Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman's Life in Journalism

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Belva Davis covered many of the most explosive stories of the last half-century, including the Black Panthers, the Jonestown massacre, the Moscone/Milk murders, the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and Osama bin Laden's activities in Africa. Along the way, she encountered a cavalcade of cultural icons: Malcolm X, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Nancy Reagan, Huey Newton, Muhammad Ali, Alex Haley, Fidel Castro, and others. Her absorbing memoir traces the trajectory of an extraordinary life in extraordinary times.

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1. "What the Hell Are You Niggers Doing in Here?"

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I could feel the hostility rising like steam off a cauldron of vitriol: floor delegates and gallery spectators at the Republican National Convention were erupting in catcalls aimed at the press. South of San Francisco, people were sweltering inside the cavernous Cow Palace, which typically hosted rodeos. In July of 1964 it offered ringside seats for the breech birth of a right-wing revolution.

My radio news director, Louis Freeman, and I lacked credentials for the press box—actually we knew that some whites at this convention would find our mere presence offensive. Although Louis was brilliant and had a deep baritone voice and a journalism degree, his first boss had warned Louis he might never become a radio reporter because Negro lips were “too thick to pronounce polysyllabic words.” But Louis, whose enunciation was flawless, eventually landed an on-the-hour news slot on KDIA-AM, the Bay Area’s premier soul-gospel-jazz station; and he was determined to cover the convention. It was said that the national press was flocking to the GOP confab to “report Armageddon.” Louis wanted to be at the crux of the story, relaying to our black listeners all the news that white reporters might deem insignificant. I was the station’s intrepid ad traffic manager, a thirtyone-year-old divorced mother of two, who had no journalism training. No question Louis would have preferred a more formidable companion: I’m delicately boned and stand merely five foot one in stockings. But I was an eager volunteer. More to the point, I was his only volunteer. And I was, in his words, “a moxie little thing.” He had finagled two spectator passes from one of the black delegates—they made up less than 1 percent of convention participants. So there we were, perched in the shadows under the rafters,scribbling notes and recording speeches, mistakenly presuming we had found the safest spot to be.

 

2. Up from Troubled Waters

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• • •

I was conceived in Monroe, Louisiana, in the depths of the Great Depression, the reign of Jim Crow, and the “Flood of the Century” on the Ouachita River. My mother, a laundress who earned four dollars a week, was only fourteen years old.

Apparently if I was going to be lucky in life, I would have to be patient.

No doubt I would never have been born if my mother, Florene, had known how to resist the charms of John Melton. My father was a handsome, savvy but volatile man who swaggered his way through life, despite never having finished grammar school.

In 1932, Monroe was in dire straits, inundated when the Ouachita River crested fifty feet above flood level and gushed over the millions of sandbags futilely attempting to hold it back. By the beginning of February, more than a quarter of Monroe was submerged, and the Ouachita did not dip below flood level until mid-April. “The flood waters are contaminated beyond realization,” the director of the Ouachita Parish Health Unit declared, warning that without vaccination “one is very likely to contract typhoid from merely wading and working in the flood districts.” Makeshift tent cities sprang up on higher ground, as white and black families began living next to each other in a fashion that would have been unimaginable in any condition short of an emergency.

 

3. Truth Isn't What You Want to See

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• • •

I shared my journey with row upon row of uniformed soldiers. They filled each segregated car as the Southern Pacific train chugged across one state line after another. We all were bound for a common destination—a place on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay whose oak-studded hills had prompted settlers to christen it Oakland. By the 1940s, Oakland was a thriving metropolis and a western terminus of the transcontinental railroad. As we arrived, stretched our stiff limbs, and climbed onto stationary soil, I felt a curious combination of bone-weary exhaustion and antsy anticipation.

“End of the line!” announced the Southern Pacific Railroad conductor. Nope, I thought to myself, the beginning.

As I clutched my small, battered suitcase and struggled to follow my father bobbing through the crowd, I couldn’t help but be struck by the sheer number of white faces. In Monroe, whites were outnumbered about ten to one by blacks, and they never ventured into colored neighborhoods. But Oakland was overwhelmingly dominated by Portuguese, German, Irish, Italian, and Greek immigrants and their children. Blacks were barely more than 2 percent of the city population.

 

4. Strained Mercies

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• • •

What I had yet to learn is that the consequences of suicide are simply too risky—you never know what’s in your future that you might miss.

But Divine Providence must have intervened that day as I stood tottering on the toilet by the window, grieving the loss of my mother, my dignity, my will to live. All that was left in me was a determination not to swallow my father’s castor oil. Through the bolted bathroom door I could hear a neighbor, no doubt alerted by my screams, talking my father down from his rage. By the sound of the muffled tenor, I suspected it was kindly Mr. Toney, also a refugee from Monroe: his son Robert would, decades later, become a rear admiral in the navy and president of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.

I waited to emerge until I was sure my father’s maelstrom had subsided. Sullenly he put away his belt and the castor oil and reverted to ignoring me. After that clash, we ceased all conversation and he rarely came home at night. I could not possibly understand the impotence he must have felt as a black man in the 1940s, just as he could not fathom the deep recesses of my adolescent anguish.

 

5. In the Driver's Seat

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• • •

As dawn broke on my wedding day, I sat up in bed and tried to convince myself I was experiencing normal bridal jitters. In only a few hours, the fairy tale I had planned would unfold. McGee Avenue Baptist Church would be scented with bouquets of carnations; my four bridesmaids would be in place; and admirers in the pews would be glancing over their shoulders as I floated down the aisle to become Mrs. Frank Davis Jr.—for better or for worse, til death do us part.

If I were to back out now, what else could I do with my life?

So I got married.

Afterward we held the reception at Frank’s house, given that it was fancier than ours. His house was filled with our friends—all teenagers barely out of high school. We girls stood around in our gowns as we nibbled hors d’oeuvres; we were striving to appear as sophisticated as those in the wedding parties depicted in bridal magazines. Frank and his groomsmen clustered around the black-and-white television, watching Illinois cream Stanford in the first nationally televised Rose Bowl game.

 

6. Vapors and Black Ink

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• • •

I drove the Grapevine highway straight back toward the Bay Area, making as few pit stops as humanly possible traveling in the company of a six-yearold boy and a baby girl.

We hoped to lie low while I obtained an apartment and a job. My mother agreed to let Darolyn and me squeeze into her place, which already was housing enough relatives to remind me of D Soloman’s Alley. My old best friend, Rose Mary, offered to take Steven in for a while—an act of bravery considering she had no experience whatsoever with small children. Nor did Steven make it easy for her, considering that he somehow managed to crawl out of a tiny upstairs window and onto her roof, necessitating a Fire Department rescue.

Returning to my mother’s home one night, I observed a car parked across the street and the glow of a cigarette from the driver’s side. Mother, watching anxiously out the window, saw me rushing up the steps; and she quickly opened the door and closed it behind me. She continued to watch from the corner of the window in the darkened room. I sat on the sofa in silence, trying not to panic. Finally, she saw the glow of the cigarette extinguished, the headlights switch on, and the car pull slowly away. Now Frank knew where I was. I had to move, and move quickly.

 

7. Lucky 13

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• • •

I always suspected that the white family who owned KSAN never actually listened to it. But seemingly resigned to the need to give their San Francisco station its initial “black” voices, they made two cynical moves:

The first was to put their own black handyman on the air, introducing him as “Rockin’ Lucky.” The poor man had no experience or training in radio, and he spoke in a broken English that left black professionals cringing. But “Rockin’” became locally famous for his live remote broadcasts—usually done sitting in the window of a small business in a black neighborhood—in which he invited passersby to stop and chat between records.

The second move was to place in the prime afternoon-drive slot “Ole Jumpin’ George Oxford,” a polished DJ who spun rhythm-and-blues platters and percolated through his show with a patter of soulful slang. Acclaimed the most popular DJ in local Negro broadcasting for more than a decade, he would sign off with, “I love everybody—’specially you, baby!” Many listeners automatically assumed he was black, but he wasn’t, although he was always completely at ease at black events. In person, Oxford bore a resemblance to Walt Disney. He was KSAN’s hottest star until January of 1960, when rival Oakland station KDIA shrewdly hired him away. The desperate KSAN sued to preempt him from using either the name “Ole Jumpin’ George” or his signature sign-off on KDIA, insisting those were KSAN trademarks. Ultimately KSAN agreed that he could occasionally use “ole” on the air as a word, given that the guy did have a natural Southern accent and thus couldn’t stop himself.

 

8. Lend Me a Tiara

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• • •

In the 1960s, valiant Americans put their bones and bodies, their livelihoods and lives on the line to halt the ravages of racism. At the decade’s opening, black people in many places could not safely vote, attend integrated schools and universities, marry a white person, purchase a home in a nice neighborhood, or sit at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. We had never had a post-Reconstruction U.S. senator, major airline pilot, Supreme Court justice, network TV drama star, mayor of a large city, NBA coach, congresswoman, member of the New York Stock Exchange, or Vogue magazine cover girl.

By the end of the decade, African Americans—determined that the blood of civil rights martyrs not be spilled in vain—were rewriting history with a vengeance. Ed Brooks was sworn in as U.S. senator from Massachusetts. Marlon Green was hired as a passenger-airline pilot. Thurgood Marshall became associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Bill Cosby was a co-star of NBC’s I Spy. Carl B. Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland, Bill Russell coached basketball’s Boston Celtics, Shirley Chisholm was seated in the U.S. House of Representatives, Joseph Searles III joined the New York Stock Exchange, and model Donyale Luna graced the cover of British Vogue.

 

9. Dreams Deferred

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• • •

I can truthfully say that my first television appearances drew nothing but positive reviews; but in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll also say that the shows drew only one review. A Richmond Independent newspaper columnist, who watched me host a production of The Miss Bronze Showcase on KTVU, wrote that somebody should find someplace for me on television. In a burst of naive optimism, I bought up copies of that column and mailed it off to every TV station in the San Francisco Bay Area, daring to dream that someone would take the hint and hire me. I don’t know what I was thinking—to my knowledge there was not a solitary black woman in TV news.

But in the early 1960s, the aspirations of African Americans were taking flight like never before. We were inspired by a Baptist minister from Georgia with a firm faith in nonviolence and a devotion to equality. He had held aloft his own dream that someday all God’s children “will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.’”

 

10. New Station in Life

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• • •

Debating whether television was “to be or not to be” a national pastime, a New York Times reporter in 1939 dismissed it as having an inherently fatal flaw:

The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American hasn’t time for it. Therefore the showmen are convinced that for this reason, if for no other, television will never be a serious competitor of broadcasting. Radio can flow on like a brook while people listen and go about their household duties and routine. Television, on the other hand, is no brook; it is more of a Niagara.

Well, by the 1960s, the Niagara that was television gushed on with more thunderous force than ever. In the Bay Area, as elsewhere, radio was stricken with an identity crisis—and newspapers were closing and consolidating or going out of business. I perceived that radio and newspapers were not journalism’s future. No, the future of journalism was in television: immediate, vivid, powerful.

What television was not, in those days, was in any way representative of the population. But TV stations began hiring women and minorities for three reasons: A few realized that broadening their viewer demographics was smart journalism and smart business. Others began hiring blacks because they realized that when stories such as a small riot in Hunters Point or a big riot in Watts would erupt, the station would be uncomfortable sending reporters with white faces into the melees. And a few did it because critics were filing federal complaints seeking to have the broadcast licenses of recalcitrant stations revoked. The NAACP and local black leaders such as San Francisco supervisor Terry Francois and newspaper editor Dr. Carlton Goodlett were pressuring stations to break their color barriers and were threatening boycotts and license challenges. Stations feared being forced into compliance.

 

11. His-and-Hers Gas Masks

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• • •

I went to war in 1967, 1968, and 1969. I didn’t go overseas, and I didn’t engage in combat. Instead I went to Oakland and Berkeley, reporting on the bitter, often brutal clashes between authorities who held power and the counterculture that challenged them—whether over the Vietnam War, the draft, ethnic studies, or a 270-by-450-foot plot of University of California land dubbed “People’s Park.”

Often my days would begin at 4:00 a.m., my alarm clock blaring like a trumpet hailing Judgment Day. I would dress quickly, slipping into comfortable shoes, because I was certain to be on my feet all day, come rain or shine. Bill—working first as a freelance photographer for news outlets including the Associated Press and then as a cameraman for KTVU— would drive. Together we would make our way from the flatlands of El Cerrito to the scheduled scene of the day’s showdown. Anything could happen, and often did. Whatever fear we felt was alloyed with thrill: The Bay Area seemed like ground zero in a generational battle for the soul of the country.

 

Photo section

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12. Ringside at the Racial Revolution

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• • •

The first thing I learned about him was that he loved music and played classical piano. We were introduced by his girlfriend, LaVerne Williams, a virtuoso mezzo soprano who would sweep the talent competition at the 1966 Miss Bronze Pageant. LaVerne clearly was smitten with this shy, softspoken yet intense Oakland City College student—he possessed a passion for the composition of Tchaikovsky, the poetry of Shakespeare, and the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The student had a beautiful face, and in him LaVerne felt she had found a soul mate who shared her artistic sensitivity.

“Belva,” LaVerne said, “this is Huey. Huey Newton.”

“Hi, nice to meet you,” he said.

His name meant nothing to me at first, although I sized him up as well mannered, intellectual, and seemingly a good match for LaVerne. But as we chatted, I eventually placed him as the youngest son of Walter Newton, a devout Baptist who worked several jobs to ensure that his wife remained at home raising their seven children. The Newtons had something in common with the Meltons—both of our families had moved from Monroe, Louisiana, to Oakland and found military jobs during World War II. As I was later to learn, his parents named Huey after Huey P. Long, the cantankerous Louisiana governor whose public racism often masked the good he did for blacks: For example, by declaring it an abomination that white nurses were forced to care for ailing old black men, the governor was able to hire black nurses on the state payroll.

 

13. Freeze Frames

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• • •

I really never said no. During my first decade in television news, I agreed to whatever the editors tossed my way. My assignments varied vastly from day to day—as if I might be asked to juggle a whiffle ball, a bowling ball, a porcupine, and a vial of nitroglycerine.

I felt the need to prove, over and over again, that I could handle anything.

Dispatched to cover the Warriors basketball team—at a time when there were no female sports reporters or sportscasters—I tried talking my way into the locker room in pursuit of lively quotes from sweat-soaked, nearly naked players. The team barred my entrance, thank goodness.

So as the other stations’ guys waltzed past me and carried on their exclusive interviews inside the locker room, I hovered outside, praying to snag at least a quick comment from a departing rookie—a nearly hopeless effort. Most of the Warriors brushed past me offering nothing more than a disdainful smirk. Even when one did deign to be interviewed, my cameraman could scarcely back up enough to capture us both in the shot, given that the players towered one to two feet over me.

 

14. A Woman's Touch

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• • •

Television still was very much a boy’s club at the dawn of the 1970s. Network and local TV executives were virtually all male. Three-quarters of the characters on prime time dramas were men. And males held more than 85 percent of on-air news jobs.

Frankly, the guys calling the shots had trouble figuring out what to do with women: NBC censors ruled that I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden’s midriff costume could never reveal her navel; CBS executives insisted that newswoman Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show could not be divorced; and at least thirty TV stations dropped the sitcom Maude when its lead character had an abortion.

Nor did TV news tend to tackle serious subjects that were considered “women’s issues.” Childcare, health, education, reproductive rights, and other topics of pressing concern to women probably would have been rejected as unworthy of much coverage in a serious newscast, had women been enough of a force in the newsroom to suggest them.

“Other institutions push envelopes,” Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson once keenly observed. “Television licks the envelope only when it’s safe to do so.”

 

15. When Work Hits Home

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• • •

We felt fortunate that our family emerged relatively unscathed from the 1970s—which is rather ironic to say, considering we were driven from our home after a biker gang of white supremacists plotted to kidnap our teenage daughter.

Nonetheless we fared better than many others in the San Francisco Bay Area who paid a far greater price during what was to be a harrowing decade, drenched in a senseless violence that seemed to seep toward the edge of apocalyptic: The Zebra murders. The Symbionese Liberation Army abductions, armed robberies, and shootings. The cult exodus and mass suicides of Jonestown. The assassination of San Francisco’s mayor and first openly gay supervisor. Real life too often resembled the melodramatic movie trailer “In a world gone mad...”

For six months beginning in the fall of 1973, San Francisco and its environs were unnerved by faceless assailants who unleashed random yet deadly attacks on everyday people doing everyday activities. Homicide inspectors who worked the case would characterize it as “the opening of the gates of hell”—it was, indeed, one of the most ruthless and prolonged cases of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

 

16. White Night and Dark Days

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• • •

We knew her only as Miss Glover, a heavyset middle-aged woman with cropped hair and ebony skin—but what distinguished her from our previous housekeepers was her ability to move throughout our house without making a sound. She left our rooms spick-and-span. But in retrospect, her stealth should have been a clue that there was more to Miss Glover than met the eye.

I always made a point of establishing a rapport with anyone who worked for us. Miss Glover was my greatest challenge. She kept herself tightly buttoned up and answered my questions with trepidation, as though she suspected my innocuous chatter concealed traps.

Over time, I learned that she had no family left and was selling the house she once owned in California’s Central Valley. “Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked her. “You know, it’s always good to have a place of your own to go home to someday.”

“No ma’am,” she said firmly. “We need the money for the work of the church.”

Her church was called Peoples Temple, and by the mid-1970s it was attracting hundreds of followers. Its leader was a charismatic reverend who preached an amalgam of utopian Christianity, racial harmony, communal socialism, megalomania, and paranoia. Temple members called him “Father.” To the rest of the world, he was the Reverend Jim Jones.

 

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