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2. Up from Troubled Waters

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

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.

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9. Dreams Deferred

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

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.’”

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Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub
Medium 9781936227068

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

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

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.

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17. Diversified Interests

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I’m sometimes astonished to remind myself that I grew up in an era before colorization, when not only were television and movies almost exclusively black and white, but the people who starred in them could more accurately be characterized as white and whiter. On the rare occasions that I did see black people on-screen, they were playing sidekicks, servants, or slaves.

Back then—except for films made by pioneering black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux—the media gave me no black heroes or heroines, no depictions of black family life, and of course, no black journalists telling the stories of my community.

After I broke through one of those barriers and into the business, I felt obligated to help tear down other obstacles and make way for more people of color, so that we could transform the face of news and entertainment. Over the years, I’ve tried to mentor, support, and encourage dozens of young journalists and performers. But I also tried to advance the cause in a more systematic fashion, starting with my union.

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