Bay Area Journalist gives inspiring lecture
May 15, 2012
She interviewed Fidel Castro. She rode in a helicopter with Robert F. Kennedy. She was the first black female TV journalist on the West Coast.
Belva Davis, an award-winning journalist, shared her life story—from a difficult childhood to fighting against racism—at the Carole L. Ellis Auditorium at SRJC’s Petaluma campus April 26.
Born Belvagene Melton, Davis gave a first-hand account of her life story. She discussed her humble beginnings and the racism she endured, all detailed in her autobiography, “Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism.”
Davis’ journalism career spans 45 years in television and 50 years in media. Early on, she interviewed a plethora of cultural icons, from U.S. Presidents to notable personalities like Frank Sinatra, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Huey Newton of the Black Panthers. As a broadcaster, Davis has reported on an array of topics and won eight Emmy and a number of Lifetime Achievement awards. She persevered through the setbacks that came her way.
Davis was born in Monroe, Louisiana during the Great Depression and the “Flood of the Century.” She was born to a 15-year-old laundress, while her equally young father worked in a sawmill. Because Davis’ parents were so young, she was raised by her Aunt Ophelia, who died when Davis was 3. In Davis’ book, she said when her aunt died it felt like her childhood had died too. Soon after, Davis went to live with her parents, who by this time had another child, John Jr.
Davis was shuffled from relative to relative in her childhood. In the early 1940s, she, her brother and father boarded a train to Oakland, Calif. Because of the overcrowding situation in her parents home, which by now included 11 relatives moving in, Davis moved in with her aunt and uncle in Berkeley, a town she considers as her “saving place” because of nurturing and caring teachers. “And the other safe spot for me were libraries. I loved libraries. Even though I could not read well, I learned to read what I could,” Davis said.
Davis’ childhood was less than ideal. After coming home from school one day, she discovered her mother had vanished. Davis later found out that her mother had a boyfriend and moved in with him. During this time, Davis was molested, which she kept a secret. Not revealing details about her life to anyone was Davis’ way of coping. Eventually, the molestation stopped, but the mental anguish from it remained.
A year after Davis graduated from high school, she married her first husband, Frank Davis. Within a year, she gave birth to her son Steven. A few years later, her marriage disintegrated. When Davis asked her husband for a divorce, he refused. A dispute ensued and her water broke, Davis gave birth to her daughter, Darolyn.
Davis’ first taste of journalism came while she was working full-time with the navy. She did freelance work for Jet and Ebony magazines, and wrote a column for San Francisco’s Bay Area Independent, all while taking care of her family. While others were risking their lives for equality, freedom and dreaming of endless possibilities, Davis dreamed along with them. She debated leaving her marriage, telling herself that if she waited any longer, her dreams might die.
Davis’ career in broadcasting began in the early 1960s when she was given her own radio show, titled “The Belva Davis Show.” Her big break came when she was hired by KPIX-TV in San Francisco. While working as a KPIX reporter, she got the opportunity to interview political figures including Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Knowing Davis lived in Sonoma County, Castro asked her what she knew about growing grapes. “I was a big disappointment because I knew nothing, except that I drank my share of the wine!” Davis said.
Davis briefly discussed the Civil Rights Movement and the racism she endured while covering the 1964 Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in Daly City. Barry Goldwater fans threw garbage at Davis, yelled and called Davis and her radio news director the ‘N-word.’ Since childhood, Davis had learned not to give her tormenters the satisfaction of reacting whenever they showed hostility towards her.
Davis said one of the highlights of her career was when she rode in a helicopter with Senator Robert F. Kennedy. “He was talking about the elections and how hopeful he was, and was trying to find ways to help people,” Davis said. “It was two people talking to each other, not two people and a cameraman and a microphone. I still get goose bumps when I think about this. So I consider that one of the biggest moments of my life.”
SRJC student Lauren Lampkin admitted that she didn’t know much about Davis before, but she thought the lecture was very educational. “I thought it was incredibly fascinating to hear about Belva’s life and I think that she is an inspiration for students around the world, people in education and certainly in college, who are wanting to pursue any kind of career, whether it’s journalism too,” Lampkin said.
One thing that resonated during Davis’ lecture was that she was the first black female TV journalist in the western United States. “There are special responsibilities that go with that. Fighting for my gender and fighting for equality, not for any particular brand of it, but access and that was always my mantra. The door has to be open and people can either succeed or fail, dependent upon where they’re going,” Davis said.
These days, Davis hosts a weekly news roundtable and special reports for KQED in San Francisco. She is married to her second husband, Bill Moore, who was one of the country’s first African-American TV news cameramen.