they all teased me. They said I had given him the black handshake. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Oh, no, no! You don't want to carry that.
Davis: I know, but that was the word around from the boys in the office.
Davis: Double entendre.
Biagi: But the reporters went and covered that, and you—
Davis: We had reporters down on the street, of course, to catch his exit. The only thing we could do was rush back to the station then and get ready to go on the air with the story.
Biagi: So you were still on duty. San Francisco also had a mayor named George Moscone, who had an interesting history in San Francisco. I wanted you to reflect on his history in San Francisco a little bit before you talk about the incidents in the late seventies.
Davis: George Moscone was a classic liberal, and he was a personal friend. Because I was covering government and politics and so on, you got to meet him, but he was a guy that was hard to remain formal with. He was a back-slapper, just a guy who really loved life and had an awful lot of fun. Our daughters were classmates at the Convent of Sacred Heart in San Francisco, and, in fact, graduated from high school together. So for the school activities and so on, father-daughter dance, my husband and George, of course, were people that shared some thoughts.
Biagi: He was a state senator before he was mayor.
Davis: Right. In any case, we were friends because the girls were friends, and so when they graduated from high school, they took a vacation to Hawaii together and all of that. In any case, my daughter did not want to go to college. Neither of the girls wanted to go to college. Their daughter wanted to go travel in Europe and mine didn't know what she wanted to do. So they were helpful in getting her a job in city government, and she thought she wanted to go into work in the juvenile justice field, so she went to work in the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, and that's where she was working, trying to find out what she wanted to do with her life. It was a wonderful job. She enjoyed it a lot. So I saw them a lot because now my daughter was working in his office, and we'd been friends all the time anyway.
On the fatal day of his assassination—and that's what I call it—of his death, I was home getting ready to go to work, and the phone rang, and my daughter was on the phone and she was hysterical. She couldn't even tell me what had gone on. Her office was on the floor down from his, but she had just been upstairs, not in his inner office, but in the outer office doing some paperwork. I think she was on her way back to return some papers when this shooting took place. The shooting took place. She was so torn apart that I remember I was starting to put on my makeup to go to work and I never finished it. I just stopped, got my purse, could not decide whether to go to city hall, where my daughter was, or to go to my office, where my job was. So I decided on a bridge between them. City hall was on my way to Channel 9, so I stopped just to see if she was okay, because by now we knew that he was dead and that Harvey Milk was dead, one of the city supervisors. I stopped and tried to calm her as best I could, and explained to her that as bad as all of this was for her right now, that she ought to try to call her friend and to offer whatever comfort she could.
Then I went on to work to try to prepare for what would we do, how would we cover this story. I remember that was a very difficult meeting, and I think in public television one of the reasons why sometimes it's so very good is because there's an awful lot of thought given to direction and ideas are debated and shot down. But in the end, you agree on what your program is going to be, and you go out to try to do that. We put together a very fine program, and I think the hardest thing for me, of course, was to try to remain composed for the program. As with public television and the way it is so often technically, at least our station technically, if there was a waterloo, it was always going to be something technical. I remember we were trying to do a telephone interview with Dianne Feinstein, and the machinery kept not working, almost to the point that it was like comic relief.
Biagi: Who became the acting mayor.
Davis: Yes. But she had been the person who had broke the news to the press, because she was the president of the board of supervisors. On this particular day, of course, the board had to vote on making her acting mayor.
Biagi: Let's stop for a second.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: If you could talk to me about what ensued after the—
Davis: Write down Richard Nixon's name, because I have a Richard Nixon story to tell.
Biagi: You can tell me the Richard Nixon story now.
Davis: He was president; that's all I know.
Biagi: So '68?
Davis: Somewhere in there. I do remember when he made—all Republicans stopped at the St. Francis. He was in for a political speech, and his wife and two daughters accompanied him on this trip. This was just the way things were in those days. The women reporters were assigned to cover the women, except that Mrs. Nixon did not like television, so there was a tea for us ladies of the press at the St. Francis. [Laughter.] I'll never forget walking into this grand room with this French sofa, and Mrs. Nixon sitting in the middle and the two daughters on either side, very proper, and we all came in with our notepads. I'm a television reporter, but this is the best I'm going to get! [Laughter.] We were allowed to take still pictures, but no cameras. So we had our ladies' briefing.
So after the ladies' briefing, there was a reception. It was not a press event, but I had heard about it from a social friend. President Nixon liked things rather grand, so in this one room there was an area that was roped off with these stanzas, so the plan was that the president would come behind these stanzas and he looked like to me, whatever he had on almost looked like a uniform, behind the stanzas, and people could go by and greet him. So I showed up. It wasn't supposed to be a television deal, but I showed up. So then I asked one of the many people traveling with him, "Could we just get in and get some pictures?" I remember it was an evening event. "I'm assigned to this, and I really just have to get something." You know the story reporters tell. Well, once in the room, of course, I started yelling, "Mr. President, good to see you! Good to see a Californian in the White House!" [Laughter.] Of course, this was polite patter, but I got him to respond, and then he felt the need to make small talk, so I got a story!
Biagi: Great! How did you feel at the tea? Were there a lot of you at the tea?
Davis: Oh, no. Mildred Hamilton was a reporter writing. I think she worked for the Examiner. I guess the Examiner, the Chronicle, the major dailies, and there weren't many women in television, so I doubt if there was even a dozen. Maybe six or seven of us who came to the tea.
Biagi: So tea with Pat Nixon and her daughters. [Laughter.]
Davis: Actually, we had tea, then were shown into the room where they were [unclear].
Biagi: Oh, my. That's quite interesting. Was that your only experience with the Nixons?
Davis: Oh, no, there are others. I'll have to go back later. But that one was a cute one.
Biagi: At that time there had been separation. There were women reporters and there were male reporters. Were there other incidents in your career as a reporter, that time or other times, when you were told that just the women reporters could do this and men reporters could do that?
Davis: Not by the station, but by people who were planning events.
Biagi: Was there ever a time when you weren't allowed to cover something?
Davis: Not because of gender. I cannot remember. No, I can't remember. I remember having difficult times covering things because of gender, but not being barred.
Biagi: Such as? Do you remember?
Davis: Oh, yes. Lots of times at demonstrations, you know, being pushed around, being not allowed—
Biagi: You told me at Berkeley you had that experience.
Davis: That happened a lot, but Berkeley was the worst one. Being questioned more closely than the men in coming into a door, being asked to leave because it was time for the press conference to begin. Things of that sort.
Biagi: Oh, really?
Biagi: You mean they thought you weren't a reporter?
Davis: Oh, yes, definitely. [Laughter.] Definitely.
Biagi: Even though you had a camera?
Davis: Definitely. I'm sure I told you my worst story of all, but it was more to do with race than to do with—it had to do with race. It didn't have anything to do with being a woman. In fact, I still don't like this woman, so I won't mention her name, but I've had many opportunities to even the score, believe me. [Laughter.] I was doing a big charity event at the Fairmont Hotel, a big fashion event, and I came into the room with this photographer, side by side.
Biagi: You were a television reporter?
Davis: Television reporter. I came in with the photographer, camera on the shoulder, walking through the room and trying to find the person in charge. As we walked in, I started to approach the woman who I was told was the person in charge, and she looked at the two of us, and looked at me and asked me if I was there to do the ironing. I said, "I would hardly bring a television camera along to iron with." I'll never forget that.
Biagi: That's not one you forget easily.
Davis: No. No. That tells you about people. She never understood why I never covered any of her other events. [Laughter.] Never.
Biagi: Little did she know. Well, moving right along from that now, the events that followed George Moscone's assassination in San Francisco and Harvey Milk, were you covering that for public television [KQED]?
Davis: Yes. Of course, that was the whole massacre at Guyana that followed just a few days later. Or was it before? I cannot recall. I don't know which was first. They were a few days apart. I just don't know which was first. I think it followed.
Biagi: So it was a San Francisco event for—
Davis: Same month. November. End of November.
Biagi: Because Jim Jones was a Bay Area person.
Davis: Definitely. Jim Jones had adopted me.
Biagi: Is that right?
Davis: For reasons now—well, I began to understand more when I found out many things about him, but I did the mid-day show and I did a lot of stories about people in need and all of that. I'll never forget. I was doing a story about a child that they'd flown up from Mexico who needed a certain kind of surgery. I can't remember what the problem was, but there was no money for this surgery. I read the news story, showed the news tape or film, and got off the air, started to walk out of the studio, and there's this delegation of people there. One of them was Jim Jones. They said they'd just heard my story on the news. Remember this is a thirty-minute news show, so this was quick action. They wanted to be the first to contribute the first $500 for the surgery for this child. I didn't know anything about him. I thought this was really nice. So then I wrote them a thank-you note, and after that I started getting regular calls and regular mail and all this from his church, and with regular invitations to come there.
In that same period of time, I had been looking for a housekeeper prior to this. I had hired this woman. She had not worked for me very long, but she was a nice lady. I remember one Sunday we finally decided to go to this church, and I was so shocked and surprised to find that my housekeeper was in the hierarchy of this church. But one visit there was enough to put up the red flag for me. You had to be searched going in. They even searched the diapers on babies going into this church. I couldn't figure out why the paranoia. But the pursuit continued, and then he was made a member of the Human Rights Commission, so then I sometimes covered that event.
Biagi: The city's Human Rights Commission.
Davis: Right. So the woman, Mrs. Glover, who was working for me, I then started to talk to her about this, and I found that not only did she go there, but she spent her weekends sometimes traveling by bus as far as Los Angeles or Fresno or something, where they'd go to evangelize, Jim Jones and People's Temple. So she worked for me until the time of Guyana, and she left. She went with him. This was before the deaths. I knew she had gone someplace, but I didn't know a lot about where she was or anything else. But she had found a friend who then came to work for me to take her place, also a member of the church. My former housekeeper had been on the security force for People's Temple. So then the new woman, Mrs. Johnson, started to tell me little bits and pieces about how you had to sign over your property, your house, and all of this to the church. I became very, very cautious about the whole thing.
One more incident before the Guyana thing. I mentioned the Reverend Cecil Williams at Glide Church, which was the center of lots of activity. I remember there was one big concert that Glide was putting on to raise money for their free food program, and the entertainer Marvin Gaye, who I knew quite well, was to perform there, and I had worked to help to persuade him to do this benefit. I was the emcee of the program that day. So we all met up—it was a program at the Cow Palace—to go to this event. Cecil was a very controversial person, so there was really some doubts about selling out the Cow Palace, and they needed to, so Jim Jones had come along and offered to provide security for the Cow Palace performance. He showed up at the church with maybe six or seven busloads of people, these very militaristic guys who then were on the doors of the church and supposedly guarding Jim Jones and all of this stuff, and it was very scary, especially when I saw one of them open their suitcase and there was a gun inside. I went to Cecil
and said, "I am scared of these guys. They have weapons." Well, Cecil didn't know they had weapons, he said, so there were some words between him and Jones. Anyway, the thing happened and the concert went on for this very weird evening. But that's when I learned that they were armed. So now you get these people who have these disciplines, who are doing funny things like giving him all their worldly goods, including their home and property, and travels around with armed folks. But still I was shocked at what happened in Guyana, the deaths of those hundreds of people.
What came out afterwards in covering this story, the hierarchy of the church started to fight, and we would have on our Channel 9 show various members of the sect who wanted to tell their side of the story. One of them one day, as we were sitting, talking, preparing to go on the program, told me that my former housekeeper, Mrs. Glover, used to bring all of my garbage to the church for them to go over it. That's how they knew so much about me. I could not believe that! I thought that only happened in movies. I said that to him. "You're lying. Nobody would do that." He said, "Oh, no." Jim Jones was supposed to be psychic and could look in the future and could tell you things about yourself. Well, this was one of the ways they did this. [Laughter.] That was really scary.
Davis: That was very frightening to know that I had been—and a nice black woman, older woman from Stockton, whom I liked a lot.
Biagi: Did she die in Guyana?
Davis: Yes. She had no relatives. He chose people like that. Nobody knows what happened to her, but there would be no way for me to tell.
Biagi: You didn't hear any more from her?
Davis: I don't think they ever found out the names of all of the people, nearly nine hundred people. But I was told by the people, one of the men, that she died.*
Biagi: Jimmy Carter.
Davis: Like 90 percent of people my age who were around when Jimmy Carter let us all know he was going to be the president of this country, I met him at a—I was living in Oakland Hills, and I met him at a small house party. He, of course, did what he always does. He walked up to me and he said, "My name is Jimmy Carter, and I'm running for president of the country. I want to give you this pin, and I want you to keep it, because one day it's going to be valuable." [Laughter.] And I looked at him and laughed.
Biagi: The pin was a—
Davis: It was a Carter pin. I think it was "Carter in '76." Was that the year? Whatever the year was. It was "Carter" and the year. I took this pin. In those days we wore skirts long to the floor, and I had this leopard-colored corduroy skirt that I loved, so I put it in the pocket of this skirt. Well, the reason this story came to mind is that not too long ago, since I never give away anything,
* The followers of Jim Jones took poison.
I kept thinking, "One of these days (I wish I'd kept it a little longer) leopard print is going to come back." You look out there now in 1992, everything is leopard! [Laughter.] "It's going to come back," I kept saying, keeping this skirt. So not long ago I decided to give it away; it was last year. I went in the pocket, and what was in there, except the button, this pin. It wasn't like a campaign button; it was a gold pin with the name "Carter" and the year. So it wasn't like a regular—
Biagi: It must have been '76.
Davis: Yes. A very nice, little, small pin. And there it was in the pocket. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You did save it.
Davis: I did save it, not intentionally. That wasn't the end. This is the reason this is all coming to mind, throwing all this stuff away. Going through the jewelry I had, later on Jimmy Carter was back in San Francisco. Now I'm doing the noon news. Jimmy Carter is a guest on our show. What does he bring but a peanut necklace! [Laughter.] It was an actual peanut dipped in gold.
Biagi: One of the highlights of your wardrobe! [Laughter.]
Davis: On a little chain, and it was in this old jewelry box. I said, "Gee whiz! A president that goes around giving you peanut necklaces." [Laughter.]
Biagi: You saved that, too?
Davis: Not again on purpose, but there it was. So, anyway, he was an accessible president, I must say. Maybe then there weren't as many opportunities for politicians to appear on television, and so when ten minutes of time was offered, as you could sometimes get on our noon news program, as much as that if you were an important guest, people took advantage of it.
Biagi: Did Rosalyn [Carter] ever come on the program?
Davis: Oh, yes. Separately, not together.
Biagi: Was she wearing a peanut necklace?
Davis: [Laughter.] I don't remember that. But I looked and said, "What is this silly thing?" And then I remembered. That was my thank-you gift.
Biagi: Another person who became president, but had his beginnings here in Sacramento, was Ronald Reagan.
Davis: Oh, yes.
Biagi: So during his years in politics, did you cover him in Sacramento and in San Francisco or primarily in San Francisco?
Davis: Primarily in San Francisco, but I came up here quite often to do stories, and that's because we were—I told you in the beginning my story of how I got my job was because of Nancy Reynolds. So Nancy was still very close to her old newsroom pals, so we got special treatment. In fact, through Nancy I was invited maybe four or more times for either lunch or dinner with the Reagans.
Biagi: At their house?
Davis: At their house, which was fun.
Biagi: In East Sacramento.
Davis: Yes. That was fun. I can remember at least the last dinner that I attended, and that was sort of a special evening because it was near the end of his term, having dinner and then going downstairs to the basement and watching him run his toy trains. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Is that right? Did he have a big toy train set?
Davis: Oh, yes, a big toy train set. He loved it, and that's what he'd do after dinner, so I'm told. I only had that privilege once.
My other special kind of little Reagan story was one day after a lunch that Mrs. Reagan hosted, we were all invited to pile in our cars. There weren't that many of us. In fact, I rode over with her and Nancy, because I was with Nancy. Came with her over to the capitol, because it was the day that she filled the governor's jellybean jar. [Laughter.] So we got a big bag of jellybeans and we all came over to his office and we went to his desk and we watched Nancy refill the jellybean jar.
Biagi: These are important stories you're covering! [Laughter.] I'll tell you, stories of national moment.
Davis: [Laughter.] I know. She didn't trust anybody else to do that, so that was one of her duties that she did.
Davis: It wasn't like taking the press along. We were a smaller press corps, and you were able to do things like that, you know. Of course, I didn't report on that. That was just one of those little moments.
I think the story the next time I came, she was very high on—I think it was a grandparents program, and she had grandmothers, grandparents. She gave a lunch in her back yard for some of the volunteers to launch that program. So we did very heavy stories. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Because of Nancy and your access, was there insight, do you think, that you gained of the Reagans that you wouldn't have had otherwise?
Davis: I think from the beginning it's held true to now, everybody knows it, that they're just a very close couple and really seem to enjoy one another. You know the whole story about her being very protective, I mean, just the jellybeans tell you a lot. She truly took care of him. I think a lot of what we see publicly is the real relationship.
Biagi: Were there controversial times, times you had to cover controversy that surrounded them at all?
Davis: Actually, no. When you think back on it—well, that's not true. Later on I do remember coming up one day to do a story, because I was at Berkeley the first day that they used pepper gas
to break up the demonstrations there and had been bombarded with this stuff, and was really fearful. I didn't know what it was. I didn't know what's in pepper gas; still don't. But I know it was terrible. It burned your skin. When you teared, of course, that just made it worse. So I had been at Berkeley when they had dropped the pepper gas. There was a news conference up here, because Governor Reagan had okayed that. We had to find out why, why would he do this to students and the rest of us there. I think I was a little hostile that day.
Generally, the news conferences that the governor would conduct—maybe they still are—were very civil in those times, and most people were very polite. So you didn't have a lot of the screaming. You held your hand up and you waited your time for him to call on you. It wasn't yelling and screaming out.
Biagi: Did you ever feel in that relationship or in the Moscone relationship a difficulty separating your personal knowledge of somebody or your personal relationship with somebody in the news from your job as a reporter?
Davis: Actually not. Now I'm friends with people who are in politics, and I always say at the beginning of the relationship, I remind people down the road that, "You know what my job is. Let's be friends, but you know what my job is. Don't tell me things that you think are not for public consumption, because I'm not making deals with you." I think you can have a normal relationship with people without learning and prying into their most intimate secrets. I do remember, with Moscone, there being a story on background that everybody knew, but in those days sort of—and in stories today that are like that, nobody would print or say. I think it had a lot more to do with the office than the person. They were personal kinds of stories that now we see bandied around in presidential politics, stories about their personal conduct and so on. No, I didn't report those stories any more than other reporters. They didn't report them either. So whether they had a personal relationship or not, there were just certain kinds of things we shied away from doing.
Biagi: Has there ever been a time when you think you let that affect you?
Davis: You mean the personal relationship, where I held back news?
Davis: I don't remember ever holding back anything that I knew, if I had the facts on it, not something I suspected. But if I had the facts on it—
Biagi: Has anybody ever come to you and asked you not to use a story as a personal favor?
Davis: Oh, no. I'm fortunate to that degree. I would really hate for someone to do that. Unless you mean as a unit, like at the station, I do remember there were times, for instance, during the Patty Hearst days, "Back off that." There have been times when information has come out that the authorities may say, "Can you not report this until we do X, Y, and Z?" That has been more of an administrative decision than a personal decision. But, yes, that's happened.
Biagi: Have you ever had anybody appeal to you personally? Say they've been interviewed or you've done a story, and they would say to you, "I believe this is going to cost personal harm. You can't do this story. Please don't put it on the air." Have you had people plead with you after you've reported on a story, not to run it? Or go to your news director and said—
Davis: The only times I can remember there being this cautionary atmosphere was during the Hearst kidnapping. I don't want to say something that's not true. All I remember is that there were often periods when, through the FBI and others, we were cautious about what we reported.
Biagi: But nobody has ever called you and said, "If you put this on the air, I'm going to kill myself," or, "My mother's going to kill herself," or, "We're going to sue the station"?
Davis: Yes, I've had that happen, sue the station.
Biagi: What's your response?
Davis: "Sue!" [Laughter.]
Biagi: Have you ever been threatened?
Davis: Yes. You're going to laugh at this, because I cannot recall what I was reporting on, because I tried to also put this—but I have had several incidents. During the Patty Hearst kidnap time, there was a threat on my daughter's life, which caused me to have to change residence and change my lifestyle. So there was that. Lots and lots of hate mail during the Angela Davis trial and the Marin County Courthouse shooting where a judge and several other people died. San Quentin, the whole shooting, killing, whatever you call it, incident. A lot of that had to do with the fact that my name was Belva Davis, and there was an Angela Davis, and Angela Davis had a mysterious sister who lived somewhere in the Bay Area, but nobody knew who she was. A lot of people thought I was Angela Davis' sister. So that caused me to get a lot of mail.
Then the next thing that happened that was kind of weird, I was working at Channel 9, and I tell you, I cannot recall what the topic was and why I was getting these threats, but finally— the police said this. I don't know how it happened. But somebody had put some sort of sharp instrument in my tire, and it was on the driver's side, and the police said it was purposely put there. I was getting threats at that time, but I don't know why I was being threatened. Because I got off work after dark, I never thought much about it. My car was parked in the parking lot, had my name on my parking place. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Gosh. Didn't make it hard to find you, did it?
Davis: No. I became a little bit more cautious after that. I wish I could remember what they were mad at me about. But I know I was getting death threats. Well, not—just that they were going to get me. I've just never paid very much attention to those things, because there are so many people out there. During that same time there was this poor guy, but he was considered rather dangerous, who use to call me up and tell me that I was broadcasting through his back molar, and it was getting so loud that he couldn't stand it, would I please lower my voice. He finally one day showed up at the station, and he was out of it, you know. He really thought that I was transmitting. He said he couldn't sleep because I wouldn't stop talking. So you had all of that. So I had to just throw all of that stuff away.
Then one of my goody-two-shoe things, I was doing a lot of prison stories for a while, and prisoners would write. Everybody on the air gets that. One day one of these guys that had been in for manslaughter and rape showed up at the station and kept showing up after he got out of jail. That was kind of scary.
Biagi: In this instance, it seems that broadcast reporters have a different relationship with their audience than print reporters, do you think?
Davis: Oh, yes, because you're visible. They can see you.
Biagi: Did you get a lot of mail?
Davis: Oh, yes, a lot of mail. A lot of strange mail.
Biagi: So that's part of the job in dealing with your audience.
Biagi: Moving to the eighties in San Francisco, a lot is happening. The social culture in San Francisco is changing. The issues of all the people that Cecil Williams takes in, his whole movement in San Francisco has always been a real factor in San Francisco's history. So I would like you to talk to me a little bit about your relationship to him and what you feel his role is in that city.
Davis: It started out as a very contentious relationship. I covered him during the San Francisco State riots and other civil rights demonstrations. He came to the city at a time when we were in turmoil over all of these things on campuses all around the area, and he'd been a leader with the black students' movement at State. I remember going down to do my first interview with him, and he was going on and on about social ills and the racist society we're living in. I can remember to this day, because we laughed about it, in mid-sentence as he was going into this big oratory about rights and wrongs of government and so forth, I stopped him and said, "What has all this got to do with God?" And, of course, the conversation stopped. He said it was like I'd done that [demonstrates] to him.
Biagi: Hit him.
Davis: Hit him. It turned out to be a very good interview, but I just thought he was a bit much, because he was unlike any other black minister I had ever seen.
Biagi: In what way?
Davis: The first thing he did at Glide was to remove all of the religious symbols from the church, to bring in the Glide Change Band and the choir, dancing on the altar, a light show, and all the psychedelic stuff. So it was a bit much, you know. He embraced, and still does, all lifestyles, alternative and otherwise. Over the years I became a devoted volunteer, especially the hunger program. I go down and work in the kitchen, serving food to the hungry, because I've just found that that was the one place you could go, no questions asked. If you want to stand in that line that goes several blocks long more than once to eat, you can. It was just available without a trial or a test. It was a sense of really giving. Whatever you were doing wrong was your problem. My problem was to put the food on the table. However you misused it became your problem with your maker, sort of was the attitude at Glide. I found that very comfortable. I'm a Congregationalist, anyway. You know what that means.
Biagi: What does it mean to you?
Davis: Sort of anything goes, as long as it says Protestant. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Even though your kids went to Catholic school.
Davis: Yes. You know that we're an amalgamation of all of these various Protestant sects. Anyway, Cecil and I have been friendly and friends throughout.
Biagi: And he's quite a controversial figure.
Davis: Oh, yes.
Biagi: So has there ever been a time when that friendship has been tested?
Davis: Oh, of course.
Biagi: As a reporter, you had to test it?
Davis: As a reporter? Not as a reporter, because he's not controversial to that degree. I mean, questioning, yes. But the best you can come up with about him is his acceptance of behaviors that you might find not in line with your own in the sense of right and wrong. But they've not had any true scandals. There was one incident where I think his brother, who was in charge of some of the bookkeeping for the monies for the city, ran into a wall, but he immediately fired his brother. His brother was out of the congregation, out of the church for about four years before he allowed him to come back. So it was very decisive and very quick action, so what can you say? So there's been no scandal like that. I mean, you raise eyebrows to find drag queens sometimes at the altar leading things. So that bothers you, but that's nothing scandalous. [Laughter.]
Biagi: [Laughter.] In San Francisco, it's—
Davis: I think they serve a very needy population, and I look at Cecil and his wife Jan Mirakatani quite often and wonder where do they get their energy. How do they manage to live on the edge like that? Their crack cocaine program, they just had a conference on that. They're really a leading community in dealing with crack cocaine and its effect on families and so forth. They have a lot of innovative programs that are now getting a lot of national recognition and serving as models. I look at the government. At their first conference, they didn't even apply for a government grant, and Bill Bennett (national drug czar), of all people, was in San Francisco and came there, and went back to Washington and sent them a check for $50,000, and then told them to fill out the paperwork for it. You know, "Fill out the paperwork. We will give you this. We have granted you this money." So you can't find a lot wrong.
Biagi: How do you feel as a reporter, as a journalist? You do quite a bit of volunteering. You do work at Cecil's place. What else do you do?
Davis: I'm over at St. Anthony's.
Biagi: Which is a—
Davis: It's a feeding center. When I go to Glide, I leave, it's a happy experience. People are poor there, but there's still a sense of hope there. A lot of the people eating there are single mothers with kids, who can afford a house, but can't afford a meal every day, so they come there to eat. It's a multi-racial group. It's women, children, and adults. Mostly at St. Anthony's it's single men who are truly on the street, and they don't have as much money or whatever, but I know the quality of food is nothing like what I serve at Glide. So I'm often depressed when I leave there.
Biagi: You have a regular basis that you do that?
Davis: I do it when I can.
Biagi: What else are you involved in? You've got to list them here, because otherwise they'll never be listed anywhere, probably. How would anybody know?
Davis: In terms of physically going and doing things, I do that. The rest of it—
Biagi: Let's talk about associations and things like that, that you are a part of or connected with in some way.
Davis: I've given many years to something called the Black Filmmakers' Hall of Fame. The only thing I dislike about the organization is its name. I started to work on it because I was convinced, after some seminar I went to, that people need to see good reflections of themselves in mass media, in particular in something as popular as film. Blacks are the largest consuming group proportionally of films in America, and yet our image in film nowhere reflected our diversity or the contributions or the real skills and talents of black Americans. This organization was founded to document the history and to deal with the stereotypes that Hollywood had left us with, and we started to work on that in the early seventies. Of course, everything has changed. We take a small amount, if not a large amount, of credit for some of the movement that we've seen, because what happened is that we could lobby, we could write, and we could protest on behalf of performers who could not do it for themselves.
I was in a unique position, because while working with that organization, I also am very active with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and I head their equal employment opportunities unit and co-chair a committee with the Screen Actors' Guild in the same area. So I was able to put this community base work together with the union work, getting my information from the community base group about what was wrong, bringing it to the union table, and as the co-chair of this group meeting both with TV and film producers and directors, articulate those concerns and outline areas for improvement, sometimes even negotiate letters of understanding.
For instance, in daytime soaps, when there were no blacks on daytime soaps, we spent several years working in that area and met with the actual producers and writers and directors of major soap operas, talked about what our problems were, showed them why they should improve, gave them statistical data about who watched and who purchased products, especially the kind they were trying to sell. It was amazing to me that these smart, bright people either decided to lie and say they hadn't made these connections or truly had not made these connections. I have no idea which.
Biagi: What kind of arguments would they give you?
Davis: They just hadn't thought about it.
Biagi: When you say "we," who is this we?
Davis: This co-group of people from the Screen Actors' Guild and AFTRA. We would come together. There's a woman in New York named Lois Davis, who is the Eastern chair, and we have a Hispanic guy in Chicago who is the Midwest chair.
Biagi: Is there a title for this group?
Davis: It's called the Equal Employment Opportunities Committee. Then we had an Asian woman (Sumi Haru) in Los Angeles, and then all of our staff people. Through the staff, they would arrange and set up and we conferred. Even twice along the way, we held conferences in Washington and met with FCC commissioners and met with [Congressman Edward] Markey and all sorts of other influential people to explain this problem, outline it. In fact, we were the ones who, I think, convinced Congressman Markey to use his influence and not allow the FCC to abandon its practice of counting the number of minorities working in the field. Truly, when we met with the congressman, he had not understood the importance, the real importance of that number. He said, "If you're not getting work, you can file a grievance with the Civil Rights Commission," and all of this. You can't do anything without statistical data that shows you've been excluded, you know, in hard numbers that are believable.
Anyway, so those are all battles I've taken on over the years in conjunction with this, but it's all fed into this first interest with this film group.
Biagi: How did you get involved with the film group?
Davis: Actually, having been in radio, I knew a lot of people in the entertainment business, and I heard their constant gripes and complaints. Having worked with the black press, I also knew a lot about the prejudices they thought they were experiencing. So another television reporter, a guy named Sonny Buxton, put together a TV program on the history of blacks in film for Channel 7, and out of that program, a group at the Oakland Museum decided to start a program to deal with this.
Biagi: This was about what year now?
Davis: This was about 1973 or '74. '73, I think. So they put this program together to establish this thing. They thought it was going to be a one- or two-year thing, just something to draw attention to the problem, inducting people into the hall of fame. They did it as though they were only going to do it for two years, because the first couple of years you should see the list of people they inducted. I went to that first program at the Paramount Theater.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: So we're in Oakland and we're in '73 or so. The first program, you said, was an embarrassment. Why was it an embarrassment?
Davis: They were not embarrassed by it; I was embarrassed by it. I know they'll hate it when they find out that I say I was embarrassed by it, because it was a fine program and it had really wonderful people, but I was embarrassed by its lack of production. If you're going to do something about the entertainment business, then it ought to be entertaining, and this was simply a program that—I don't know how you'd describe it. With very little flair. The curtain was never opened. They would walk in front of the curtain, pick up their reward, and go back and sit down, and that was it.
So I called the woman who was in charge of it and offered to produce the program for the next year. I'd never produced a program like this in my life, but I could see it in my head that this had great possibilities.
Biagi: Did this have anything to do with the beauty contests that you had previously produced? [Laughter.]
Davis: No, no. This was totally different. This was totally different, because here now we're going to deal with real people, real heroes, real stars, people who know what's right and what's wrong. It was during one of those wonderful periods of our lives when Bill and I were sharing our house with another good friend who worked at the ABC station in town, and he was foot loose and fancy free, so he joined me in this odyssey, and we decided we were going to produce this program, and we did. So we just set the stage for almost what is still the norm for the program.
Biagi: So the '73 show was much better.
Davis: Stage sets, we brought in entertainment, we hired an orchestra. I mean, we did the things one would do, give you vignettes, and got people who knew those being honored, to fly up from L.A. We persuaded Sidney Poitier to come, and that really made the organization, the fact that he validated it, so to speak, and helped us the next year to get Harry Belafonte to come.
Biagi: The Hall of Fame, does it have a place?
Davis: It doesn't. That is its waterloo. It still has no home. I did those two years, and then I went on the board of directors, and after that we've had many opportunities or really many attempts to acquire a home, and each time—I mean, unbelievable things have happened. One of them, the city gave a site that turned out to have toxins, had been a former gas station and cost trillions to clean up the soil. So we had no money to do it, with which to build on it, and nobody's going to loan you money to do toxic cleanup. So there we were with that. Then the next building we got was the Green Library, and then along came the earthquake of 1989. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You're still looking?
Davis: No, we're now still on the string, because you know how the cities have still not been able to get their money from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to repair the city buildings, and we're hoping that the city will get enough money to repair this building. If so, we'll work out a long-term lease/buy situation with the city of Oakland.
Biagi: Let's go back to your discussions that you had as a member of the Equal [Employment] Opportunities Committee. When you would sit down at the table with these producers and directors, what arguments would they make, or would they make any arguments about why there were no blacks?
Davis: The one thing that they were all sure of was that it had nothing to do with racial prejudice; it had to do with the story line. In fact, it was a process. You meet with the network reps, the vice president for this and vice president. They'd say, "Well, that's all very interesting. What I think you need to do is meet with the show producers." So you'd set up another round of meetings with the show producers. You'd get to the show producers and they'd say, "Well, you know, this was not on purpose. It's because of the story line. We can't have blah, blah, blah, because the relationship here and there. How are we going to do this?" So then what we need to do, we need to see the writers. So then we'd have a round where we would meet with the writers. You can see how this goes on. This is why it took years to get this thing moving. Of course it was all foot-dragging.
But eventually, as we met and talked, we began to understand more, too, about how to make our points. I think in our final years we started to deal with the economics of it. I remember reading a report about the changing world society and about the direction of media, and how the smart people were thinking globally and how as what's called Third World nations, underdeveloped countries, grew, they were largely countries of people with brown or yellow skin, and that if they were going to market these programs at some later time, they ought to be aware of this and ought to start thinking about it now to be competitive. I started talking that kind of talk, and finally I could see the antennae going up, because now we're talking dollars. We're not talking public good, we're not talking good-guy stuff; we're talking about how we can all grease each other's palms a little bit.
So we did meetings. We'd meet with each network separately. Then even when it came time for union negotiations for our contracts, our committee would come in and make our case. We still have a lot of trouble and cannot get complaints over race made an arbitrable clause in our contracts. It all has to be done by sidebar negotiations. So there's a reality on the part of the union that they probably would not be successful in calling a strike over an issue of race and discrimination. But on the other hand, wanting to be supportive, they've spent thousands of dollars helping us to try to find a way to solve this problem in the Screen Guild, even with the appointment of two people that do nothing but work on affirmative action in film.
So I've learned a lot, and I think we've taught some people a few things, because all of us on the committee, who come to these, I mentioned a few people in eastern chairs and so forth, but when we hold these conferences and/or meetings, we pull in people from all over the country in not too large a group, but thirty or forty people representing most of America who work in the industry. We've been just chugging away at this.
Biagi: When you talk about visiting the FCC and asking them to maintain the numbers, those are useful for everyone, really, in the industry. I would like to reflect a little bit that, from my recollection, the numbers haven't changed much. They've been keeping the numbers for a long time, over twenty years, but the numbers haven't changed much. How do you react about that? You've been out there chugging away all this time now and not a lot has happened.
Davis: Yes. The thing about it is that the industry itself has changed so much. It used to be we could go and deal with NBC, CBS, ABC, and we'd covered most of America. Now there's this vast group of owners out there, and many of them large multiple owners, people who got into broadcasting and/or whatever to make money, not with the old psychology of the people who founded the original broadcast networks. So it gets to be more and more difficult. Then with more programming moving to cable, that's another whole area.
So it takes a lot to stay hopeful that you can change things, excepting that we have seen change. We were able to celebrate a couple of years ago the largest release of black films ever made in the country in one year, and on that year to have ten or eleven of those producer/directors in Oakland for our program. In fact, we provided a platform where they were able to forge relationships with one another. Many of them had not had a chance on a personal, non-business basis to talk with each other, to exchange ideas, and some went into co-production projects with each other. In fact, Spike Lee met a group called the Huddlin Brothers, who got together there. Paul Hall, the guy who I mentioned the first year I went in, the guy working at ABC, is now a Los Angeles producer, owns his own production house, does a lot of the making of films, and he has just produced "The Making of Malcolm X" for Spike Lee. So relationships develop this way. You sit back and try to measure it from those kinds of things. But not a lot of improvement.
Biagi: What about the news side?
Davis: In the news side, it's circular. You go up, you go from 5.5 percent this year to 5.4 percent the next year. You drop down to 4.8 and then you go up. You said, "We've increased. We're back up to 5.1." [Laughter.] It's that kind of thing, whereas women have done extremely well. Not equity, but really well. Minorities have not fared as well.
Biagi: From your knowledge of what's going on in the industry, why?
Davis: I think it's easier. You're dealing with gender, and I think it's just easier for the controlling group, which is white males, to deal with white women than it is to deal with minorities of any persuasion. It's just easier to give your daughter a break than it is some kid down the block who doesn't look like you anyway. That's how I always put it to them. So when you do that, I said, "I think it's great what you're doing for my sisters, but it's like helping your sister, helping your daughter. That's expected of you. You should have been doing that all the time. We want to talk about taking that charity a little farther."
Biagi: When you make that argument, though, to television producers and news directors, it seems you could still make the audience argument. What's their response?
Davis: They change the rules. It used to be, as you well know, the main measuring rod was major cities, big numbers. Then as the country started to change and cities became more ethnic in their makeup, we went to something called ADIs [Area of Dominant Influence], which let you spread out into the suburbs and brings in more whites and gives you a different count.
Biagi: For an audience count.
Davis: Audience count. The more colored—and I don't mean in black—your central audience became, the farther out you put emphasis on that count, where if you take the Bay Area now, the hope is that you'll forget that stations are in San Francisco, that you'll remember in outer Costa County and down in Santa Clara County, where the large populations of middle-class whites are, that we're there. That's the audience that we play to. That's the audience that we try to appeal to. A lot of our emphasis is there.
Biagi: So even if a minority population is centered in San Francisco or around San Francisco, what you say by audience is that our audience demands that we have anchors that reflect the audience. The audience is mostly white. That's what you're saying.
Davis: That's right. And so is our program focus. The bigger you make the net, the more it diminishes the minority groups' influence. So that's what's happening.
Biagi: How do the consultants—
Davis: They're the ones who dreamed it up. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Is that right? That's not a role I would even imagine for them. But it's absolutely understandable.
Davis: When I say that, when you talk about commercials are sold on the number of people you can deliver, who can buy the product, it's only natural when you look at people in the cities they
are usually poorer or older, so when you look at where you find the young families with mostly two incomes, you have to then look at the suburbs.
Biagi: So the consultants are advising them based on—
Davis: Someone is. Some consultant. I don't say it's the same one that's advising them on who to hire, but it probably is the same one, because the bottom line is, "How do I get more people to watch my station?" I'm sure that has to be a factor.
Biagi: Have you ever had a run-in personally with consultants or advice that your station took from consultants that was ever passed on to you?
Davis: Passed on, yes, but not personally. In fact, we invited to those conferences, several times we've had consultants come to explain to us what they do and why they do, so that we could better understand it. I'm a firm believer in not just looking at something and saying, "I don't like that," without knowing as much about it as I can, so I try to dig and get the sides of it so I can understand how the other guy's mind is working. That's where I got all this theory. [Laughter.]
Biagi: It's marvelous.
Davis: From listening about spreading the net.
Biagi: I appreciate the education.
Davis: People, throughout my career, they have been so cautious, going back to my first job at KPIX, when I first came into the business, just over something as simple as makeup and lighting, no experience with people who looked like me, so the conclusion is, "Oh, you're doing everything just right. Keep doing whatever you're doing." I'll never forget, they send out one of those Westmores. Remember Westmore?
Biagi: Oh, yes. That's right.
Davis: At KPIX, they got this person (me) here who is anchoring now, and they don't know what to do with me, what kind of makeup to put on me or what kind of lighting, and they flew this guy all the way from Los Angeles, and his word to me was, "You're doing everything right. Just keep on doing whatever you're doing." [Laughter.] I said, "That was a very expensive statement you just made." I don't know which of the Westmores it was. But I wasn't doing everything right, and I finally found a person on my own. I went down to one of the department stores. The woman I discovered is the one who is still doing my makeup today. She was at that time working for a cosmetic line. She helped me try to work out something, because I did not wear makeup at the time. This is after I started doing more anchoring. As a beat reporter, I hardly even wore lipstick.
Biagi: Television reporters and, of course, print reporters always remind television reporters about how important your appearance is.
Davis: I know. That's why I was rebelling, because I came out of print. So I wasn't going to go around worrying about how I looked. I should have. When I look back at some of that tape now, I wish I had worried about how I looked, but I didn't.
Biagi: Has that ever been an issue, an age issue?
Davis: Only now, in the last few years, I realize that maybe I'm—I think that's why sometimes people say, "Oh, boy, you look the same." Well, what happened is when I was younger, I didn't wear any makeup at all. I truly only wore lipstick. I didn't even know how to put on an eyeliner or anything else. But as I got older, I started adding a little bit more and a little bit more, tone this up, put a little stuff to take out those lines right there, and Sharon Martin, the makeup, was taking me along, and I was rebelling and not wanting to do it, and I still buy Maybelline eyeliner. [Laughter.] Because I refuse to spend a lot of money on that stuff! So I've been real rebellious, but as I'm getting older, by adding the makeup, people don't notice the aging as much as they might have, had I been doing it all the time. Now they see a little bit of improvement, you know. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Let's go back now. We were on the track a long time ago of your activities in the community. We talked about them. We talked about the Black Filmmakers' Hall of Fame and St. Anthony's and working for AFTRA.
Davis: Let me add one last thing to that. This business I talked about going to Washington and holding the conferences and calling on the Congress, I did those with full knowledge of my station management. I always wrote a memo and said, "I'm engaged in this project. I'm going to be in Washington. I'm going to meet with this person. If you have a problem with it, you have to let me know." I just wanted to say that, because some reporters—
Biagi: What problem do you think they would have?
Davis: Oh, a lot of reporters were appalled that I was doing this. "How can you do this? You have to cover these issues." I said, "Because I didn't give up my citizenship when I signed on here. I still have a right as a private citizen. I am working in this area. It affects me. A lot of guys still disagree with me, I've got to tell you, certainly a lot in Washington. I know them all, Washington correspondents who are now just realizing that the stuff I was working on back then directly affected their lives. Anyway, I just wanted to say that.
Biagi: But that's dividing your loyalties, supposedly, between being a reporter and not getting involved?
Davis: I wasn't doing it as a reporter; I was not using the title or anything else. I'm just a person in broadcasting concerned about these issues.
Biagi: Other activities that you got involved in? We've got to make our inventory. Would you explain LINKS, Inc.?
Davis: It's a black women's organization, really a friendship-building organization, networking organization, if you want to call it that, 45,000 women throughout the country. Basically what they do is raise money for educational scholarships and do community service. They work with the Y and YWCAs, tutorial stuff, try to serve basically as role models for young black women.
Biagi: And the Women's Forum West?
Davis: It is a high-powered networking group of basically women who are heads of corporations or next to the top in business or who own their own businesses and who see the benefits of getting together for business reasons. It sprung up at the time when women were first realizing that most business deals were done in the off hours, so this was a network to put women together. It started very small and is now international in scope.
Biagi: And the Howard Thurman Trust.
Davis: It's an educational trust also, and it provides listening, reading rooms in cities across the country. There's a name for it, where you go to try to find peace with yourself. There's a movement I'm looking for. You're trying to find solace. You can go into St. John the Divine in New York and sit and listen to the readings and words, words of comfort in times of stress and trouble. But he's written a lot of books on relationships, and people find it comforting.
Biagi: So that trust has a board, and you're on the board.
Davis: Right. For many years we provided small scholarships to about twenty-two black colleges and universities, very small grants. Sometimes the difference between a student going to school and not is the $250 to buy your books or the money, if you lived in a small town, to get transportation to go to school. We filled in those gaps. We looked for the opportunities to find students who needed to do something where a small amount of money would make a difference, and we gave that money.
Biagi: We're going to stop now. What we'll do next time when we resume is go into the eighties and then revive our discussion of the early years.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: In our discussions here, what you've talked about today is some early incidents that you want to talk about, stories that you covered. So let's start with your San Quentin coverage.
Davis: During my earlier newspaper work, I had started correspondence with a number of prisoners, as all people do in public life. Prisoners write to folks whose name they see. So, anyway, I started that. I became interested mainly because of another woman reporter named Wanda Ramey. She and her husband, Dick Qurolla, were just legendary volunteers at San Quentin, and they worked with the prisoners in teaching them about film and so on as a couple. So because of Wanda's interest, my interest perked up, too, and, of course, it didn't take a lot to see that a lot of the prisoners in San Quentin, maybe the majority, at least a large portion, were African-Americans. At that time in the seventies, there was a real interest. People were saying that some people in prison were really political prisoners, etc.
In any case, I became interested in this and became friends with the warden, "Red" Nelson, whom I learned to like a lot, in spite of what some of my more liberal friends thought of my feelings about him. Through him I learned about a man named Robert Wells. This friendship was to a degree that sometimes I'd go out to do stories and I'd end up in the car with "Red" Nelson showing me around San Quentin as though I was on a tourist tour in his car, driving around, showing the facility and so on.
So anyway, he told me about this man named Robert Wells, and Robert Wells was the longest term prisoner in the California penal system at that time. He'd been in prison for forty-seven years. He was first sentenced to prison for receiving a suit that was stolen, receiving stolen property. Obviously there were infractions that kept him there, including a fight with another prisoner, in which the other prisoner died. So he was then sentenced to death row. That sentence was later commuted, but he was in for life without parole. The warden and Robert Wells had become friends over the years, so he agreed that I would do an interview with Bob Wells. He would talk with Bob Wells and he would give me permission, and I'd come in and I'd do it. So I did this story and became fascinated with this man, who had lived in the Fillmore district of the city and didn't know anything. I mean there was so much of modern life that he just had no knowledge of.
Biagi: How old a man was he at this point?
Davis: I'm guessing, but I think he was in his sixties by now. So I did this story and it turned into a documentary, and it was picked up by some of the networks and by the newspapers and so on. Robert Wells was also one of those people, I must say, that people on the left had decided was a political prisoner and should be freed, and so there was interest in him growing as news about him spread. Eventually, John Maher, the founder of Delancy Street, became also interested in Bob Wells. So there was this movement to get him paroled, and each time he thought he was near parole, it didn't happen. But eventually things worked out and he was sent to Vacaville for an evaluation.
Stormy times ahead. I must say that there were lots of setbacks when he went before the parole board, but he did now have people within this prison system itself that wanted to see him free. It was a really fabulous day when I was there to see Bob Wells finally released from prison and paroled into the custody of Delancy Street. The original documentary about him won an Emmy; it was my first, so I was really proud of that.
Biagi: That's a local Emmy in the Bay Area.
Davis: Yes. It was called Northern California Emmy. I continued this coverage of him as he went through all the different processes. But then once he was paroled, none of us realized that for a person who had been locked up for forty-seven years, he didn't have a lot of experience in living on his own, so he became very problematical. He just didn't know how to survive. I sort of became his adopted family, so whenever he was in trouble, I was called constantly. I'll never forget one of the strangest ones. I got a call one day from a MUNI bus driver who said that he had this man who was sitting in front of his bus, who wouldn't move, and he didn't know why, and the guy was incoherent, except he said he should call me. [Laughter.] In any case, Robert Wells lived out his days in freedom, if you can call it that. He had lots of trouble at Delancy Street, but they stuck with him. He didn't live a long time after that. He did what people do who are lost: he started to drink, which was something Delancy Street, of course, couldn't tolerate. So he had a stormy history there. In any case, it was an interesting interlude to have met somebody who had spent almost a half century totally out of circulation.
Biagi: Our next story that you said that you wanted to talk about would be the breast cancer story.
Davis: Yes. At one point in my career, I became very interested in medicine and medical technology and all of this. I did a series of stories, including a story on bypass surgeries. This was very new back then, being in the operating room during the surgery. Before I get to the breast cancer, that was truly a funny story. I got a call from a viewer one day who said, "I have to have a double bypass. I'm scared of this. I really don't want to do it. But I think that if you will come and do a story about it, that I will survive." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I want you to come and I want you to be there in the operating room during my surgery." He gave me his doctor's name. I thought this was a crazy idea; they'd never let me do it anyway.
But anyway, I called, and the doctor said, "Yes, he's convinced, and anything that's going to help him, he's a sick guy, get over this, I'll see if we can work it out." So along with my favorite cameraman, a guy named Steve Pastzy, we actually went to Ralph K. Davis Medical Center (I don't know if that's what it was called then) and we scrubbed, went into the operating room, and I stood with the surgeon throughout the whole procedure. And I've got to tell you, those first incisions were difficult. [Laughter.]
Biagi: I bet. You were still standing when you were done?
Davis: There really is a surreal kind of feeling in an operating theater. There's always music playing in the background and the doctors always talk about everything except what they're doing. They're talking about their golf game and medical business. So this conversation goes on during this whole time all these things are happening. I remember I got through it all very well, no problem, until we got back and had to look at the film. That's when I just about died. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Much more vivid.
Davis: Much more vivid, and for some reason much more real looking at that film than it was actually watching the surgery that day.
Anyway, I'm into this business of doing medical stories. The whole issue of women and breast cancer was just beginning to be an issue that people were just starting to talk about. So one day I got a call from a woman named Rhoda Goldman, part of the Levi Strauss family. Rhoda Goldman had had breast cancer, and she started an organization called Reach to Recovery, which was to help women at that time. They gave radical mastectomies; that was the norm. What they did was to visit with these women after the surgery to let them know that life goes on and you can recover. They had a whole routine, and it was a wonderful organization, because this psychologically is damaging in terms of the woman's view of herself and the disease. That's what some of the women told me.
So in any case, I did a story about Reach to Recovery. That led to more of a discussion about how the word had to get out that women needed to examine themselves. The opportunity for extending life is going to be in early detection. So I proposed a story like this, and by this time we actually had a woman producer at Channel 5 [KPIX-TV], a woman who is quite well known in the news business now, Roxanne Russell, was just new out of UC Berkeley, first job, and Roxanne is now the weekend producer for the CBS Evening News and has been with CBS News for quite a while. Anyway, Roxanne and I decided to do this story, and one of the things we had to do was to show a woman examining herself for breast cancer, which means she had to put her hand on her breast. This became such an issue because some of the men thought we just could not show a bare chest or even a near bare chest on the family evening news. Can you imagine that today?
In any case, the decision was that we would have to have this woman wear clothing. Our request to do this went all the way up the line, all the way to the president of the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Who was a man.
Davis: Who was a man. So the first story we did, we had to do it in leotard, but we went ahead, because we wanted to put the story on, and we did it that way. But we wanted to do the story the way it should have been done, and so finally the appeal went out, and the company came back and said, "Okay." We did a series of stories on mammograms, very new then, just being introduced, and followed the whole process of breast cancer detection. This was back in the early seventies. We were really pioneering. We were thought to be one of the first television stations to do this kind of series, and we won a number of awards for that.
Biagi: Another Emmy for that.
Davis: Yes. But I've always been very proud of that, because I think it really did help to save some women's lives. I know it did. I got letters like you wouldn't believe. It also was a very sad period, because I did a series of stories about it, from this Reach to Recovery to self-examination and the latest way of detecting it through the mammograms and so on, but I also did some stories with women who had advanced breast cancer, and I followed some of those women through their last months, and for one even through the last couple of years of her life. One of the young women who I interviewed early on was just thirty-one years old. I'll never forget. I remember exactly where she lived. I liked her an awful lot, and she refused the radical mastectomy. I don't know if it would have saved her or not, but within months she died. She was a single woman whose parents were back East, so I found myself getting too involved with her and another woman
who was a young mother whom we followed, whose husband was a minister, and we followed her all through her last days and covered her family through her funeral. So I got really, really involved with the women back then and the women who were fighting this disease. As I said, I just got lots of mail and I'm still involved to a degree, but it just got to be too much. I had to back away so I can do some other kinds of things.
Biagi: Next you went to Cuba.
Davis: Oh, yes. I got a call one day from a friend who worked for Congressman Ron Dellums saying that Ron Dellums was going to lead a group of black elected officials on a trip to Cuba, and this was during the Jimmy Carter administration. It was when the only window we had to free access to Cuba was available, if you could call it free access, you could go through some routes, you could go in through Canada, you could go in through Mexico, and would I be interested in going. Of course I said yes. I didn't know if a local reporter was going to be able to get this approved by the company as a whole. I was working still for Westinghouse, KPIX. Networks were going. Barbara Walters, in fact, at the time that we were finishing up the negotiations to go, was in Cuba then with all kinds of resources—helicopter, boat, everything. [Laughter.] So I was really anxious to get a "yes" on it, but I was also afraid that whatever I did was going to be yuck compared to what the network was doing at the time.
Biagi: You didn't have a helicopter.
Davis: I didn't have a helicopter, didn't have boats, didn't have anything. I was lucky to get a producer. I did get a producer, though, and one camera person, and we got the okay to go. But then we found out that that was not as easily done as we had hoped. While they wouldn't pull your passport for going, as I said, you had to go by these strange routes. The only other way you could go is you could charter a plane out of Miami, except that there are a lot of Cuban-Americans that hate [Fidel] Castro and did not want to see the situation between Cuba and this country improve.
So we were in Florida and we arrived there through one of those usual kind of storms that come from nowhere in Florida, where the water just pours out of the sky. We came into the airport and we were met by someone who told us where the hangar was, where we were going to go to meet our plane, that we should not tell anybody where we were going, because there were lots of Cubans who worked in the Miami airport and it would not be a good thing to do, and just to provide us with somebody who would drive us to this location where the hangar was and so on. So anyway, I'm probably not giving you all the drama that was in that, but we arrive in this place, we're warned about, "Don't tell anybody about this. Don't even talk to customs about where you're going. Just take care. You'll have a private customs agent that will see you before you get on this chartered plane," and so on.
So we got on the plane and we started to head for Cuba. We were traveling separate from the congressional party, because they were coming from Washington and we were coming from California. About midway in the flight, the pilot, we could overhear—it was a six-seater—started to talk to the tower about his headings, and he said that something was wrong, that he didn't think that the headings he had been given were right. Well, to make a long story short, he had been given incorrect headings. Had we continued to travel on those, we would have run out of gas, because it's a short distance from Miami, and you're going on for this long period of time. We couldn't figure out what was going on. We thought, well, maybe we're avoiding some bad weather or something. Anyway, it was fixed, and we landed in Havana, but the plane had enough fuel when it left Miami to drop us off and to return, but because we'd been sent on this wild goose
chase, they were low on fuel. The first thing we had to do now—remember, there's no U.S. person here to negotiate this stuff—we had to now try to negotiate with the Cuban government people at the airport to provide this guy with fuel to get back. So anyway, that was our challenge upon landing.
Then we arrived and we were met by a party of people who took us to our hotel in Cuba, and the congressional group wasn't there. We wanted to get in early so we could film their landing and their greeting by the government. We went to our hotel, and by the time we settled in, we were watching television, and an announcement came on that an Aeroflot plane had crashed at the airport. So being American journalists, we get a taxi and we want to go out and we want to videotape this. Well, needless to say, that is not the way they do—they do not broadcast bad news in Havana. So we were stopped and we were not allowed to take pictures, except we had taken some from away in the distance, because we could see the smoke coming up and so on. But, you know, they never showed any of that crash. They didn't at that time show catastrophes that happened in that country on their local television news. I'll never forget, one official said to us, "Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to show such tragic scenes to people?" [Laughter.] We said, "Because they're news!" They said, "But you can say it. Why would you need to take pictures?" Well, we never got the pictures.
On that same day when we arrived at our hotel—and middle-age memory is blocking me; I can't remember the name of it, but it was where all the American crews were taken, when we arrived at the hotel, Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther party, was waiting for us on the steps of the hotel.
Biagi: Had you known he would be there?
Davis: No. I don't even know how he knew we were coming, but he did, and he obviously knew approximately when we were coming, because we came ahead of the congressional group, but he was there and we talked and arranged to do some interviews with him while we were there. He wanted to do interviews. That's what he came to approach us about, doing some interviews, because he wanted the American people to hear his side of where things were then, and he was negotiating with the government to try to come home. There were other expatriates. The word was out that we were around.
So anyway, eventually the Dellums party landed, and we were part of their delegation and really were taken on exciting tours of Cuba. I found it one of the most exciting places I had ever been. It just sort of vibrates. I remember that one of the taxi drivers, I was saying to him, "Gee, everybody in Cuba has a job. Everybody's working." He said, "Yes, even those who don't want a job have a job." [Laughter.] So we had some stories we wanted to do about life in Cuba, and we wanted to know more about the educational system, because they really have done a fabulous job of educating their people. They have so many doctors, they were exporting them all over the world, Angola and all kinds of other places, to other countries that were sympathetic to them. So we wanted to know more about their educational system, and we wanted to know about how they kept order. So we got invited one night to one of these block parties that they hold, and we were told some funny things about students in schools. Students that do not do well, first the students are called in, then the parents are called in. Then if the student still continues to misbehave, the father might find himself demoted on his job or privileges taken away from the parents. They found that that worked very effectively. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Pressure. [Laughter.]
Davis: So that was very good. But the main thing for us, for me, anyway, was to get this interview with Fidel Castro, and we were always told from the minute we arrived, "Tomorrow. Tomorrow," or, "Tonight. Tonight." About our second or third day there, we were all on one floor, the eleventh floor. I can't remember the name of the hotel, but I remember the floor we were on. We were on the eleventh floor. We get off our elevator, and who's standing by the elevator door but Fidel Castro. [Laughter.] In complete fatigues, middle of the night, there he is, and he greets Dellums and the rest of the dignitaries there. He gets to me, and I said that I was there and I had to get an interview because Barbara Walters had all of these people and all of these crews, and there was only me, so he had to talk to me. I get this pat on my head, actually on my head, saying, "Don't worry. Yours will be better." [Laughter.] Oh, boy. Anyway, of course there was no interview that day, but everybody being friendly one with the other.
Finally, two days before we were to go home, there was one more meeting with him, but not in a way that I could do any interview. On the day we were promised this interview, we had gone out to some function they sent us to. We came home about 11:30 at night and there was a group of cars, black cars all alike, lined up, and we were all told to pile in them, "Get your gear and your equipment," and we were rushed off. Then 12:30 in the morning, this formality, we all come around with Cokes and tea and coffee, were put in this room, and eventually a receiving line is set up by the Cubans, and we all go down the line. Of course, Castro's at the end of the line. When it got to my turn, I spoke up again, "This is the night, I hope," as we're going, and he agreed to the interview, the sit-down interview. When I say we had interviewed before, we'd hold the mike out and get a few words of reading, but I wanted a long conversation. He did sit for it, and it was—
Biagi: For about how long?
Davis: My goodness, longer than our people wanted to sit there in this hot room with the lights, so I guess about forty minutes, because we did two rolls of film. The part that was really interesting was when the interview was over and it was time to shoot the usual TV cutaways, it had required that, as always, for the cameraman to go in back of the main subject in order to shoot the reporter's face. My cameraman, Dave Ambriz, who Castro took a liking to, is Hispanic and so could converse with him in Spanish, and Dave got up to go around back of him, and people just sort of ran out there. Then we were told that no one is allowed at his back. So finally Dave said something to him in Spanish, and he smiled and nodded his head that it was okay. So I didn't know to that point that no foreign visitors were allowed to get in back. So it was a very thrilling and interesting group.
One night they wanted to take us to the site of where the Cuban revolution had started on the very tip of the island down by Guantánamo Bay, and so we were put on this old DC-8 in the middle of the night in the rain to fly. Our flight left at 2 a.m. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Sounds like you didn't get a lot of sleep on this trip.
Davis: Oh, you didn't, because he never slept. They said he does not sleep in the same bed two nights in a row. I don't know his lifestyle, but things were always happening in the middle of the night. I just mention this because going down to his home territory, we got there and they had this party for us, which was a disco. My fondest memory of that is there we are, hot as the dickens, in the middle of the night, we've had this dinner, there's this disco, nobody in our group really spoke Spanish, and there was Congressman Dellums dancing with the woman who was the lead host. I'll never forget him saying, "Como se dice 'Get down?'" [Laughter.]
"How do you say 'Get down'?" He's yelling over the music, but we could all hear it, and the whole place stopped. So it had its tense moments, but some happy times and interesting times.
Biagi: [Laughter.] That's very funny.
Davis: Anyway, the documentary won two Emmys.
Biagi: It was a two-part interview, two interviews with him.
Biagi: Next we move on to Israel. Here we have this globe-trotting reporter.
Davis: By now I was working at KQED, the public station in San Francisco.
Biagi: That would have been in what year?
Davis: About '79, '80 that this trip took place. In fact, this trip came about in a strange way. Somehow I'd become, probably through interviews, quite friendly with the Egyptian consul general, because if you recall, it was during the time when [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat was making overtures with the Israelis and, in fact, his trip to Israel actually took place, Camp David happened, all of that peace between Egypt and Israel. That's when we started. The atmosphere was started to talk about a trip that would have been a trip to Egypt and Israel and a documentary about the two countries and the fact that for the first time they were talking to each other and there was peace between the two.
By the time we got around to doing the trip, conditions were not as friendly as they had started out to be. In fact, I guess in the interim, I think Sadat was killed . I do know that there was some tension, and what we found out is that we could not go to both countries. There was no way to go to both countries on one trip. I can't recall why, but it became diplomatically [impossible], without leaving Israel, flying to a third nation and flying back to Egypt. So we ended up just deciding to go to Israel with Roxanne Russell again, who has now moved to the public station. We're at the same place again. She was my producer, and a cameraman named Peter Hobbi, whose background is German, we decided to take this trip.
It was a traumatic trip for all of us. Part of Roxanne's college years had been spent as a student in Germany, and she spoke German, not German by background, but knew a lot about it. Peter was [German]. So when we visited some of the memorial sites in Egypt on two occasions, we all ended up in tears and had to sometimes end our work and come back and finish it because we got too emotionally involved.
But we started on this trip, and I don't know when we ever slept on this trip, because the Israelis had put together a schedule that was just a killer. We started out with a trip to—we had several goals. Our documentary ended up being called "Israel: Between the Lines." We started out our trip in Haifa. I started to tell you what our goals were. One, Jerry Brown was governor of California and was very interested in drip irrigation and also in the conversion of saltwater for agricultural purposes, so it was the governor's emphasis on these two areas that helped make the trip possible, too. The other thing is we were looking for San Franciscans who had gone to live in Israel. We had a third topic. Maybe I'll think of it before it's over. But we did have three main ideas that we wanted to try to pursue.
So we went first to our sister city of Haifa, did a little sister city story. We went to part of the university where they were doing some of the agricultural research work to do with irrigation, also was near Haifa, so we were there, and we were off to a kibbutz, where we filmed life in a kibbutz for Americans who were there to find out really if they really wanted to make Israel their home. These were people who were sort of in transition. Then we went up to the Golan Heights, then back down to the Sea of Galilee, followed the River Jordan down through what is now the West Bank, Galilee, all of these places that the whole business of real tension was just beginning between Israel and the Palestinians. It was possible at that time just to get in your car and drive through those areas, and it was just us, you know, without much sense of danger, but with some, because there had been some bombings and the mayor, I think, of Hebron, I think it was, had just either been injured or killed in a bombing.
After we drove to Jordan, we ended up down at the Dead Sea, and that's where we were looking into this whole business of conversion of saltwater for agricultural purposes. Finally, our last days were in Jerusalem. It was an interesting trip, and we were just wide-eyed Americans. We were so exhausted from our official program that we had to take a couple of extra days just to rest up before we could leave and fly home. [Laughter.] But one day we were wandering around in old Jerusalem, and we could not figure out why there were no people. Anybody but Americans would have figured out that something was wrong. The streets were practically empty. We had the feeling ever since we'd been there that somebody was keeping an eye on us at all times. We were just walking down the streets, talking to one another, saying, "Why is everybody—is there a holiday that we don't know about?" Finally, a man came up to us who we had seen once or twice before, and said, "It might be a good idea if you spend this afternoon at your hotel or if you spend your afternoon in another part of the city. There have been some incidents here." Well, what we found is that there had been some sniper fire and a couple of people had been hit, folks up on a wall right above where we were walking. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So you did a series, then, did you?
Davis: We did a half-hour documentary. We did a series, too, that's right. We did a half-hour documentary and then we did a series of one on—I forget the other topic. Then we did the water one, because that one had high interest. There was something else we did. But we did two series and a half-hour documentary. The documentary is what got the Emmy nomination; we didn't win.
Biagi: Well, you can't be greedy.
Biagi: Let's move on to one that you did win again, the Oakland series of 1985 on the Oakland Police Department.
Davis: That was sort of a watershed time in my career. I grew up in and around Oakland, family members still in Oakland.
Biagi: You'd left KQED now.
Davis: I left KQED in '80 and started at KRON in '81. Actually, that's not quite true. I worked at KQED till I went to KRON, but it's the same thing.
Anyway, I'd grown up in the areas of West Oakland, where the Oakland Police had never had a good reputation with African-Americans. From the time I was a very small child, I was always fearful of the police in Oakland because of just what I'd heard as a youngster. Of course, the whole trial between the Oakland police and the tensions created as a result of the Black Panther party and so on did not help the situation at all. But I was approached by a guy from the NAACP saying that the Oakland police had a practice of stopping young black men for questioning for no good reason, not being accused of a crime, for walking down the street or standing on the corner. People would come up and stop them. This was a real zealous lawyer who had filed some lawsuit on behalf of young men who said they'd not only been stopped, but they had been beaten by the Oakland police. He was going to put me in touch with six Oakland police officers who would go on camera and accuse their department of doing these things. There was lots of jockeying between that, and ended up, I think, in the end there were maybe four or five of them who really decided to show their faces on camera. The lead couple in the department who were protesting this was a couple, who eventually got married. They weren't married when we first started to talk about this.
The talking about it went over a long period of time as to how we'd do it, when we'd do it, and what would happen. John Dann, who I'd worked with at Channel 9, now is working at Channel 4 and our investigative unit, was the producer on this. So we did a lot of investigating and a lot of checking and so on, but we decided that if, indeed, four or more members of the department wanted to come forward and accuse that department of behaving in a not-professional way, that we should go ahead and do the story. So we started to work on it. It was a series.
In the interview with the chief, who's still chief, Chief [George] Hart, he said that his department practice was proactive policing, that they tried to stop crimes, and that this was just part of good police work of stopping these young men. The problem was that they lost, and during the time that we were doing all this, at least two lawsuits where a young man had been beaten, they had settled out of court. This one lawyer had handled those two cases. So based on all of this, we went ahead with the story. I'm trying to say that because the story created so much tension and it still has created havoc in my life.
We ran the series. If there was a real problem with it, it was the aggressive promotional spots that were produced to advertise the series. I have to agree to some extent with the critics of the series that the promotional announcements, I would say for us would be what the chief would call proactive. They were what announcements of that kind tend to be: they take the most inflammatory points quickly, hit on them, and move on. Well, before the series ever started on the air, over the weekend the promotional announcements were aired.
The chief was so furious that he, I think, for whatever reason, ended up getting the phone number of the station manager at home and called him at home. By that Monday morning, he was at our station. Nobody had even seen the story, but they were denouncing it, and they were calling. By that afternoon, before the story aired, a group of Oakland police officers—there's a place near the station where a lot of our cameramen—a watering hole, we call it—go. They knew this. [They] appeared at Tommy's Joynt. When some of our guys came in, they asked if they worked at KRON, and they proceeded to tell them how they felt about this and how they felt about us and a few other things I don't want to say.
So now this thing is to air later. The worst part hasn't even hit the air yet, and all this is happening. Of course, that day I'd been called into the station, not only me, the news director, the producer, into the station manager's office. The chief came over, we met with him. Normally had the atmosphere been different, we probably would have shown him the segments, because
then he could have seen that the segments were not as hot as the promotional announcements were. By now it's standing on journalist integrity. We're not going to show it, because even if you don't like it, at this point we couldn't change it. It became a news story by then.
Anyway, the series went on, and at that point it had an effect on everybody I worked with, because at this point the Oakland police department would not answer questions from crime reporters. We found it almost impossible to get any information out. Our news cars were ticketed repeatedly. It made life very difficult for everybody I worked with, and even though they were nice to me in the front, I'm sure they were upset. The controversy became the topic of items in columns and, in fact, of stories in the newspaper. Then the Oakland Police Officers Association, which is largely a white police officers' association, had a news conference about it, and the black police officers had another news conference about it. At one news conference, the two groups came together and were yelling at each other about it. Very tense.
Eventually the two lead officers were suspended. They made a silly mistake of calling in sick when they really weren't, and by now their phones were being tapped. They called in sick. An officer was sent to their house to see if, indeed, they were home sick, and they weren't there. Federal charges were then filed against them, because that's a federal offense for a police officer to lie. They were called in and asked to sign affidavits saying that what they had said about being sick was true, and they, unfortunately, signed them. So they were subjected to a federal trial that followed and they were sentenced to prison.
Other things happened. They had a child who, when the mother took the child to Children's Hospital for emergency care and called for authorization of insurance coverage, the hospital was told that it was not available. There were repercussions from that. This really did ruin a lot of people's lives and had a profound effect on me, because my son, who was then living in Oakland, was stopped twice, one for making an illegal right-hand turn, and was taken to jail.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: Would you do it again, the series?
Davis: I think I would, but I would certainly look at any promotional announcements that were going to be put on the air about a topic as sensitive as this. I think that's what I would change. I just don't think I realized the price that some people might pay for this, and I don't think they did either. I mean, this was the first negative police series put on in this town by anybody. We just don't realize the brotherhood of the blues for what it is, and I understand it. These are people who put their lives on the line every day, and they're close to each other and overly protective of one another to the extreme, I think, in this degree, but I do know that sometime later—I mean, this has gone on. Sometime later an Oakland police officer was shot and killed, had nothing to do with my story, but in the mail came a letter with a piece of fabric with blood stains on it, saying that I was responsible for this officer's death. There's no connection except it was done for the shock value. That followed by five years later there was an article in the Police Officer magazine that rehashed the whole story again. This would be as late as about a couple of years ago, where the whole thing was dug up again. So it is not something that has gone away.
Biagi: And yet you won an award for this.
Biagi: But have you ever been back to Oakland to report things?
Davis: Oh, yes. Oakland is my home city, really, and so I'm there all the time. I do report. Naturally, I don't think they'd cooperate with me to do any story about the police department, but things have gotten better. Our reporter who was assigned to Oakland doesn't have any problems anymore. At least that's gone away and we're treated basically like other news units. But for a long time it was really difficult for people who were assigned to Oakland.
Biagi: And had KRON on their cars. Your cars are labeled, aren't they?
Davis: Well, they used to be; they're not anymore. What you do is you put your press card in the window if you're parked, for ticket avoidance, but many people stopped putting their press cards in the window.
Biagi: It was a way to attract a ticket.
Davis: Right. But all of that is better now to a degree. It was funny. The attitude was because I have lots of friends in Oakland and I grew up there, etc., the way they would always put it, it wasn't personal to me, but I had been somehow duped by John Dann and other people in the NAACP and so on, but that didn't help when it came to my kid. So no one has ever said anything to me other than the letters. I only told you about that one letter. There were so many other letters that were very cruel. I think the only thing that made it better, there were officers in other cities who understood what this was about.
Biagi: Did they stop the practice of stopping people, do you know?
Davis: For a while. I don't know, really, because I haven't kept up with it. But for a while, yes.
Biagi: You haven't heard about any more since?
Biagi: Let's take you up to today now. Your current assignment is?
Davis: Urban affairs, it's called. I cover a lot about city and regional government. I for one while concentrated solely upon San Francisco city government, because during the building boom, when San Francisco was the hottest place in the world to be, everybody wanted to open an office here, everybody wanted to build a highrise here, it was a full-time job just keeping up with government and all of the protest and ballot measures and everything else, and environmental issues that surrounded growth. So I did a lot of that as well as covered city hall. That's along with doing other things as they would come up in terms of my interests.
I'm still doing much of that, although this year my assignment, I've been interested in politics. It's always been the backdrop of everything that I've done. If you talk about government, you're really talking about politics. I'm covering a beat called the Year of the Woman in Politics, and I'm finding that really exciting, because I've covered the Year of the Woman several times before. [Laughter.]
Biagi: [Laughter.] Several other years.
Davis: Several other years, like '84, '88. [Laughter.] And it turned out not to be the Year of the Woman. I remember the year, I guess it was '84, wasn't it, when Mondale was running for the presidency and our mayor, Dianne Feinstein, was one of the leading contenders for the vice presidential nomination. Oh, that was an exciting time. I traveled with her to Minnesota for her vice presidential interview and then started following her on some of her trips to San Diego and a few other places to see how she was received. I think it probably was the first time that she discovered that she had a name and a following outside. Fact is, she always seemed surprised when she'd go to Orange or San Diego and there would be all of these admiring women. I think that's when she probably first knew that she had statewide appeal.
So anyway, I was doing Year of the Woman then, and, of course, in '88 it was the Year of the Woman again, and so here we are now. In '92, we hope this time there's a payoff.
Biagi: Let's go back to some kind of general questions about, first, your upbringing and then, later on, your career. In your upbringing with your family, did you ever feel that there were different expectations for you because you were a girl as opposed to your brother?
Davis: Yes, but probably in the opposite way from which most people look at that. Maybe it wasn't gender; it may have been more because I was the oldest. I was never clear. But there was certainly a standard set for me that was much higher than the one for my brother.
Biagi: Is that right?
Davis: Yes. I was certainly expected to take a leadership role in everything, and I still don't know what the logic was, probably because my brother was the baby, so I was the caretaker. It was sort of expected in school that I be well behaved and that I get good grades and so on. My brother, who has an IQ much higher than mine, could get good grades when he wanted to. He already knew that whenever he decided to, he could. So it was okay when he didn't, because they knew he could. With me, it was like a struggle always to get that A or B+ or whatever it was I decided was the grade I had to get for the course. I think a lot of it, though, was internal. I created these plateaus for myself.
Biagi: Was it your family expectations or your own, do you think?
Davis: I don't know, because my younger years were very confusing ones, so I wouldn't even know who to say was setting standards. I think from my aunt, who I lived with a great deal of the time, she always expected the very best from me. Then that was combined with a combination of sort of a challenge or threat from her husband, who was constantly saying I wasn't going to amount to anything. So I don't know which one pushed me the hardest, him saying I wasn't going to amount to anything or her saying that I was going to be the best. I don't know which one, but between the two of them, something happened.
Biagi: Why did he say that, do you think?
Davis: I can say it now. Probably my aunt, if she could hear this, would agree that he truly was a sexist. [Laughter.] He was a man of his time, and that's not to say that he was different from everybody else of his age. Women were women and men were men, and men did certain things and women did not accomplish as much. I don't know why he felt that way, and maybe he didn't even feel that way. Maybe that was his way of motivating. Because you'll find that a lot in southern families, what is said is not what is meant. It's a sort of defensive language. They'll say, "You're not going to amount to anything!" Well, that means they really want you to do something generally.
Or, "If you don't do this, you won't." But for the child, you don't hear, "If you don't," you hear the bottom half. Probably that's the way he phrased the statement that stuck with me, too.
Biagi: Do you remember, as a teenager and going into your twenties, did you have an idea what you wanted to do? Today the whole emphasis is on goal-setting. Were you at sixteen or seventeen setting a goal that you'd do this?
Davis: I know that my dream was to get a college education, and probably I wasn't as focused outside, because the people who had a college education and who were closest to me were my teachers, so I focused somewhat on teaching in high school. I thought I wanted to be a teacher. You've got to remember when you're in a family where few people have graduated high school and no one you know— [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: So you had an idea about being a teacher, but then beyond that, at eighteen, did you see yourself as a journalist for the rest of your life?
Davis: No. In fact, I thought probably at that point it might have been way down on my list, because like many of my colleagues, I am a terrible speller. And maybe that's why I ended up here, I was always taking one kind of an English class or the other to try to get it, and I never did. [Laughter.] I took English for days, sometimes two English classes on one schedule. Oh, dear. It did cause me to take drama classes, because that was in the English department, and that sparked some interest in public speaking and so forth.
Biagi: Another global question. Did you ever feel that you had mentors? Were there people who were crucial?
Davis: There were always people who came in and out of my life that I found inspirational. There was a woman named Dorothy Seales; her name is Dorothy Pitts now. I lived in West Oakland. The Defermery Park Center had been a former USO. When they turned it over to the community, Miss Seales came to run children's programs in the playground. She was a real inspiration in trying to open up a broader world for us girls. We had this little girls' club. You'll find a lot with the black middle class, there's a lot of emulation of what they see as the upper class in the other society. So we'd have little teas and all kinds of other little things. I thought she was such a grand lady.
And I think my best friend's mother was always a real inspiration to me in terms of a person who synthesized information. In other words, my family was sort of a "shoot from the hip" group, and Anna Dean was a woman who thought things over, gave you thoughtful answers, also a person who was very high on education, very high on reading, and inspired me. Her daughter, Rosemary, who is a librarian, you can see the influence she had over books. She loved books. She probably helped kindle my love of books.
Biagi: Then in a professional sense after your growing-up years, have there been any mentors?
Davis: The only black woman that I can remember reading the news on the air was a woman named Terea Hall Pittman. She was the area president for the NAACP, and she had a show where she came on each week and read "Negroes in the News."
Biagi: What year?
Davis: That would have been in maybe the fifties. So I used to listen to Terea Hall Pittman and her very stylized delivery of the news.
Biagi: On radio?
Davis: On radio. It was radio, remember, where I started. It was only because radio changed that I started to even think about television. My goal was to be a good radio reporter at that time. Then I met a man named Louis Freeman, who was the news director for KDIA Radio, the first black intellectual that I knew intimately. I was in awe of Louis Freeman and wanted to be like him, and he was a great newsman. He introduced me to people like Gunther Myrdahl, people that I had never heard of from Europe, and had me reading books on theories that I'd never thought about. So he was a great inspiration to me.
Biagi: When you first got married, if I remember right, you didn't continue working, did you? Did you stop at some point while you were married?
Davis: I did, right after I first got married. I worked while I was in Washington, D.C., then we moved to Hawaii, and it was impossible to get a job there, so I didn't work for a while, not until I came back to the States.
Biagi: Did you, in your mind, have the idea that you would always work or that you would stop working?
Davis: I thought I'd always work. I don't know. In my vision of my life, I was always a working person, I think probably because the women in my family all were. Other than my aunt, after she became too ill to work, she's the only person I know that didn't work. Everybody else worked. Black women have always worked, you know, and that's why the women's movement was such a surprise.
Biagi: After you married Bill, and you're both essentially in the world of journalism, how did you socialize? Are you socializing primarily with other journalists or do you socialize with a variety of friends?
Davis: Absolutely a variety of people. Of course, with both of us being in the business, a lot of journalists—I guess that's why I understand cops so much—you find yourself, because of mutual interests, traveling the same road and having mutual friends, so a lot of our time was there. But I think for minorities coming into the media, there was this double thing, because at least in Bill's and my generation, we've been very involved with minority press, so we had friends. I'm still writing a column and he's still occasionally taking pictures for big events that would go into the weekly paper, so it was journalism, but it was a different sort. It was community-based, not even pretending to be middle of the road in its attitude about the stories they ran and the positions that they took. So we still had this involvement. We found it comfortable, and probably some of our white colleagues might have found it uncomfortable, but we found it comfortable to go to a social event, say, that someone was giving where Eldridge Cleaver was going to be talking about whatever was in the news from his point of view, which was different from covering Eldridge Cleaver when we went to work at our jobs. I mean, we didn't take cameras or reporters or anything to these events. We just went as members of this community. So we socialize at all different levels from the most radical end of our community to involvement with the social elite of our own race. Then because I had been in radio for so long, we had this other arm, the glamour celebrity arm, so we had a very rich life.
Biagi: And you still continue that?
Davis: We don't do as much as we used to. The reason we have this big dining room is because we used to have a series called the Tuesday Series. It was not a big fancy dinner, but we needed space for ten people, and we loved to sit around and have different groups of friends in, you know, get various topics we were interested in, and sort of see other groups of people and just talk. In the old days, they were called saloons? Salons?
Biagi: Salons. [Laughter.]
Davis: Well, the way they ended up, with the amount we drank, sometimes they probably were [saloons]. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So you'd invite a variety of people in and just talk about issues.
Biagi: You haven't done that for a while?
Davis: No. I don't know. We just seem to be either too old or too busy. [Laughter.] But we love to mix our friends, too, from all our different interest groups, and that's been really wonderful times, mix races, ages, and so on. We've had some great parties.
Biagi: Reflecting on your whole life now—I told you these are global questions—what would you say was the happiest time, the most fulfilling time of your life?
Davis: Fulfilling and happy are two different things, because happy would be the frivolous time I spent in radio. That was truly happy. That was fun. It was music and nothing was serious, and if I could avoid it, I didn't read the front page of the paper. So that makes for happiness, right? As long as you've got good health and a nice family and music is the most important thing in your life, it makes it pretty good.
But I think fulfilling, I don't know which era to focus on. I would probably say the years I spent at KPIX, because I made lifelong friends. We did very hard work. We were trusted to make independent judgments. We were seldom told to, "Go out and get this." We were told to go out and be journalists and look at it. So I think all of us agree that we lived through a very wonderful time, and those of us who were there in that period are very fortunate people. You can ask that of almost anybody who happened to end up in that circle in the seventies. There was a world of interest, not that things were good, but interesting things were going on. It was a great time with open optimism for those at the liberal end of the spectrum. Probably if you ask somebody who was more conservative, they would look upon it as totally different from me, but coming from a minority group that was just beginning to get some sense of power and a sense of hope that they could be included and also could be change agents, it was an exciting time.
Biagi: Of course, the flip side of that, the most unhappy time.
Davis: I think it was near the end, just before I left KPIX and the direction of TV news started to change. The happy talk came in, the short sound bites, the rise of the consultants, the emphasis on ratings versus anything else. It was a very melancholy time for me, because nobody likes to see what you view as a wonderful period of your life slipping away, but I think it wasn't just that; it was because it was affecting me personally. I think the country was just getting ready to go into
the "me, myself, and I" eighties. That required a whole different thought process and a whole different emphasis. I found that a very unhappy time, and a lot of unhappy things happened. That, of course, was the time of the Moscone shooting, the Guyana situation, and other horrible tragedies. It was very difficult.
Biagi: And the classic: would you do anything differently?
Davis: Oh, there are so many things I'd do differently that I can't even tell you.
Biagi: Can you list five?
Davis: I wish I could.
Biagi: It doesn't have to be five.
Davis: I just know that there have been many missed opportunities, I think. I think when you are so involved in—excuse me, and I don't mean to sound boastful—but when you're so at the center of history being made, you don't know it. Even if you're playing a part in it sometimes, it's hard to recognize it. I don't think I always gave the weight to what was happening in my life that should have been given it. I didn't always give the thought to what I was doing that maybe I could have given it. It was sort of a wide-eyed, "This is going to go on forever." I think a lot of entertainers suffer from that same syndrome. When life is so rich that it's like eating desserts all the time, you simply lose a sense of the importance.
A great part of my career was like that, and things were just tumbling at me. Here was this high school kid, you know, no college education, doing all of these things that most people with postgraduate degrees were still thinking about, having a lot of access because of my race and because of my gender that some of my colleagues maybe didn't have. But, of course, they had things that I didn't have, too. But the ones that were important to me were happening for me.
So what would I change? I think I would hope that if ever—but there's a possibility there might be another period, not in this arena, but in another arena where things might be that rich, I hope I would be much more thoughtful about it.
Biagi: What about how your profession itself has changed?
Davis: I think it's very important. I worry about the future. Because of my lack of formal training in this business, I've assumed an idealistic view of what the work was about. I have always considered it an important cornerstone of a good working democracy. I've always felt that you can't have a thriving democracy without a free press and a flow of information in an understandable way. I worry that people who manage what I do tend to be more those who look at its commercial value versus its value to this nation as an instrument, another arm of making government operate properly.
So I'm concerned about the future, but I'm also an eternal optimist, even though everybody calls me a pessimist because if you tell me something, I'm going to give you the other side of the issue always. But I can do that and spring right back. That comes from being a Libra, too. [Laughter.] I always think that the boomerang will work, that it will get so far out there and will come back, and hopefully we'll find a balance between the obligation to earn money for those who own the stations and our obligation as the voice of the people. I think that somehow has got pushed to the back burner too often.
Biagi: Whose reporting work have you most admired in your career? Which journalists?
Davis: Now you've got me. There are so many people at different periods of my life. [People] that I've worked with over my career, who I've admired so much, Roxanne [Russell], whose name I've mentioned quite often, and another producer who is with CBS, because a lot of the KPIX people ended up going to CBS, Roxanne and George Osterkamp, who is still here, still working for CBS as their San Francisco bureau person. But I think of people who I worked with here and have gone on to do other things, people like Richard Threlkeld, Rick Davis, Mike Lee. These are all people who I know well, but I think they do an excellent job of what they do, and most of them have spent the last whatever overseas in some capacity covering the really hot spots of the world, and they've done an admirable job.
Biagi: You've talked a lot about community involvement and how you never felt that that was something you shouldn't do. You felt it was something you should do. But have you ever had thoughts about the ethics of that as a reporter?
Davis: Oh, all the time. I'm always weighing.
Biagi: Have there been any specific incidents when you've come face to face with it?
Davis: Oh, yes. I mean, it happens continually. The problem with getting older is that the older you get, the more people you know because you've just been around so long. [Laughter.] I know that when I was working at KQED, where the rules are different for public television, I have to tell you that, that in commercial television in terms of relationships, when I was working at KQED, Dianne Feinstein's daughter wanted very much a career in journalism at one time, but really found her mother's position a hindrance more than a help, so she was interning there for a while. Our daughters are about the same age. So because I was experiencing some of the same things that Dianne was going through with Catherine, I was always trying to talk to Catherine more, as much for my sake to understand a young woman of her age. Anyway, so Dianne Feinstein and I had always known one another, certainly because of the coverage and so on, but we just became friendly. Because we share a lot of common ideas, I always had to pull myself back, especially when I go to a news conference, you know, and remember, "Okay," and not be too sympathetic.
So that was an issue back then, and it's continued on, even back to, as I said, my relationship with people who would be considered left-leaning. I'm sure that sometime or other in my career I've been on somebody's "observed" list because I have so many friends that would have been on anybody's list. But in the black community, where there's a feeling of oppression, people who are talking liberation, you cannot say that you don't have some sympathies for that point of view, because you see the poverty and you see all the other stuff that goes with it. So you have to really watch all of that.
On the other hand, people who you vehemently disagree with, you've got to be sure you give them a break. Well, not a break, but at least you don't become the roadblock stifling their views. So I'm constantly worrying about that. There are certain people that I begrudgingly have had to talk to. [Laughter.] But you know, somebody like William Buckley, who I thought, because his writings were so conservative, that I never would like, well, I found after I interviewed him a couple of times, I mean, he was a very pleasant, charming man who wrote me little notes, probably the same thing he did with everybody else and talked to on his tours, but people like that you found weren't as bad as you thought they were.
But, no, this whole ethical thing, maybe other reporters have not found it to be true, but I find that I'm always having to have these little talks with myself and try to always be as fair as possible, and if because of the limited opportunities for minorities of my age group, almost anybody who was important enough to be on the news is somebody that you know. So there was always that problem.
Biagi: Has there ever been a situation ethically where you made a decision that you felt was wrong afterwards, on reflection?
Davis: I don't have anything that's haunting me, that I can remember. I still have questions always, because of individuals who I'm extremely socially friendly with and who are in controversial spots, if at some time I'm ever questioned about this, how would I answer. If, indeed, you'd gone out to a dinner party with this person and then you have to do a story about them the next day, how compromising is that? I've come to the point now that I've spent twenty-five years here, and outside of the run-in with the Oakland police, in twenty-five years I've never had anyone accuse me of being biased, and even in the case of the Oakland police, they didn't think that I was personally biased. They just thought that I had been duped, which I don't know, it might be more insulting. But my reputation—and I'm very proud of it—has been a person who does try to be even-handed, even if it's not personally my opinion, but try to be even-handed in terms of access. That is, give you as much time as I give the next guy to explain your point of view.
Biagi: Overall, looking back at it all, is broadcast journalism a good profession for women, do you think?
Davis: I think so. I think that women have been able to earn salaries that they couldn't have envisioned in television before. Granted, those days are coming to an end, but women have done very well. Not as well as the men, but some have done extremely well. I think it's still a good profession. I think what the problem is, that because of that and because of some of the glitter, glamour edges on it, women who are going into the business may be going into it for reasons different from women of my generation who went into it, because the business they're going into is a different kind of business. You couldn't go into the business today and make pronouncements, as I did, "Oh, I only wear lipstick. I don't wear any other makeup. I'll wear my hair any way I want unless you want to pay to get it done. If it's on your ticket, I'll do it, but I'm not paying to do it." [Laughter.] It was your journalism what counted, not how you looked or anything else. Of course, that wasn't true then and it isn't true now, but I felt that way about it, because I had come from radio and newspapers where nobody looked at me anyway. So I didn't understand this emphasis on hair and so on.
So women going into it today are coming at it from a different angle. I see some sense that the requirement that everybody be blonde and blue-eyed and twenty-three is beginning to moderate somewhat.
Biagi: Do you think the standards are the same for men as they are for women in television?
Davis: I never thought they were the same, no. Never.
Biagi: Why is that?
Davis: I think it's because of the way we've been taught about the way we value men. We value men for their power, for their money, for their connections. We value women because they're
good-looking and they're good talkers, they're entertaining. Different standards. So you get a guy who's a little pouchy, it's okay because he's probably influential or he's probably bright or something. Get a woman, she's an old broad. [Laughter.]
Biagi: We'll stop there.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: What we're going to do, Belva, is start at the beginning and go back to October 13, 1932 and little Belva.
Davis: I was born in Monroe, Louisiana, which was called Northern Louisiana, versus New Orleans, a city that I didn't visit until I was an adult. I was born there to a mom who was in her early teens.
Biagi: Her name?
Davis: Florence. Her maiden name was Howard. She married my dad, John Melton. At the time I was a teenager, they were divorced, and her name is Florence Mays now. She remarried, of course.
I was born there and had a rather confusing childhood, living with a series of relatives from time to time. As a small child, my father and my uncle had left Louisiana under some rather unpleasant circumstances. My uncle had filed a lawsuit against his employers and won a large settlement, $2,000, I think it was, something like that, $2,000 or $4,000 at that time. In those days, for a black male that was considered in the thirties just something you didn't do, so my uncle was told that he should leave that part of the country, and he and my dad left.
Biagi: How old were you when they left?
Davis: I assume, since I was just going to pre-school or I wasn't in real school, I was someplace around four or five years old, something like that. So temporarily we were sent to Arkansas to live with our grandparents for a few months.
Biagi: You and your—
Davis: My brother John, who is younger than me. So we went there and lived with my grandfather for a while, and then soon my dad came out to get us and brought us back by train from Arkansas. I don't know whether we went back to Louisiana or not, but anyway, we came out on the train to West Oakland [California].
Biagi: Why West Oakland?
Davis: The family had found work, various members of the family, with the Southern Pacific Railroad in West Oakland. That's what they were doing, and my dad worked in a lumber mill most of his life. Eventually, by the start of World War II, he was one of the first people hired at the Naval Supply Center. Basically what he did was build pallets for cargo to go on. But the other people, everybody else just had worked at the Southern Pacific, and what started with maybe a couple of people in a little basement apartment in West Oakland soon grew to about
eleven people who were living in this basement apartment, and it was truly a basement apartment, an unfinished basement apartment. So anyway, we survived there.
World War II made a difference, because there were lots of jobs and more money, and my aunt and my uncle were one of the lucky ones that secured one of the housing projects built during the war effort, and I went to live with them in Alameda [California], so I was there for a few years of my life living with them.
Biagi: And your mother stayed?
Davis: My mother and my father and my brother stayed in Oakland, and various other relatives. Eventually, my aunt and her husband bought a house, something, of course, I did not realize at the time, but only years later learned, they bought a house in Berkeley, but the reason they were able to buy it was because of the Japanese-Americans who had been forced out of their homes. So these houses were sold for practically nothing.
Biagi: Your aunt's name?
Davis: Pearline Lindsey, and her husband Ezra Lindsey. One of these houses on Ashby Avenue, a house that, at least for the moment, is still in the family. They bought it, I guess, in '42 or something. My uncle passed away, and my aunt is quite elderly and living in a rest home. I think her daughter has the house on the market to sell.
In any case, I moved with them to Berkeley, but because my closest friends in life lived in Oakland for some time, I finished all my junior high year in Oakland while living in Berkeley.
Biagi: Let's go back now to your grammar school years. List the schools you attended.
Davis: I went to Prescott Elementary School in Oakland and then to Lincoln Elementary School in Alameda, then to Hoover Junior High School in Oakland, and finally to Berkeley High, which I can't say enough about, because I credit the good education at Berkeley High with making it possible for me to go up my way through life.
Biagi: You recently went back and gave a commencement speech there, didn't you?
Davis: Yes, I did. They invited me to be the commencement speaker. They did something else which is really wonderful. I was one of the first members of what they call the Berkeley High Hall of Fame, and so I was one of the first people inducted into the High School Hall of Fame. That was very rewarding. But I feel I owe the Berkeley school system a lot because of that.
Biagi: How did you get around town in Berkeley at that time? By foot, right?
Davis: Oh, of course, and the bus.
Biagi: The Key system, right?
Davis: Yes. My mom, because of her connections with the Southern Pacific Railroad, sort of trained people, and where my mother lived in Oakland was on the Key system train line. So we spent a lot of time riding the Key system, because it was accessible, and somehow or other, the Key system tied in. I don't know why I think it tied into my mom's work, but I think we either got discounts or my mother got tokens or something, so we were able to ride and it didn't cost but
a dime, anyway, in those days. So especially during the summer, whenever we were bored, we'd just get on the Key system train and ride the train to what's called the East Bay Terminal now and ride back home again on the A train. The A train went right past our house. That was fun. That was a real lift.
Because my mom worked for the Southern Pacific, too, there was a ferry, and when you took the train, you could take the ferry to San Francisco. So on days when we were really brave, we'd go down and get on the ferry and ride over to the Ferry Building, walk outside the ferry terminal, look at the streetcar turn around in front of it, never go any farther than that, except on really great days when we'd get permission to take the streetcar to the beach and we'd go to play on the beach. Those were special treats. It meant you had to have money to go there, of course.
Biagi: The Fun House.
Davis: Yes, the Fun House and all of that, which was great fun.
Biagi: Just to get your total name correct, now, you start out as Belvagene.
Davis: That's right, all one word, Belvagene.
Biagi: And your last name is, at this point?
Davis: At this point? My true last name? My married name?
Biagi: Your beginning name.
Davis: My beginning name is Belvagene Melton. That's my maiden name. Then I was married once to a Davis, and that's the name I've professionally stuck with all my life, not because I wanted to, but because other people decided that's what was going to happen. Then my married name now is Moore.
Biagi: So we get you through junior high, and you're at Berkeley High. Were there any subjects you particularly liked or excelled in?
Davis: I was always very good in history, because I loved to read and I liked history, and I was always very good with that. I was good with math. I just never could get English down very well. [Laughter.] So it became my waterloo, my challenge, and I took class after class. I took English. Besides what was offered, I guess English 4, 5, or 6, something like that, and then took drama, public speaking. I took everything that would help fortify. But it was like an uphill, every battle.
Biagi: Spelling was not particularly your subject?
Davis: No, not at all. But I did okay. I never got Fs or anything, but I just never got it, and probably because of some weak beginning. In the beginning, I obviously didn't get it in grammar school.
Biagi: That was when you were moving around.
Davis: A lot.
Biagi: Did you have any particularly close friends at this time?
Davis: Oh, yes. By the time I got to junior high school, which is that lost time for kids, you know, you're just getting ready to go into your teens, I met another girl who was as lost as me. [Laughter.] A friend who's still a friend to this day named Rosemary Prince. What we had in common is that we both wore glasses and we both loved to read, and we became fast friends and just hardly ever did anything one without the other. It was like having a sister. She lived with her mom; it was just the two of them. Her mother later remarried, but in the beginning of our friendship, it was just Rosemary and her mother. Her mother was just a really wonderful woman.
Biagi: Her mother's name?
Davis: Anna Dean. Absolutely wonderful woman. She was a really good guide for me growing up.
Biagi: In what way?
Davis: Because there was not really much consistency in my life, between my mother, my aunts, my cousins, and so forth. There was always love there from all of them, but it was not like one house, one mom, and all of that. Whereas Anna Dean was a consistent person because of my close friendship with Rosemary, who I saw a lot of.
Biagi: What kinds of ideas did she introduce into your life?
Davis: She was really an education buff, a reading buff, a woman who I just admired because of her ability to listen to all sides, I mean even from teenagers, all sides of things that other parents would just give you an edict and that's it. With her you discussed everything, and I always thought that was really wonderful.
Biagi: Did you visit the library a lot? You say you were a reader.
Davis: Oh, yes. In fact, her daughter is a librarian, so we spent a lot of time in libraries. Our escape was reading about the world, because our world was really pretty small. I mean, our big thing when we were kids was both of us could get passes on the SP [Southern Pacific]. Now, you'd think with getting a free pass to ride anywhere in the world, we'd have done all kinds of things, but the most we ever did was to go to Los Angeles. We'd get a pass and go to Los Angeles to visit her relatives in the summertime. That was a big adventure. But we read about a lot of things.
Biagi: What did you read?
Davis: I don't know. A lot of romance. I tried to find happy things to read about, I can tell you that. Not romance in the way that you talk about it today, sex-based romance, but idyllic romance, people falling in love and being happy and all that. I think, too, that was the mood of the era in which we were growing up, you know, Dad and Mom and the white picket fence and two kids.
Davis: Right. Actually, this was in the forties.
Biagi: You were thirteen when the war ended.
Davis: That's right. Yes. So anyway, I guess I just read a lot of romance stuff. I read a lot of history. Things with a historical setting I loved. A lot of things that had to do with the Spanish history of California or the Spanish flavor. I liked that an awful lot.
Biagi: Who were you living with during your high school years?
Davis: Primarily with my aunt. My mother lived there, too, part of the time.
Biagi: That is on Ashby Avenue [Berkeley, California]?
Biagi: 1649 Ashby Avenue.
Davis: 1649, a house with a blue window. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You've mentioned a Miss Anna.
Davis: That's the same Mrs. Dean, Anna Dean.
Biagi: Okay. And also Oakland Tech.
Davis: My friend went to Oakland Tech.
Biagi: So you didn't go to school together.
Davis: No. We went to junior high together. Then she went to Oakland Tech to high school and I went to Berkeley High. But I went to Oakland Tech during the summers, every summer from the year that I graduated Hoover, every summer I went to Oakland Tech to summer school. Oakland Tech offered summer school to Berkeley school kids, and I didn't need to go to summer school, but it was something so that I had some purpose during the summer.
Biagi: Did you work?
Davis: Yes. I got a job from the time I was about fourteen, I guess, working in the Berkeley Five and Dime, and I worked there till I graduated from high school.
Davis: It was one of those jobs I guess nobody could get hired for today. I had a little dust thing. I used to go around and just dust the merchandise. I started at about fourteen and eventually became a salesgirl.
Biagi: Big job.
Biagi: When you graduated from high school, what did you want to do?
Davis: Of course, I wanted to go to college so bad. I had spent all this time with a double major in high school because I really wanted to go to college.
Biagi: Double major in?
Davis: Business and college prep. Business was because I was counseled properly, "Just in case things don't work out." My teacher sort of knew of my circumstances, divorced parents, living with relatives and so forth. So I took the regular business classes as well as my college prep courses. That's why I talked about English. I took business English as well as—I mean, I had all these classes. As I said, it still didn't do any good.
Biagi: You graduated from high school.
Davis: Yes, and I applied to a lot of different schools. All my friends were going to San Francisco State, so when I got accepted at San Francisco State, god, I was thrilled. The fees were not very much. I don't know, maybe $200 or $300 or maybe a little more than that by the time you add your books and so on. But I couldn't raise the money to go. I took a job, but by the time I got the job, it was late in the summer, working for the federal government, and there just wasn't time to get it all together. My mother was still living with my aunt, and by then she had had a second failed marriage, but with two children who were just ten months apart, and she very much wanted to move out of my aunt's house, and my salary could make that possible. So there was some feeling that I should help out, so we moved into an apartment together with my stepbrother and sister. They were teeny kids.
Biagi: How did you get the job with the federal government?
Davis: I'd taken an exam and got a GS-2 position.
Davis: A clerical position, yes.
Biagi: So you went to work every day, right?
Davis: Right. It was very unhappy. God, terribly unhappy, because I was the only one in my group that was not in college. All my friends were at college. Of course, they were thrilled, freshmen college students. I mean, there was so much going on in their lives. I saw them often, but I was not included in the conversations. I was terribly unhappy. So when my next door neighbor, who I had known and dated off and on all through high school, asked me to marry him, I did.
Biagi: This was what year? And to?
Davis: This is Frank Davis, Jr. I guess that's 1952.
Biagi: How old were you?
Davis: I must have been eighteen.
Biagi: So that would be 1950.
Biagi: Where did you live after you married?
Davis: We moved to Washington, D.C.
Biagi: Because he was in the—
Davis: Air Force. We moved to Washington, D.C.
Biagi: Did you work in Washington?
Davis: Yes. I got a job with the Office of Wage Stabilization. It was an interesting time, my first exposure to the East, my first time even traveling to the East, my first long train ride by myself.
Biagi: Because he was there already?
Davis: Yes. I traveled by myself there. The fact is, right after we got married, I've often tried to remember, but I think it must have been only a day or two later, he left to go back to where he was. It was some months before I traveled to the East Coast, to Washington, and joined him there and got a job and was in Washington when my first, eldest child was born, Steven Eugene.
Biagi: What year was that, and date?
Davis: Steven was born June 15, 1953.
Biagi: You were in D.C. Was your husband still in the air force?
Davis: Yes. We stayed there until he was transferred to Hawaii.
Biagi: When, roughly?
Davis: I was only there about a year, so it was probably a year later.
Biagi: That was to?
Davis: Hickham Air Force Base.
Biagi: Then you stayed home with Steven in Hawaii?
Biagi: You didn't work there?
Davis: No, I didn't. I tried getting jobs there, but it was very hard for offshore people, as they call them, to get work there then. Jobs went to the Hawaiians. So it was very difficult. I couldn't get a job in a dime store.
Biagi: How long did you stay there then?
Davis: I was there probably nearly two years. I had two Christmases there, so it must have been two years.
Biagi: And then you left Hawaii?
Davis: Back to the Bay Area.
Biagi: Was your husband out of the air force by this time?
Davis: Yes, he was discharged, and we moved back to the Bay Area.
Biagi: Back to your original neighborhood?
Davis: No. Well, semi. North Oakland. Started to grow up by now.
Biagi: You had your own house?
Davis: I had my own house, started to grow up, went to driving school to learn to drive.
Biagi: You didn't know how to drive?
Davis: No. And I could tell there was a change going on in my life. There was a real push for independence, I guess. When I put it this way, I realize probably why the marriage fell apart, because I had been willing to be this completely submerged personality, and I married somebody who wanted that kind of a woman. Then I was turning into this other person.
Biagi: And Steven started school, I guess, soon after you came back.
Biagi: Did you go to work?
Davis: Yes, I did.
Davis: I went back to work for the navy and worked for the navy in a unit called Forms and Publications, handling secret weapons for top secret manuals for the naval weapons. I did that for a long time.
Biagi: Where was that job?
Davis: It started at the Treasure Island Naval Base and was later, because it truly was a supply element, the unit was consolidated and transferred to the Oakland Naval Supply Center, and I was right back where I started. That had something to do with my psyche, too.
Biagi: Who was handling child care for you?
Davis: We had somebody who came into the house every day.
Biagi: And after school?
Davis: It was the kind of job where people wait at the door to go home. You're off at four. Nobody's working at four. Everybody's sitting with their handbag, waiting for the four o'clock hour so you can get to punch out. [Laughter.] I think I ended up winning several awards there because I've always been such a workaholic, and I was one of the few people who did not wait by the door to go home, so I ended up winning some awards. That was sort of the norm.
Biagi: You worked there how long?
Davis: I know I worked there till 1959. I don't know when I started, but I know I worked there till '59. The reason I know that is because my daughter was born in 1959, and when I left, it was to go on maternity leave.
Biagi: That's Darolyn.
Biagi: Her exact birth date?
Davis: December 23, 1959.
Biagi: Where is your marriage at this point?
Davis: Dissolving. By now I've pursued some of my interests in writing.
Biagi: In what way did you pursue it?
Davis: I started just submitting articles to all kinds of places. I don't even know. I'd get back tear sheets every now and then. No money, but where things had been published, and they would be enough to encourage me.
Biagi: What kind of subjects were you writing about?
Davis: Anything and everything. Sometimes they were fictional, little short stories, sometimes I wrote about personalities or people that I knew that I thought were interesting. I was just experimenting, and I would submit. I remember once one got published in the San Francisco Shopping News. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You'd just write them and send them off?
Biagi: Did you target any kinds of publications in particular?
Davis: I wasn't smart enough to know what to do about that. I'd see something, get an address, and send it off.
Biagi: So things started getting published.
Davis: Yes, but it was enough to encourage me, to make me think that maybe I could learn to write one day if I kept at it. So I did that at the time when the Johnsons were starting probably the—it is—the most widely circulated black weekly in the world, Jet magazine. I was one of their
first and beginning reporters, and I was called the West Coast stringer. They used to call me the West Coast—I had a name, this great big huge title, but got really no money.
Biagi: How did they find you?
Davis: I found them.
Biagi: Oh, you did?
Davis: Yes. Again, I'm talking about sending stuff. I sent something. I think then it was a story about somebody. Because a lot of the stuff that I used to write for Jet—actually, the way they used it, I don't know if you'd call it writing—they would be little bulletins that would end up sometimes under society, sometimes under art or whatever. I'd send in these little paragraphs and things about people. Later on, that grew to where I was actually contributing writer to Ebony magazine, which was the flagship, and I'd do personality sketches and participate in their top ten bachelors or ten best dressed or whatever their theme was for that month.
Biagi: You were still working at the naval base?
Davis: Yes. In that period of years, I started to write a newspaper social column for a weekly newspaper, a black newspaper called the Bay Area Independent. I had a byline column, and I wrote about all kinds of community news.
Biagi: You bylined with your name?
Biagi: Belva Davis at that point.
Davis: Yes. So all of that stuff was perking, and I was sort of growing up, finally. One day—not one day. It was obvious that my marriage and me weren't working out, so I left.
Biagi: Did you just leave or—
Davis: No. I think I probably read or wrote too much in those days, and I don't even know if this was necessary or if it was just in my own mind it was part of the drama of living, but I had this huge, very complicated master plan for leaving.
Biagi: Which was?
Davis: I had asked for a divorce, and my husband said no and was really very adamant and very threatening about not wanting me to leave. If he ever found my notebook, I'd have probably been killed. I had a plan where I had purchased a car, I had hired a moving company and studied maps of California and done diagrams, and one day he just went off to work and I had the moving vans come and take my things out and left the appropriate things in the note, got in my new car, and just took off, driving California with my two kids.
Biagi: When you say driving California, did you have an itinerary?
Davis: Sort of, yes. I chose places I wanted to see. First I drove to the Monterey, Carmel area, then into the central valley. That's when I found—I called home. I never told my mom where I was, but I'd call to find out, and she'd say he'd hired this—I didn't think this would happen in real life—this detective agency to look us up. I got sort of scared, so then I drove into the central valley, thinking, "Nobody will ever find me in the central valley." So I stayed there and just would move every couple of days.
Biagi: And the money for this trip came from where?
Davis: From my retirement account from the navy. I had also done all of that. Why none of that paperwork ever ended up—I mean, it was really—it was exciting, wondering whether I was going to pull it off. It would probably make a good chapter in a book or something. But anyway, I ended up driving down to Southern California and San Diego. I guess I took a month, six weeks. My logic was to allow his temper to cool down before coming back. I finally came back home, then started out trying to get a real job as a reporter.
Biagi: When you came back home, where did you live?
Davis: I rented an apartment, and the kids and I moved into an apartment.
Biagi: In Oakland?
Davis: In Berkeley. The kids and I moved into the apartment, and I started to job search. Eventually the money started to get thin, so then I registered with a temp employment agency. I was getting a little bit of money from the column, a little bit of money from Jet, but not enough to pay the rent. I still had a little savings, but I at least was smart enough to know not to spend every dime. I just kept applying, applying for radio and newspaper work. Television hadn't entered my sphere at that time.
Biagi: What made you think about radio?
Davis: I was familiar with it, because black radio has a long history. It's very important in the black community, and there are personalities and people that you can have empathy with. It was something that was possible. Television was impossible, because we had no presence outside of Nat King Cole. So, anyway, that's what happened. Eventually I decided, "If I'm going to really learn to write, I'd better do this full time," and started to work full time at the Bay Area Independent as a reporter, and it hardly paid enough for us to—I mean, that was probably one of the poorest times that we ever had.
But I was really fortunate during that period. There was a young Berkeley student who came to work for me as a babysitter. At least one thing, throughout all of this stuff, I guess because of my own history, child care was at the top of my list, so even when I was married and I was working before, I had someone who came to the house every day. Somebody was there. Even when I had no money, I always had somebody who lived with me or came to the house. So, anyway, I had a young gal from Berkeley named Karen Lind, a student, and she was from Redwood City, a blonde, blue-eyed cutie, just had no experience in dealing with any of the problems of black people, but she was just a doll. Still I think so fondly of her and I talk to her occasionally. She became my nurse, a terrific gal. She was really good. My work was so screwy that she often would have to take Dee Dee home with her, the baby, home with her on weekends,
and it caused a real trauma in her life, because here she was off to Berkeley and then she reappears back home and she's got this brown baby. [Laughter.] So it had its cutting edge to it. We laugh and joke about it, the reaction she'd get in Redwood City with this kid on the weekends.
My son traveled with me, my travel companion, in whatever I was doing or where I was going.
Biagi: While you were writing and reporting?
Biagi: He's how old now?
Davis: Goodness gracious.
Biagi: Ten or twelve?
Davis: I don't think he's that old yet. No, he can't be twelve. I don't think so. Maybe he is. No, he's not that old.
Biagi: Because we're not into the early sixties yet. We're in late fifties.
Davis: Yes. A little kid.
Biagi: So it was a full-time job at the newspaper.
Davis: Yes, but I also had other full-time jobs.
Biagi: Such as?
Davis: I didn't have other full-time jobs, but I was doing a radio show by then at KSAN, which was at that time beamed to a black audience. It was called Negro radio. So I was doing a daily radio show, little five-minute segments that were on four times a day, and reading the news out of the afternoon newspapers, and marrying that with original news stories that I had written about the black community. So I would cover events important to the black community and marry together whatever we would fathom out of the newspaper that we thought would be of interest to the audience we were serving.
Biagi: So you're writing for the newspaper and working on the radio station every day, five minutes every day on the radio station?
Davis: Yes. Right.
Biagi: And the paper is a weekly?
Davis: Yes. And working for a weekly paper, anybody who's ever worked for one, means that you do everything on the paper: delivering the copy, proofing the copy, doing the layouts, writing the headlines, doing everything.
Davis: No. That's the one thing my editor did. He knew where to stop. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Did you have a sponsored program on the radio?
Davis: The news was just regular run of the mill. I had no name to program but my own. I was the co-anchor of this little news show.
Biagi: Co-anchor with?
Davis: Herb Campbell.
Biagi: You did those two jobs, at least, for—
Davis: And to fill in when the money got thin, because now I had an apartment and a full-time babysitter to support and kids to feed, I worked, on the hours when I could, temp work.
Davis: Clerical work of some sort. So it was a busy and full life.
Biagi: Where did your break come after KSAN, so to speak?
Davis: I got a call one day. Things got pretty tight there for a while. I took a temp job at Kaiser Permanente, and I was working for a guy named Dr. Raskind, who was their one and only neurosurgeon at the time, and who had been a person that was very high strung, to say the least. I worked with him, and I just came in temporarily, and I got along with him, and they really pleaded with me to stay, "Please stay, please stay." So I ended up, they paid a penalty for hiring me off the temp list, or whatever that is, because you know they make it so complicated for you to do that. I ended up working there full time, but I still had the responsibility of the newspaper.
Biagi: And the radio station?
Davis: Now I had cut back on my KSAN duties, because I knew what I wanted was my own music and personality program. So word sort of drifted around during this period, and I finally got a call from a woman who was the traffic manager at KDIA Radio, who was going to go on maternity leave. Her name was Odessa Broussard now. She's married to the former state Supreme Court justice, Allen Broussard. She was going to go on maternity leave, and maybe she'd come back and maybe she wouldn't, and thought I could learn this job of traffic. If I'd just come in a few evenings a week, she'd teach me and she would make sure they hired me, and if I got that job, then I would be in a position to get myself the radio job. So I took that advice and took that job, and became the traffic manager, and soon was able, through coercion, to get my own show.
Biagi: You'd better be clear about that. What kind of coercion? [Laughter.]
Davis: Well, listen. When you're a one-woman operation, where you schedule all the commercial announcements on a station and you put together all the continuity books all by yourself, you give out all the avails, or time available, to sell to the sales staff, you're pretty powerful when it comes to the sales force. I kept saying, especially to the news guy on the sales force, that, "Things would be really better for you if you could help sell this half-hour show for me, if you could just do this." Of course, a guy who I still love today, Bill Morrison, finally convinced a woman who
owned a drapery company, Beauti-pleat Drapes, to sponsor me in a program, and that's what got me on the air, this one sponsor.
So I started doing a program on Saturdays from ten to noon, I think, and made the most of it by taking my tape recorder out everywhere, doing personality interviews, inviting personalities into the station when I could get them. It was one of the old-fashioned radio stations where the studios were huge, with a grand piano and a stage and all this stuff, where live radio had been king at one time. So it was the old Warner Bros. building where I worked. So I would have people like Horace Silver, the jazz pianist, Mel Torme, all these people would come in to be my guests, and they would perform.
Biagi: On radio.
Davis: On radio. So it became a very popular show, and that popularity led to a five-day-a-week plus the Saturday show.
Biagi: And you gave up your other?
Davis: No, I didn't give up anything.
Biagi: Still at Kaiser?
Davis: Oh, I left Kaiser. I left them and told them I'd be back. I never returned, and I used to get a call about every month or so as to when I was coming back to work, because I didn't know whether she [Odessa Broussard] was going to come back. Of course, her husband is very successful, so she never went back to work. But I was still doing my newspaper stuff and still my Jet stringer stuff. I was still the traffic manager, and I was still doing the radio.
Biagi: And you had a lot of Beauti-pleat drapes.
Davis: Right! [Laughter.] The whole house was done in Beauti-pleat drapes. I entertained all the time a lot of these celebrity friends that I'd meet, incidentally, because I love to cook. In fact, everybody who entertained, it just became like word of mouth. People would come to town that I didn't really know well, and my friends, who I did know, would say, "Call so and so. She can really cook." And most of the time people, in those days, anyway, who were traveling, were eating in restaurants so much, they loved the opportunity for a home-cooked meal. Ours was never like celebrity parties. It was just coming to have dinner with our family and my neighbors next door or something. You could relax. So we had this big reputation for having these parties. [Laughter.]
Biagi: That's great. KDIA is located where?
Davis: In Oakland. At that time it was located in downtown Oakland, down near Lake Merritt.
Biagi: So you really were giving the entertainers an opportunity to promote their shows and promote an audience.
Davis: Yes. I think the unique thing was that my approach to life has been one sort of like you do things and then you think about what you've done. So there was just this real mix of talent. I had Kitty Kallen, who nobody will remember, but used to be a big star, I mean non-black people on this show as often. Not as often, but whenever the opportunity was presented, if it was
somebody that I thought was good, they were guests on the show. So even back then there weren't that many opportunities to go and do live. I had an audience. I was really pioneering. I had an audience that would come on Saturday. We'd serve them lunch afterwards.
Biagi: An audience in the studio?
Davis: In the studio. We'd go live and we'd have lunch. They'd have all of my sponsors' food—Foster Farm chicken and Del Monte cling peaches and Wonder Bread. [Laughter.] Those were the centerpieces of the meal they'd get, anything that anybody on the air—and sponsors loved it. They could do good point of sale photos with people sitting there eating their chicken. The unfortunate part was that I did all the cooking, too! [Laughter.] No catered meals here. They'd give us the product and I'd have to fix it.
Biagi: It was unfortunate because you had to do the work.
Davis: My whole family. I have the world's best husband. I just thank God all the time. I couldn't have dreamed up a better partner, because I would think of all these things, I was always overcommitted, and here's this sweet man, you know, just going along, picking up the slack after me all my life.
Biagi: We haven't even got him in here yet, so you'd better clarify here. Where does Bill come into your life?
Davis: We were not married at that time. We were very close friends.
Biagi: This is Bill Moore.
Davis: Yes. At the beginning of all of this, at the very beginning, but we got married soon after.
Biagi: When did you first meet?
Davis: We met many years before, before my daughter was born. He was the assistant in a photography studio when I'd do all the social news stuff in the Jet magazine thing. There was a photographer named Chuck Willis, who I worked with a lot, and Bill was the assistant. So I met Bill through my association with Chuck Willis. So he was a buddy, always somebody, you know, "I can't get my column to San Francisco. Can you come drive it there? I'm past deadline. I can't get this thing off to Jet. Can you take it out to the airport for me?" He was always the guy who would do you the favor. So soon after I started the radio career, we got married in the midst of all that.
We decided we were going to get married. We did take one afternoon to go to Martinez to get a wedding license, because we didn't want anybody to know what we were doing. We hung onto it for almost three months. Then the day that I was doing something and I looked at the date, we realized that the marriage license was going to expire, and he called up in midday, and I said, "This thing is going to expire today. What do you want to do?" He said, "I don't know. What do you want to do? Do you want to get married today?"
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Davis: He said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "Well, you know, I wanted to always go to Carmel." I said, "What can we do?" Because we used to have spots on the air for the Highlands Inn,
and so I called them up and said, "Gee, we'd like to get married there." They said, "Okay. In the chapel? When?" I said, "Sometime after nine o'clock tonight," because I had to finish my work day. I couldn't leave, because there would be nobody to do the logs and so on. So I called my friend Rosemary and said, "Look. Can you drive up to Carmel with us?" And another friend, named Ralph Jones, "Could you be best man?" So we got into this little VW [Volkswagen] of Bill's. Can you imagine four people driving a VW?
Biagi: A bug!
Davis: A bug, driving, crammed in this thing. We drove over from the East Bay, got as far as San Francisco, and decided we needed to have bachelor parties, so we went off South Market. You know how romantic this is. We found some ratty bars, and Ralph and Bill went in and chugged down a drink, and Rosemary and I had a Coke. We got back in the car and we headed for Carmel. We got there and we met this funny little preacher who had this driver's license, and we had this tape of wedding music, and then we remembered something important. There were no flowers, so we went out in the yard of the Carmel Highlands Inn, and Bill cut some flowers from some tree branches and made a bouquet for me. [Laughter.] And we got married, and he brought along his camera with his little tripod and put it on time delay, and the four of us stood like four Quakers, stiff as a board, for this wedding picture. We then drove home, and he went home to his house and I went home to my house, because we were both really busy. [Laughter.]
Biagi: And the date is?
Davis: We got married in 1963. When we got married is the question. [Laughter.] We actually celebrated the wrong date for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, because I still don't know when we got married! But I know it will be thirty years next year, so count back from there.
Biagi: By the years.
Biagi: Do you have a month?
Davis: That's the confusing part. We're not sure whether it's June or July, and I think that's what was a mistake before, because my friend, Rosemary, got married one day apart from our wedding day, but I always get her month and my month mixed up. She got married like a year later. Anyway, I still am not sure. I know we'll be married thirty years next year. Anyway, funny beginning, but a good outcome.
Biagi: We'll stop here.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Belva, tell me about your assignment now at KRON, exactly what you're doing there.
Davis: I'm at an interlude. I've just finished coverage of the election of 1992, which for me was one of the most exciting periods of my career. It was exciting because of the fact that a topic that I thought was going to bloom many years earlier finally, finally the blossoms came out, and that was that I covered the Year of the Woman in Politics. It's something that I had been projecting would happen in prior election years, and it finally happened in 1992.
So at this period I'm doing clean-up from the election, looking forward to going to the inauguration in Washington—it will be my first—and then coming back and sort of reassessing what I'd like to do from here on in. I know that my interest is varied, but at the bottom of all of it, generally it's about the kinds of stories that attract me or ones in which I can somehow help people who don't have a voice somehow find it. That's a very broad way of putting it, and that means programs and people.
For instance, the stories I've lined up so far are stories about developmentally disabled people who are fighting their way into the workforce, the new laws that give them the ability to push folks into doing things. So that's a story I'll do next Monday. The second story I'm doing is about a couple of young African-American guys who have gone into the manufacturing business, someplace that blacks have not much of a track record. We've not been manufacturers of anything; mostly we've been in the consuming side of the business world. So I'll do that, because I think it's a new trend, and hope that it will give encouragement to others to step out there.
So I don't know what I'm going to call what I'm doing, but I still have the same title of urban affairs specialist for KRON, and with the privilege of trying to develop that into something that I can find some gratification doing.
Biagi: When you think about your career in journalism, can you talk to me a little bit about why you got into the business and why you think what you do is important?
Davis: I got into it because, of course, I'm a woman and a minority. Both of those labels would say that I was on the side of the powerless. I think because of race, first, and gender, second, I just felt that a large segment of our society simply wasn't being heard.
Why I decided I should be a messenger is different, is something more complex than I can explain here, but it was the motivating reason. I just felt that we need to hear from all elements of the American society, and certainly I knew a lot about what black people were saying to each
other, because I started out working in the black press and in black radio. But that also put me in a position to note that there was very little exchanging of news from the two communities, because I had to move often between the two worlds to do what I was doing. So I just wanted to be part of the learning process as we got to know one another.
Biagi: In the Bay Area, where you grew up, you didn't really grow up in an area that was either white or black, really; there was a mixture of people there. Do you think that had something to do with it—growing up in Oakland and Berkeley?
Davis: Oh, I definitely do. I tried to think about how are people who are not African-American, who were important in my life as a youngster, who might make me feel the way I do about this whole business of everybody being the same, basically, and I have to say that basically it was my teachers. I cannot remember ever having an African-American as a teacher, except when I was a very small pre-schooler. I cannot remember.
Biagi: Who was your favorite teacher?
Davis: I guess the one who will live with me forever was a woman who was head of our P.E. department at Berkeley High, a woman named Miss Intz, because she was there through some pretty tough adolescent years, sort of took a liking to me, and visited my home, paid for my bowling, stood as a champion to withdraw our bowling league from the place where we bowled because they would not allow me to practice except with the school. She just canceled the whole league. She was truly a warrior. I will never forget her.
Biagi: Why wouldn't they allow you to practice?
Davis: Because I was black. Blacks were not allowed to bowl at the Berkeley Bowl. I was allowed to bowl there with the Berkeley High team as long as I was with the team, but I couldn't come back and practice. The way that she found out about it is she came by my house one day to talk with me about continuing, because I was doubtful that I could continue, because I didn't have the money to pay, and she came by to talk with me and my mother. She saw me in the driveway. We lived on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley. I was out there practicing my bowling with a can of Del Monte string beans, rolling it down the concrete driveway.
She said, "What are you doing?"
I said, "I'm practicing."
She said, "Well, let me help you out and I'll make arrangements so you can go and you can practice at the alley."
I said, "Well, they don't allow me to bowl there when I'm not with you."
Biagi: When she pulled the team after that?
Davis: Yes. She tried to negotiate it. They didn't want to cooperate, so she got the principal somehow to write to them and say that there would be no more Berkeley students there.
Biagi: You just went back to Berkeley High this year and talked at commencement.
Biagi: What did you tell the students who are graduating this year?
Davis: Mostly I told them I'd be short with my address. [Laughter.] I promised them. I started out by saying, "I promise not to talk longer than eight minutes."
Biagi: [Laughter.] Was there a cheer?
Davis: Sort of a sigh of relief. But I guess I wanted to let them know that Berkeley had not always been the place that they know today, that it, too, had developed and changed, and that the Berkeley High that they know was certainly not the school that I attended.
Biagi: How is the school different now from when you attended it?
Davis: There were very few minority students. That's the only high school in all of Berkeley, and there were very few blacks that lived in Berkeley. I think in a school student body of maybe three thousand or more, there maybe were two hundred black kids, which is a lot compared to some places at that time, but it wasn't very much when you scatter it through all of the grades. There were very few in my class.
Biagi: That would have been what year?
Davis: In 1951.
Biagi: So compared to today, what should the graduates of 1992 think about?
Davis: I just tried to inspire them to realize the advantages they had, the struggles they didn't have to fight. Therefore, they needed to do their best because they were not having to pay a lot of dues for things that had nothing to do with their skills and abilities. They could be successful just by exercising their options to use what they had and to have ambitions to do. They weren't fighting the kind of racial barriers that I have been up against, in addition to trying to be a fairly good student in a very competitive society there at Berkeley at that time.
Biagi: Also within the last week, you said that you had gone to the screening of the "Malcolm X" movie.* Does that make you think about the past a lot?
Davis: Oh, boy, did it make me think.
Biagi: Did you have any back thoughts?
Davis: It made me think a lot about the past, because as I watched the movie, Denzel Washington is so good, in my mind I could really see Malcolm X again, and I started to feel some of the apprehension and almost fear I used to feel in his presence. He just really did frighten you, and he had these eyes that were just so piercing.
After the film was over—and I sort of had decided this because I remember the book well—is that the lesson that Malcolm X taught then, and should be teaching students now, is that we all can change and we all can evolve. We don't ever have to be what we were yesterday;
* Malcolm X, a black-nationalist leader, was shot to death at a Harlem rally in New York City on
February 21, 1965. The movie "Malcolm X" was released in late 1992.
we can be something else tomorrow, and we can be better tomorrow. It was all of that. If students somehow can get even part of that out of this whole spectacle around the filming and its opening and so on, it will be worth every printed word. So it just reminded me that I had lived through an era and had personally known a man who had remade himself, and whose images and thoughts had as much validity today—that is, the thoughts that I liked. There were lots of things he said that I disagreed with at the time. I think I can remember being one of those doubtful as to whether he would stay the course of being the good guy that he was presenting himself to be then because of his past deeds.
I remember the conflict within the black community itself, of those who criticized him severely, and even was reminded during all this by a teacher who was teaching a course on Malcolm X about as late as 1974, she had lost her job for teaching about him at McClymonds High, a predominantly black school in Oakland. So I just think it reminded me a lot of what life is really all about, and that's evolving.
Biagi: Tell me about that encounter that you talked to me about before, really, with Malcolm X.
Davis: It certainly reminded me of that. I met him at a time when I was working for a black weekly newspaper, but it was a black weekly newspaper with a white editor. Our editor was a guy that was very important in my own development, a former Associated Press (AP) reporter who had spent years in the Far East, and, as some writers of that era, developed a real problem with alcohol, came back to this country, couldn't get a job anywhere else, so he ended up editing a black weekly paper.
Well, Malcolm X was going through this period of his life when all whites were devils and we shouldn't talk to them, we shouldn't associate with them, and so on. But he wanted to communicate with the black community, so he often was in the Bay Area because he was establishing a mosque here. He'd come to the paper, and he needed to explain what he wanted in the paper, but since he didn't talk to whites, he needed an interpreter, and I was the only staff person, so I would come to the desk when he'd bring his copy. My editor's name was Darryl Lewis. He would stand and he'd say to me, "Say to this man that I want such and such," and I would turn to Darryl and I'd say, "He said to tell you such and such." And Darryl would say, "Well, tell him I can (or I can't) do that." And I would say, "He said he can (or he can't) do that." [Laughter.] And we'd go through this on Monday mornings as he'd drop off his copy.
Biagi: So you were the go-between.
Biagi: But if you hadn't been there, would the story have gotten in the paper, do you think?
Davis: I don't know what would have happened. I imagine someone would have appeared who was black, who would have become the interpreter, but it just happened to fall to me that I would play the part at this very key period in his life.
Biagi: Let's go back to your life and the early parts of it. It starts in Louisiana, if I remember right. Talk to me about your mother and your father. Describe them to me.
Davis: My mother grew up in a small town outside of the big city where I was born, of Monroe, Louisiana, and my father also. My father was born in Mississippi, and my mother in Louisiana, but in a small town. They settled in the city of Monroe, which is a big city in Louisiana.
I was born to a teenage mom who married much too young, not equipped or ready to take care of a child. So I ended up living with any number of relatives as I grew up, and watched them go through a very difficult and turbulent marriage, and basically spent a pretty strange and lonely childhood.
Biagi: Did your mother work all the time you were growing up?
Davis: Yes. Oh, yes, my mother worked. Everybody in my family worked.
Biagi: And your father?
Davis: And my father. My father was the big guy around town. Monroe was a big lumber town. That was one of the big industries. My dad was one of the few people who really knew how to operate the heavy machinery, and even though he never finished grammar school, he taught himself to read. My dad taught himself to read by reading encyclopedias. So he was a high-wage earner during the Depression years of the thirties, because he was a supervisor in the sawmills in Louisiana. Everybody else in my family, the women worked in the laundry, the men worked in the sawmills or the packing plants there.
Biagi: And your mother?
Davis: My mother worked in the laundry along with her sister and our cousins, and they all worked in the same places.
Biagi: When you talk about that family in Monroe, how many people were there all around there, roughly? Just name a few of them, characters in your life.
Davis: My mother was one of three daughters, and so my early years were spent with the middle sister, and I lived with her until she died. She died of tuberculosis when I was a baby. So then I came to live with my mother and her older sister. Then my father had two sisters. At various times—this is a mosaic that I cannot describe because I was quite young then, but there were always people either moving in or moving out. But there were always lots of people. Sometimes I was moving in and then moving out.
Biagi: A big house, little house?
Davis: I tried to think about it, whether it was big or little. I can remember that it was what they call in the South a shotgun house. The reason they call it that is because if you stand at the door, all of the rooms, you could shoot a shotgun, it would go straight through it. So there were rooms after rooms, but I have no concept of whether it was big or little.
Biagi: Two story, one story?
Davis: One story. It must have had a lot of different rooms to it, the best that I can recall, but it was not the situation—as I grew up, I never, as a child, ever had a room. I don't remember even as a child ever having a bed. I remember living in different places. I was sort of portable. [Laughter.] So I'd sleep on the floor wherever I was, whichever relative I was with. So my childhood is really mumble-jumble mosaic, probably out of just protection of not having to deal with it.
Biagi: Then at what time did you leave Louisiana to come here, and why did your family leave?
Davis: My uncle, who was quite a character, who I remember now fondly, but who—oh, my god, I used to have some pretty outrageous thoughts about as I was growing up, he was such a little character. But my Uncle Ezra was just a feisty little guy, and he worked at a meat packing company. He'd had an accident. He was lifting a side of beef or something and he'd hurt his back. He did something in that time in the thirties that black people just don't do; he had sued his employer. The amazing thing to me is I know that his lawyer was white, but I've never figured out why this guy took the case, but he did. And so my uncle sued and he won. I guess there was great glee and joy in the whole town, and that was the talk of the town. But I do remember that the guy—either I remember or I was told; I don't know which it is at this point—that the lawyer told my uncle that, as was the practice in those days in the South, that he was going to be made an example of, and he'd better get out of town.
Biagi: What would that mean, to be made an example of?
Davis: They said he was going to be tarred and feathered. So my dad and my uncle and some other relatives left Louisiana, and they got, I think, as far as—I don't know. I think they left on a freight train. They ended up eventually getting in a car, and to get to California they really drove, but they left there because of the need to get out secretly on a freight train.
Biagi: Did that just happen suddenly? Was your father just leaving?
Davis: Yes. [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: Let's get you out of Louisiana now. Your father is with your uncle, driving a car.
Davis: Yes, and several other men. I don't know who all happened to go. It was a group of them. They all left together.
Biagi: Did your mother just come to you one night and say, "Your father is leaving"? How did that come about, do you remember?
Davis: No. Whatever happened, I mean, I don't think anybody ever said anything. Everyone was very excited, and the women were all cheerful. "What to do? What to do?" was it. They didn't know quite what to do.
Biagi: How old were you then?
Davis: I was maybe four or five, something like that.
Biagi: And they just were suddenly gone, and they were going to California. Did they have California as a destination?
Davis: I don't know, because everything happened in stages. I mean, this is Louisiana of many years ago. Parenting was not high on the list of things that people knew a lot about. So I just know that the men left. Then the women left. Then we were sent, my brother and I, to Arkansas, to live with a set of grandparents there. Eventually my father came.
Biagi: Your father's parents in Arkansas?
Davis: Yes, my father's dad and his stepmother. So we lived there. Then we eventually ended up in California.
Biagi: On a train did you get to California?
Davis: Yes, we came out on the train with my dad. Trains and transportation were still segregated back then. I don't remember a lot about it except having to sit on a suitcase in the aisle for part of the trip. I thought that was a great adventure.
Biagi: Oh, sure.
Davis: I remember the train being crowded. That's about my big memories of the train ride. It took days.
Biagi: So your first memory of California is what?
Davis: Going to school in California. That was absolutely terrifying, because up to now I had been totally in black surroundings. I had never been anyplace where there were large numbers of whites. So this was really something, and I didn't know how to react. Plus I had the southern accent that I was bound to have, having just come from Louisiana.
I also remember coming into West Oakland, where the whites who lived there were not exactly happy to see us, coming into a school system where the teachers didn't know what to do with us, with names and accents that they didn't know how to absorb, and really being made to feel less than as we started out. My parents named me Belvagene for my grandfather, whose name was Eugene. My name was spelled B-E-L-V-A G-E-N-E. I can remember whatever grade I was in, them telling me that I had to change my name because Gene was masculine. If my name was Gene, it had to be J-E-A-N. I do remember I was tenacious then, and I said, "This is my name. This is my name." And I refused to change it. But my mother did change her name.
Biagi: She did?
Davis: Because my mother's name was Florene, and she was told, when she started work for the Southern Pacific, there was no such name as Florene, that the name was Florence. My mother changed her name to Florence. I mean, we were pretty put upon, you know, blacks coming from the South to California in those early days.
Biagi: You were not coming to a settlement, either, of a lot of black people in Oakland at that time, is that right?
Davis: That's right.
Biagi: In West Oakland, is that right?
Biagi: Because there were communities of blacks settling in East Oakland, weren't there, at that time?
Davis: In Berkeley. There was a good group of people in Berkeley, and in North Oakland there were a few people. I guess in West Oakland. There were little pockets. The blacks that moved to East Oakland did not come till much later. When they built some new housing out by Ninety-Eighth Avenue is when people started to move to East Oakland.
Biagi: So your days at school, you were a good student?
Davis: I was a pretty good student, yes. That's the solace when you don't know what else to do. [Laughter.] You take to reading and studying. So that's what I did.
Biagi: Did you have any particular good friends in grammar school?
Davis: I don't remember any.
Biagi: So when you wanted to read, how would you get the books?
Davis: School library. Eventually I learned where the community library was, because everybody in the family worked, so you had to take care of yourself after school, and you had to find something to do. We didn't live in a very attractive place. We lived in an unfinished basement, so it wasn't anyplace you wanted to be. So I'd sit on the steps. We lived in an old Victorian, in the basement of this old Victorian, so I'd get books and just sit on the steps and read in the afternoon.
Biagi: Describe the basement for me a little bit.
Davis: Well, it was just what I said, an unfinished basement, dirt in many of the areas. You know, just as a basement is dug out. My family would put sheets or old chenille bedspreads over the walls to cover that part of it. We had a kerosene stove that probably was very unhealthy, not adequate lighting, and eleven people living there.
Biagi: For how long were you in that basement?
Davis: It seems like forever. I don't know. Certainly a school year.
Biagi: Then you moved upstairs, or did you move to another place?
Davis: No. My aunt moved to Alameda, and I moved with her for a while.
Biagi: Did you change schools?
Davis: Yes. I didn't change schools right away, though. I did that a lot during my life, where I'd be going to school in one city and living in another. So for one year I stayed at Prescott in Oakland, took the bus from Alameda, and then eventually I started going to school in Alameda. Alameda at that time was not a very hospitable place for blacks. It had a reputation of being very racist and its schools being very racist and very difficult for black students. So there was some hesitation about whether I should go to school in Alameda.
Biagi: This was roughly what year?
Davis: World War II.
Biagi: And Alameda was being built up because of the naval air station there.
Davis: Yes, and they hated it.
Biagi: Hated the building?
Davis: The influx of people going into the projects.
Biagi: Is that where you went?
Davis: Yes. They disliked us very much.
Biagi: So then did you go to school in Alameda?
Davis: Yes. Half-day. All schools were half-day.
Biagi: Because of the war?
Biagi: When you went to junior high, did you get yourself any special friends? Did you find a special friend?
Davis: Yes. That's when I made the friend of my life [Rosemary Prince], the very first best friend of my life, who is still my best friend, and that was starting on enrollment day at Hoover Junior High School.
Biagi: How did you meet?
Davis: I think because we both looked scared to death and we both wore glasses. [Laughter.] We were the two funny-looking kids. It seemed like the only thing we could do is migrate toward each other. I believe—and this may be because I was told this by my friend's mom, but I think her mother said to her, because she was hesitant about her glasses, too, "Here, Rosemary. Here's another little girl with glasses. See, it's not so bad." [Laughter.]
Biagi: [Laughter.] So you helped each other. That's great.
Davis: I mean, nobody wants to start seventh grade with glasses.
Biagi: So why is Rosemary important in your life?
Davis: I think she and her mother served as sort of a turning point in my life. Even though her mom was a single mom, as my mother eventually did, of course, her mother was one of the first black women that I was close to who had gone to college. And that made a difference in her thoughts and her attitudes about child-raising. I sort of became an addition to their family.
Biagi: Did you spend a lot of time there?
Davis: A lot of time.
Biagi: Why did her mother particularly play such an important role?
Davis: I think that she was the first adult that really sat down and just talked to me, explained things in detail.
Biagi: Did she have a lot of interests?
Davis: Yes, an awful lot. She is a person who believes that if she can help you experience something and it's not bad for you, then she—even today with her grandson, she's the same way—she should help do that. So if we wanted to go to a movie or go to a concert or do whatever, she would take us, whereas my mother's tendency mostly was to say, "You shouldn't do that. You can't go." Not because she was mean, but that was the way she was brought up, and that's the way she passed it on.
Biagi: So Rosemary's mother would take you to concerts and things like that, even though she was working. So you'd go in the evenings and weekends, things like that?
Biagi: Did she ever take you to the library?
Davis: Oh, yes. In fact, Rosemary became a librarian. [Laughter.] She is a librarian.
Biagi: That's a good friend to have.
Davis: So that common denominator stayed with us.
Biagi: So then Rosemary's relationship—she went to high school with you?
Davis: We went to junior high together. By the time I was in junior high, I was going to junior high in Oakland.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Davis: So by the time I graduated, again a decision: if you're living in Berkeley, you should probably go to Berkeley High School. So I did. Rosemary was living in Oakland, so she went to Oakland Tech.
Biagi: But you still saw each other?
Davis: Oh, yes, and we talked on the phone.
Biagi: At this time in your life, what role is the church playing in your life—community church?
Davis: All the way through, the church has been important, because I came from a family of Baptist preachers, a godfather who was a preacher. We used to attend his church, so we had lots of activities. They had programs on Sunday, the Baptist Youth something. So we'd go to church in the morning at eleven, we'd do that, they'd have a three 'clock program, and at five o'clock they'd have the youth thing, and at seven o'clock they'd have the evening services. So you just sort of stayed in church and you socialized around that all day, almost. Then you had choir practices on other nights. So the church was very much a social center.
Biagi: Did you sing?
Davis: I tried. [Laughter.] I tried, but I was never very good.
Biagi: You graduated from Berkeley High in '51. Then what were your choices?
Davis: I grew up with this sense of uncertainty about my life, so I went to summer school every year while I was in high school, and eventually graduated with a double major—business—in case I had to get a job typing, which I was never very good at, but I took it anyway, and an academic major so I could go on to college. I applied and got accepted, but then even with the meager fees that were required back then, there was just not enough money for me to go.
Biagi: [University of California] Berkeley was essentially down the street, so to speak, really.
Davis: There was no chance. I was accepted at State, where all of my friends were going.
Biagi: San Francisco State?
Davis: San Francisco State. I thought I was going to be going there, but the $200 or the $400 that I needed for books and fees just wasn't there, so I took a job. Always being one for thinking ahead, I had taken a civil service exam, and I had passed, so I was a GS-2, clerk-typist. So I started out working.
Biagi: Where your mother worked, didn't you?
Biagi: My dad worked at the Naval Supply Center. My dad had been a carpenter at the Naval Supply Center, so he knew the ropes there about how you go about applying. So I got a job there. But all my friends were in college, and they were all pledging sororities and doing all of these things, and I never felt so lonely in my life, because they were people I had grown up with through the junior high and high school years.
Biagi: You were living at home with your mom at this point?
Davis: Yes, with a number of people, again. We were living at my aunt's house, and by then my mother had married. My mother and father had divorced, and my mother had married again. She now had two more children by her second marriage, so we were all living together. So I decided to get married.
Biagi: You just decided that one day?
Davis: Just decided.
Biagi: [Laughter.] It's not quite that simple, is it?
Davis: The guy that lived next door to me, who was the only person I'd ever gone out with, number one, which was really pretty sad—very sad.
Biagi: Were you still wearing the glasses now?
Davis: Yes. He lived next door, and that's the only person I dated. He had gone into the military. It was his senior year in college, and I don't know why, except maybe he was drafted. I don't know. Maybe he was going to be drafted, so he went. I'm not sure why he went in, but he did. He went in the air force. So I got married, and then I moved to Washington, D.C.
Biagi: Where your son was born.
Davis: Yes. I lived there for a while, and then we were transferred to Hawaii, lived there for a while, and came back home. It was at that point that I think I finally started to grow up.
Biagi: This is in the fifties. Mid-fifties.
Davis: Yes. I finally started to grow up.
Biagi: Your daughter was not born yet.
Davis: My daughter was not born yet. I started to grow up, because I started to think about what I wanted to do with my life.
Biagi: Do you remember a moment in which you made a conscious decision about what you wanted to do?
Davis: Not the day or the week or any of that, but I think part of it was that I—I told you about my love of reading. I had always kept long diaries. So I decided I wanted to write. I met a photographer who was taking photographs. Johnson Publication was just starting its Jet magazine and its publishing empire then, and needed someone to write the cut lines and cut new stories for that. So I started gathering information and sending off with these photographs, and by doing that, I became a phone pal of one of the editors of Johnson Publication. He thought I had possibilities as a writer and wouldn't pay me, but would spend a lot of time cultivating this little seed. I kept getting bigger and bigger assignments.
Biagi: You're still working full time, aren't you?
Davis: Still working full time. So then this interest led me to getting a part-time job with a black weekly paper, and so now I'm working my full-time government job and I'm contributing to the Johnson paper and I'm doing a weekly column at this newspaper. I could see that what I enjoyed was the writing and all of that, and eventually decided I was going to try to do that, and also decided that the marriage was never made in heaven.
My choice wasn't the kind of guy that I would have picked as an adult for myself, but was not the kind of guy who would say, "Okay, you can have an easy divorce, and let's go our separate ways." So we had a very strange and mysterious parting, and I left.
I came back and quit my government job and became a temp worker, and kept doing these part-time jobs that I enjoyed. They paid very little or no money. And eventually worked my way into doing four or five part-time jobs, enough to take care of—the same year I made this decision, which, incidentally, was very, very smart of me, was the same year my daughter was born. So when I left the marriage, she was maybe two months old.
Biagi: You didn't leave it in the conventional way.
Davis: No. [Tape interruption.] This must have come from some of the books that I was reading then. It must have come from some intrigue novel that I'd put together. I had tried to work out some arrangements with my ex, and he just said that he was never going to allow me to get a divorce, and he was rather threatening about it. So I had this grand scheme that I put together with this two-month-old child and a six-year-old, who had to keep the secret. I arranged for a moving company to come after my husband (at that time) left for work. A moving van came, emptied the house of all of the things that I wanted. I left him the essentials.
I had purchased a car, which I went down to pick up that day. They had a certain amount of time that they could get things out of the house, and I piled the children and the essentials in the car, and we just became vagabonds for about a month while my ex hired detectives to look for us. It was really intriguing. That should be a little book right there. So we traveled California and we lived in small hotels and motels up and down the state. [Tape interruption.]
So anyway, we just took off, and I really didn't have a destination. I found a AAA and got maps and all of this. I think we felt the safest in the central valley. We'd find cheap little motels and we'd stay there. I always wonder what kind of scars this left on my son. I don't know if he ever knew what was happening. But I remember they didn't have car seats like today, and the car seat for my daughter was sort of like a basket that was denim collapsible. I wasn't a very good driver. This was also part of the scheme. I had paid for driving lessons along the way. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Unbeknownst to your husband? He didn't know?
Davis: Oh, no, he knew I was taking the driving lessons. So I can remember stopping too fast and the baby careening, and my son getting hysterical because she'd scream. Oh, dear.
His payoff was that we ended up in Southern California. I guess we ended up in Los Angeles. There was some treat he wanted in Southern California, and that was it. "If you're good, we'll do this."
Biagi: So you came back?
Davis: We came back. I took an apartment and signed up with a temp agency, and worked clerical temporarily and started back working full time at the Bay Area Independent newspaper, and working part time at a small radio station, continuing to contribute weekly to Jet magazine, and took care of my two children, but with some trepidation, because my ex-husband was always threatening us. Then he finally took me to court to try to win custody of the children. That was a big moment. I think I grew up a lot during that process.
Biagi: So when you think about that period, I think today people who would see you reporting would say, "It must have been easy for her to start out in the business."
Davis: Oh! [Laughter.]
Biagi: What would you say to those people?
Davis: They should spend an evening trying to explain to a seven-year-old why having tomatoes—only—for dinner on the third night was a wonderful thing because it had lots of vitamin C. [Laughter.]
This is a funny period. I had another friend of mine who was a mother of five and trying to make it on her own, again in media. Our salvation was at least she had a house and was smart enough to have planted a garden. There was one period when we were both so poor and we were both so proud, neither of us would go to our parents for money, or friends, and we just tried to make it on our own. Actually, at the end of one pay period, we got down for three days where all we had were tomatoes from her garden to feed the youngsters, outside of—we had bread and milk.
Biagi: But no meat.
Davis: No. We fried them, stewed them, juiced them. [Laughter.]
Biagi: It doesn't seem to have hurt you a whole lot.
Biagi: What do you think about tomatoes today?
Davis: I love them! They were our salvation, and they were healthy. We took the green ones. We were both from Louisiana, and we put cornmeal and something on them, and we'd pan-fry them so that they looked like little patties. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Steak. That's why they call it a steak tomato. [Laughter.] So it wasn't easy.
Davis: No, it was not easy. But I don't remember thinking of it as hard. I really don't. I don't remember thinking of it as difficult. Well, difficult, maybe—yes. Trying, maybe—yes. Challenging would probably be a better word, to figure out how to make it all work.
Biagi: So what came up next to help you out here?
Davis: Getting the radio job was really helpful, because it opened a whole new door outside of print, and I found that radio paid a little bit more.
Biagi: Tell me your moniker. What was your moniker on radio?
Davis: I didn't ever assume one of those names. In fact, I got some advice early on in my career, because I came into radio at a time when everybody had a name. There was a guy I worked with named "Jumping George" Oxford, and he worked at the station and was the number-one deejay at this station, KSAN-San Francisco, where I worked. He wanted to change stations to KDIA, where I eventually ended up. He got into a big legal battle with the owners of the station as to who owned his name, and ended up, they owned his name.
Biagi: So what did he become?
Davis: He had to take his own name then. He became George Oxford. He had been "Jumping George" before that. Well, anyway, out of all that, a fellow who had worked with him told me never use any name except my own, because otherwise what would I do when I went to my next job?
Biagi: So you were—
Davis: I learned my lesson. So I had "The Belva Davis Show." That was my show.
Biagi: What did "The Belva Davis Show" consist of?
Davis: It was an invention of the times. [Laughter.] I had so many interests. The Saturday shows probably came from my early days in the movies of what I thought a radio show ought to be through looking at Hollywood's interpretation of what a radio show should be. I'm sure that I must have looked at movies that had shows like this, because it was certainly an imitation of
something that came from I don't know where. But the Saturday shows were luncheon shows with live guests, with a grand piano in the studio, and I'd have artists that were appearing in town—Mel Torme, Horace Silver. Whoever was in town who was silly enough to come over to Oakland on a Saturday morning at eleven o'clock would be my guest. I had studio audience. I would have lunch that I would fix myself. The products would come from the people who were advertising on my program.
Biagi: So the products were—
Davis: One of the tools of selling my show was that you'd get this great marketing tool by having your products served to the listening audience. So I had Foster Farms chicken, so we had fried chicken. Del Monte Foods, so we'd have cling peaches. Fried chicken and the peaches. Wonder Bread, so we'd have sliced Wonder Bread. [Laughter.] I can't remember what else, but there was something else that went with this. Mostly whoever was advertising on the show, I'd fix all the stuff, and we'd have this big spread.
Biagi: It was about lunchtime?
Davis: Yes. The show was on the air from eleven to twelve, so we'd do the program. I'd play records. Then we'd have a live guest on. Sometimes the guest would perform. You'd spin out the records, and then when it was over, we'd all have lunch.
Biagi: Which you'd cooked.
Davis: Of course, I've never had a job that was just my job. My jobs were always my family's job.
Biagi: So what did this mean?
Davis: My poor husband! He has had to do everything.
Biagi: This is a new husband.
Davis: My husband of thirty years. He really was the change agent in my life. He was the guy that taught me that men could be compassionate, sympathetic. All of the things the macho image of men in those days were not, he was. Just a marvelous, sensitive human being. He played a great role in all of this development from the time when I was pregnant with my daughter, before my divorce, my messenger for getting my columns and my materials mailed, picking up loose ends for me. He was my best friend all during those years. Of course, I went off and dated all kinds of other people in between, because he was only my buddy. But eventually I got smart because of Nancy Wilson, the singer.
Davis: We used to work together a lot. He was my still photographer. I'm rambling again.
Biagi: That's okay. We'll get back to the fried chicken. [Laughter.]
Biagi: One day I was doing this show with Nancy, the second time around, I think, and we came in and he was taking the pictures. Nancy says, "Gosh, this guy's so nice. Why don't you marry this guy? Why are you going around with all these drummers and all these musicians for?
You don't want to marry any of those guys." [Laughter.] And she sort of planted the seed. Eventually I got wise, and I married him.
Biagi: Wasn't this kind of a tradeoff, too? Wasn't this a trade down in Carmel when you got married?
Davis: We decided we were going to get married, but we didn't know when. We were both real busy building careers and all this. So we got a marriage license. One day he called up, and one of us said, "You know, we've had that marriage license." I don't know how long it was. We'd paid our three dollars, which is a big joke, because I paid the three dollars, so he always tells me that I paid to marry him. But anyway, we said, "This marriage license is going to expire today." So we said, "What do we do about it?"
He said, "Well, do you want to get married today?"
I said, "I suppose so. What do you think? I've got to finish the logs," because I was the traffic manager for the radio station. I couldn't go without tomorrow's logs.
So he said, "Okay. Then when you get through tonight, let's call some friends and let's see what we can do."
So I did. After work I went to Rosemary, my best friend, borrowed a suit and a hat from her, and we got in our friend Ralph Jones' Volkswagen bug, and we started out. I had called that day, because I had always heard these dream things about the Highlands Inn in Carmel, and I wanted to be married at the Highlands Inn. [Laughter.] So we get into this little VW and we decide we're going to go to Carmel. So I called there and tell them I want to get married, and they said they'd arrange for a minister. We stopped off at South Market and we had our bachelor party at some bar on South Market, and we drove to Carmel.
We got there, and there was a strange little minister there, and he had a little record of the wedding music. My husband brought along a still camera that he put on a tripod with slow shutter speed, and so we played this thing. Finally, Rosemary said, "What are you going to do? You don't have any flowers."
Bill said, "They've got plenty of them out in the garden." So in the middle of this—this is quite late in the evening—he cut flowers at the Highlands Inn, and he gave them to me. So we were married by the guy whose name I still don't know. [Laughter.] We stood together like a Norman Rockwell painting and had our wedding done, and then we drove home.
Biagi: You took your own wedding pictures.
Davis: Took our own wedding pictures. We drove home. He dropped me off at my house and he went home. [Laughter.]
Biagi: This is a great honeymoon! [Laughter.]
Davis: We hadn't told anybody that we were getting married. We thought we should wait till the next day to tell the kids. [Laughter.] So that was the beginning of thirty years of a wonderful marriage.
Biagi: So you say his support has been very important in your career.
Davis: Very important.
Davis: It wouldn't have happened without him. I don't think you could have done what I did in those days without somebody who was there to hold your hand and support you and love you through the scary moments.
Biagi: What was the scariest moment?
Davis: Oh, my god, is there one moment that I can distinguish? There were so many. You're talking about somebody here who knew nothing—no training in journalism, no training in broadcasting, no training in anything, who keeps stepping up one step higher, feeling as though you're climbing a mountain and you're going to finally get to the top of the volcano and you're going to drop right into the lava. [Laughter.] So that's how my career went. So there we were, going along together. He was still photographer when I was with the newspapers. He switched over and became a publicity photographer when I went into radio. Then when I went into television, he became a news photographer and changed to film at that time.
Biagi: How did you decide to leave radio and the chicken fest and go into television?
Davis: Radio really left me. Radio changed. That was when formatted radio came along, when play lists were developed, and personalities and interviews and interesting things like that went the bye, and you got a twenty-record play list and you played it, and you didn't deviate. You gave the time at 05 and you gave the weather at 09. It was like computerized radio.
I just said, "Gee, there must be some place where the industry hasn't grown up yet," and, of course, that embryonic business was television news, which was just getting out the gate.
Biagi: How did you figure this out?
Davis: I told you I read a lot. I mean, I would read anything that ended up in front of me, upside down or backwards. I don't know. I read some articles that were looking at where the business was going, and just decided that I ought to try and get involved. A lot of it, I'm sure, had to do with the evolution that was going on in the country at that time. Television was becoming the instrument for blacks to tell their story. The Huntley-Brinkley Show, the showing of the demonstrations in the South were really changing America. I'm sure all of that played a part in it. But there were no black people telling you about any of that.
Biagi: On the West Coast.
Davis: There were few in America, I'm telling you.
Biagi: Certainly none on the West Coast.
Biagi: So it wasn't like you made a decision to join a profession that already had somebody like you in it, is that right?
Davis: I never saw anybody that looked like me. I know there were women on the East Coast, but there were none in California. So I never saw anyone.
Biagi: But that didn't seem to bother you too much?
Davis: No, because I had lived a life of uncharted courses, so there was no reason to change now. Beside that, I think it's all like a gamble, anyway. You may as well go for what you want if you're going to be out there trying. Why content yourself with struggling with something that you really don't want to do? And I really did not want to be a clerk. I knew that much. I hadn't enjoyed that.
One thing I have to give the navy credit for, for the years I worked as a clerk for the navy, I worked some of those years in a department of the navy that supplied secret and top secret pamphlets and books to navy fighter planes and so forth, a boring job where I worked in a vault most of the time issuing those kinds of things, which gave me lots of time to read other things around a navy book cover. [Laughter.] So it helped me to develop. I had lots of time to think and lots of time to read.
Biagi: And figure out that television was coming. So how did you go about training yourself to be this television journalist?
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Davis: Well, you get copy, you get a mirror with good light, a tape recorder, and you sit in front of it and you read to yourself. [Laughter.] I still think that's a good method, even today.
Biagi: What are you reading to yourself?
Davis: Well, anything. Sometimes I'd write stuff. Sometimes I'd read the newspaper. Whatever. But I'd watch myself to see how I was projecting and how I looked, all of that. And put a tape on so I could see how I'd sound.
Biagi: An audiotape, you mean, at this point.
Davis: Yes. That was how I prepared. Real high tech. [Laughter.]
Biagi: This is the Belva Davis School of Broadcasting. [Laughter.] So then what did you do?
Davis: I started, and it was a long process, well over a year, of applying and applying and applying.
Biagi: Where are you applying?
Davis: Every station. Actually, when I first started out, I thought, "What I need to do first is apply to the newspapers. I have skills there. Get rejected," which I knew I would. "Then try for TV."
Biagi: Mainstream newspapers, you mean.
Davis: Mainstream. I don't know why I figured that out. I don't know why I did that, but I did. Then I just started applying to every station in town, more than once. Every few months I'd send a new application or a reminder note or something of that sort.
At the same time, I had developed and I was producing a program called the Miss Bronze California Beauty Pageant, and I somehow convinced a guy named Ian Zellick, who used to work at KTVU—that's Channel 2 here locally—that he should allow me to put these young women on the air, on television. Ian had said to me, "Well, you know, I can give you the time, but I don't have any staff to produce this show. So if you can get a producer and a director, we'll give you the slot and you can do it." I remember when he first told me that, of course, I agreed to it enthusiastically, and I left Channel 2, which was down at Jack London Square, and drove directly to the Oakland Main Library, where my friend Rosemary worked, and asked her to go with me to the media file, the reference, to look up what a TV producer and a director did. [Laughter.]
Davis: So once we found out what they did, then we proceeded to try to produce this show, which I hosted.
Biagi: That was your first television appearance.
Davis: My first television appearance. I did that for a number of years, two or three years. I think the second year one TV critic wrote a marvelous article about me, saying that there should be some place for me in television, and lots of other nice things. So, of course, I had fifteen copies of that sent to everybody that I could send it to. [Laughter.]
Biagi: But the calls didn't just flow in, did they?
Davis: Oh, no. It really took pressure from people who I consider in the forefront of the civil rights movement to even get me interviews. I couldn't get interviews, and the interviews were really pretty sad.
Biagi: What kind of pressure, do you think?
Davis: Well, it was during the civil rights movement. Probably threats of picketing them or whatever have you, but I'm not sure if it got that far. But it took key people who I think managers knew were associated with the civil rights movement in town, to call to say, "So and so has been trying to get you on the phone and trying to get an interview, and we really would appreciate it if you'd talk to her."
Biagi: So what happened at some of the interviews you did go to? Did you get hired right away?
Davis: Ha! A couple of stories. One was that I was at an interview—I met a woman who knew Gypsy Rose Lee, who had one of the early talk shows. Even though she'd been a strip tease artist, fan dancer, and all of that, she had this wonderful talk show that they recorded at Channel 7 in San Francisco, the ABC station. So my friend made clothes for her from time to time, and also they'd have little fashion shows and my friend's clothes would appear. So I was over with her one day, and found out that they were going to hire a new reporter to work on the air at Channel 7, and that's when I started putting the pressure on to get an interview for that job.
The day that I was there, Ingrid Bergman's daughter, Pia Lyndstrom, was a guest on the show, had come through, and she was doing some sort of promotional thing for American Express to prove that you could drive America and you didn't need cash; you could use your American Express card for everything. So she was on to talk about this with a friend of hers. She asked me what I was doing, and I said, "Well, I'm here trying to get an interview because they're going to start this early morning show, and I want to try and be considered for that." Well, that was not the day of my interview.
I finally got it, got it with the station manager, a very insulting interview in which I was told that they just were not hiring Negresses on television.
Biagi: He said that directly?
Davis: If they ever considered a Negress, I would certainly be on his list. Anyway, Pia Lyndstrom was hired for that job because she applied for it. [Laughter.]
Biagi: It was nice of you to share that information.
Davis: So I didn't get that job, but I followed the news closely, and I read an article one day that another woman was in television here, a woman named Nancy Clark Reynolds, and she was working on television here at Channel 5. She had said in that interview, talked about her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who was then running for governor of California, and it said that if Ronald Reagan was elected, she'd certainly like to work for him, with him. So the day after he was elected, I wrote a letter applying for a job. To her amazement, she was called in to ask if she was leaving. [Laughter.] She's a wonderful gal, and I wrote a note of apology for that. But she did finally—because nothing, of course, had been worked out. The man had just been elected. But eventually she did announce that she'd be leaving, and I did get an interview. But it was not a slam-dunk. They also interviewed sixty-seven other people. [Laughter.] But I ended up being selected for that job.
Biagi: So your total experience to this point was the hosting of the Miss Bronze Pageant? That was your total television experience?
Biagi: You had had print news experience and radio.
Davis: Right. So when I came in for them to decide whether this would work for me, they sent me out with a photographer and asked if I'd go out and do a stand-up. I didn't know what the heck they were talking about. So I was lucky. I ended up with a wonderful guy named Steven Pastzy, a Hungarian expatriate, was here, and he'd been an accountant, and he didn't know anything about photography. He arrived here from Canada after fleeing Hungary, and he bluffed his way into a job as a photographer, so he said he'd take care of me. He'd help me get a job as a reporter, too. [Laughter.] So he told me, in his heavy Hungarian, he said, "Don't vurry about a ting, baby. I take care of you. You just stand there." So I did my stand-up with Steven Pastzy, which obviously came out okay.
Biagi: You managed it. What did you feel was your role at this point as a television reporter? Why were you there, and why was it important for you to be there?
Davis: I have to admit there was some confusion. There was some confusion. I mean, I know I wanted to be there because of this whole thing of feeling that if people understood each other more, we'd have fewer problems. I mean, that was underlying. That wasn't at the top of the heap. That was an underlying motive. I'd have to say that it must have played a pretty big part, because after I was hired at KPIX, I had no idea what my salary was till I got my first paycheck. I never even asked them what I was getting paid.
Biagi: Is that right? You probably would have paid them, do you think?
Davis: Yes. I never even asked them about my pay. I just thought it was an exciting medium, but I also really thought that people that looked like me had not had the right—remember we're now in the midst of the civil rights movement, the beginning of the anti-war movement and all this ferment that's going on. We've already had the Watts riots and all of that.* So everyone had concluded that we had to understand each other better if we were going to survive. I think I thought I could play some part in that, because I really do like all kinds of people. I did not come at it with a bias against anybody. Even though—and it's weird, because as a small child, I certainly did not have a lot of exposure to people of other races, and even as an adolescent, outside of the school setting I had no exposure. But I'd never had any fear of other people, and I always had a curiosity about them. I think that was part of it. I don't know if that makes sense at all.
Biagi: What did you not know about the news business?
Biagi: Such as? What would you learn subsequently?
Biagi: After your Hungarian tutor.
Davis: I knew the basic facts, and that was that you got the five Ws, the elements, out of the way. I knew enough to know I had to deliver on that. But I think my goal always had been to somehow get to the personal. If there's anything I always tried for, it was to try to get to something that was outside of the hard facts of the story, to some sort of feeling. That was long before the consultants decided this is how you put together a news story. It was just my desire to do that.
Biagi: Do you remember a specific example of a story that you feel achieved that very well?
Davis: There were lots of stories that I can remember, but I guess the series of stories that stand out is the series that started with the odyssey of dealing with women who had breast cancer, because those were very personal stories, and moving past that to deal with those in the medical profession who had to minister to them, and trying to get them to go past the barrier that they'd put up in order to do the kind of work that they have to do, to talk about their patients in some way other than through their medical charts. That was a real challenge. So I did a series of stories like that, that touched me a great deal. Because of some of the comments that have come back to me years later, I know they played some part in the lives of the people that I talked to.
* August 11-16, 1965. Blacks riot for six days in Watts section of Los Angeles; thirty-four dead, over 1,000 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, fire damage put at $175 million.
Biagi: As a participant and a journalist during the civil rights movement, a participant in covering the civil rights movement, what's your biggest memory of that period in the Bay Area's history?
Davis: I think the fact that we never really had a bad riot here is always amazing to me.
Biagi: Meaning San Francisco or here in Oakland?
Davis: In Oakland, the home of the Black Panther party, the fierce Black Panther party, there was never really any trouble. Never has been in Oakland. Knock wood. But I guess it would be the early meetings of the emerging black power structure. I attended in the very early sixties the first meeting where Stokeley Carmichael, Huey Newton, H. Rapp Brown—Eldridge Cleaver was in prison—Ron Caranga. I mean, the fables of that time in terms of the black power movement all got together in a place called the Russian Center to talk about the black agenda and which way we should go, and the division within the community, as to whether the non-violent path of Martin Luther King or to go with those who wanted to see the cause pursued in other ways. Attending that conference and a similar conference in Los Angeles, where the same questions were debated, those were important meetings, and I was there and reported on and took part in those. The other would be reporting on the Panthers through those years and their ups and downs and trials and tribulations.
Biagi: Was it hard for you to cover that issue?
Davis: Because the things that they talked about were real problems. The conditions they described were real conditions. The Oakland Police Department was repressive. I had grown up with that. A young boy that I knew, who we grew up with, we thought had been unjustly beaten and punished by the police in ways that should never have happened. So I knew a lot about what they were saying, that it was true. I also knew that black children were going to school hungry every day, and I knew enough about nutrition to know that this affected their abilities. I knew that the Panthers were the first community-based program to feed children in the mornings. And here I was reporting on that, but one of my best friends was running the breakfast program at the Episcopal Church which I gave money to because the need was so great for the children that came to that program.
So it was a time of conflict. I had no belief in their talk of violence, which they did very little of. There is the illusion that they were this radical, violent group. No one can tell you of an incident where the Panthers came and started to shoot out with anybody. The police came in and would shoot at them, and they'd shoot back. So you had those kinds of things. So there was an understanding of it from both sides of the aisle.
Biagi: Was there ever a time during those movements or other movements that you covered as a reporter where you felt physically threatened?
Biagi: You're not a big person, Belva. [Laughter.] How tall are you, Belva?
Davis: I'm 5'1". But, you know, I've got to tell you, I never felt unsafe where people told me it was dangerous. I remember going into one little disturbance we had here at Hunter's Point, the so-called riot of Hunter's Point. I never felt afraid. But what they did with us, which was really unconscionable, a few of us were being hired on to go in and work for white media, where none of us were working, because they didn't want to send white reporters in. I don't remember ever feeling unsafe in that environment. The times where I felt unsafe almost always were times when I was at a demonstration where the Alameda Sheriff's Department was on the verge of moving people out, because I know of fellow reporters who've been badly beaten, and I was always afraid of that, by the sheriff's department.
Biagi: Did anything ever happen to confirm your fears?
Davis: Oh, my goodness, yes.
Biagi: To you personally?
Davis: I meant I was bounced around, pushed around, shoved around, but no one ever struck me. But I had watched Earl Caldwell beaten, beaten, and I will never forget that. He was a fine reporter. Those things happen. [Tape interruption.]
Anyway, I think that all my moments of fear in those early days had to be fear of getting accidentally, or on purpose, beaten badly by the sheriff's department or the policemen. That's what I was afraid of. And occasionally, I had to admit, I was afraid of getting hit by a brick thrown by the students, because they also threw bricks at the press. Nobody liked us in those days. The students thought that we were capitalist tools, and the cops thought that we were left-wing radicals. So we were not welcomed on either side of the aisle.
But in particular, the Alameda County Sheriff's Department had some people in it at that time that had difficulty with this short black woman who was a reporter. [Laughter.] So one day at Berkeley, we were standing at Sather Gate, which they often did. They just covered that whole span between the gate. The students were marching around and so on. So I walked up, as should be and as our little press card said, we were allowed through police lines. I started to go through the police line to the other side of the gate, and somebody decided it was time to give old Belva her comeuppance, so this row of maybe twenty, twenty-five cops lined up there in their helmets and blue uniforms—we used to call them the blue meanies—decided to take me by the shoulders and spin me like a little top down the entire row, several thousand students on the other side watching this. Extremely humiliating, of course. There was nothing I could do to stop it once they get you going, you know. The worst part about it is by the time they finish, I'm so dizzy I can't stand up straight. Well, anyway, that was a little much, so there were pictures taken of that. So Sheriff Madigan did write me a letter of apology. Well, actually, the station filed a formal complaint and he wrote me a letter of apology.
Biagi: Why do you feel you, of all the people there, were singled out for that?
Davis: I think it's kind of obvious. Number one, I was female and I was black, and they felt I wasn't on their side, that's for sure. But that very same day, I was with a guy named Tony Vazeta, and we went over and we got caught in never-never land, and the kids pelted us with bricks.
Biagi: You had a good day. [Laughter.]
Davis: A really great day that day.
Biagi: Now that you brought it up, the issue of women in the media, how do you think things have changed from when you started to the way they are now?
Davis: I think there are people out there that think that women always covered hard news. [Laughter.] And it's so funny. You look at a young woman and you say to her, "You know, the women used to write for the women's page. The men wrote the news. You did the features. The early women on television did the noon talk shows, covered the flower shows, did the fashion shows. They didn't do hard news." They cannot imagine it, because it seems so illogical, but that's the way it was. So today's world is so different in that women are where they should be covering anything that they choose to cover or they have the ability to cover, and working their way into high-level positions on the management side. I haven't noticed a gender imprint.
Davis: I haven't noticed anything any different in terms of the management side of it, where women are present, different from what you get when men are running it so far. Maybe it's because men still are the ultimate power group in the business.
Biagi: Would you expect a gender imprint, or would you like to see one? Do you think there should be one?
Davis: I would think so. I would hope there would be. It's obvious to me that there has been a big gap in our history and in world events that have been left unnoticed, uncovered, because no one was thoughtful enough about those issues to present them. I don't want to harken back a lot to the whole issue of women and breast cancer, but I don't think a man would have thought of putting that issue forward fifteen, twenty years ago. But it was something that we women who were getting into the business were interested in. Child care became a big issue because it was something we were confronting. There are issues that because they have no import in the life of men to the degree that it does women, that just would not be thought about if not for the fact that there are women talking about it.
It's like this year, this business of covering the Year of the Woman in Politics. I didn't notice that I had an easier time with my—in fact, I had a worse time—we had two news shows—with my woman producer than I did with the man who produced. There's a man who produces one of the shows and a woman who produces the other. I almost always ended up on the show where the man was producing. I'm not sure it's because of women who are pioneering aren't overcompensating.
Biagi: You mean the male producer was choosing you.
Davis: My story. Yes. It was a female story. So I don't know. I think we expected certain kinds of things to happen as women moved into power, and it will be interesting to see in politics if any of those things really happen.
Biagi: What about your role in trying to change things for minorities in television?
Davis: I've attempted that in many different ways. Badgering managers—I'm very good at that. Becoming active in the union, which was as racist in its attitude about certainly African-Americans as were employers, working with the union to erase some of those barriers.
I still am working in that area. Speaking out as often as possible; taking on interns, working with them as much as possible; writing about it from time to time. So I'm still at it.
Biagi: How have things changed from when you started the good fight?
Davis: For a while it looked like nothing was changing, because when I started at Channel 5 [KPIX] there were two of us, one male, one female. For many years that was the same picture at that station. People got replaced in those slots. For a number of years where I work now at KRON Television, I was the only black in my newsroom, harking back even to [unclear] times than when I first started. Things are not excellent today. At my station there are more blacks than I've ever worked with at one time, but that's because we started from such poverty in that area.
Biagi: What needs to happen, in your view, to change that?
Davis: I think that people object to being told what to do or being mandated what to do, but there are some things that are so ingrained in us about how we make decisions, that without some guidelines and nudging, they just don't get done. You may have the best of intentions, but they just don't get done. So as we have relaxed the rules and regulations governing broadcast, the plight of minorities has fallen on hard times once again. So I'm a real advocate of re-regulation in terms of viewpoints being heard, if not employment.
There are very few programs where minorities can come on and talk about the problems peculiar to them, because we're so addicted to a program for every hour on the spectrum to make money today. Even at two o'clock in the morning, it's hard to get on the air. So there's very little outlet for community people, and not just black people, but community people of all sorts. There are very few places they can be heard and seen outside of a sanitized and scrutinized and packaged news story. Very few places where they can come and speak for themselves, much fewer places than when I started in the business.
Biagi: So if you could change that, how would you do it?
Davis: I doubt if it could happen, because in a democratic society like ours, in an economy-driven world where once you find out you can make money from something, it's very difficult to go back and say, "I'm not going to make money at this anymore." So I would try to return the airways to the people. They don't own them anymore. I don't know how you do that except by government action. I think the equal time doctrine wasn't a bad idea. I think serving the community in which you live was a good idea. I don't think that Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue is public affairs that serves this community, which is the way it's counted today.* I think a commitment to healthy children's programming, since our children are going to watch television anyway, is a good idea. They are all things that don't exist anymore. I'd change it.
Biagi: Why is it important, in your view, that multiplicity of voices be heard?
Davis: Because we live in a society that is diverse. Most of our major centers are diverse communities in which people have to learn to get along with one another. Since we have become, as a country, addicted to television, I think that medium owes a responsibility to the country to do something more than what it does, and that's make money for those who own the stock.
* Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue are popular television talk show hosts.
I just don't see how, with so many of us getting what we know about life, forming our opinions by what we see, that we're ever going to get healthy till we get hold of this thing called television and create it in the image that we want to see our country develop, or at least shape it so there are some alternatives that allow us to make decisions that help us to operate as a country pulling together in some way.
I still firmly believe that much of the violence that we see, even though people will argue and say there's no evidence, I just think you'd have to be an idiot not to know that our violent society is based a great deal on what our children have grown up with, and that is violence, violence, violence on television. I don't think you can divorce it.
Biagi: So how would you change it?
Davis: I still believe in the first amendment, but I think there ought to be some choices, and I just don't think there are many. I know in our market we just disbanded our children's and youth department, and ours was the last and the fifth largest market in America. I think that's awful. I think there ought to be programs where children can be seen, where adolescents can come on and talk about what's important to them. They ought to be able to express it through the medium that they value, which is television.
Biagi: As you look to the future of television, over the air and otherwise, what do you see in, say, the year 2000?
Davis: I'm hoping for a revolution. [Laughter.] I'm hoping that people will seize the airways. That's what I'm hoping for. Otherwise, where it's going, I won't be watching it.