[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.