The first in her immediate family to graduate high school, Belva Davis was elated at receiving a letter of acceptance in the 1950s from what was then San Francisco State College. But she couldn’t afford tuition, therefore, she never enrolled.
Instead, Davis unexpectedly became a pioneering, award-winning, television journalist. Recently, she and San Francisco State University officials have discussed the possibility of the institution housing a digital archive of her papers, documenting not only her five-decade career in northern California, but also the struggles accompanying racial integration of the news industry.
Davis’s distinctions include becoming the first Black, female, TV reporter in the western United States when she joined the CBS affiliate in San Francisco in 1967.
This weekend, newsmakers and Davis’s colleagues and friends are paying tribute to her at a fundraising event to finance the archive, as well as to start a journalism scholarship in her name. Barbara Rodgers, a long-time TV news anchor and reporter in San Francisco who’s one of the event organizers, values Davis as a mentor. “She always offered good advice, whether it’s professional guidance or fashion or how to resolve a workplace issue,” Rodgers says. “She would call me after watching newscasts and offer suggestions of how to improve.” Now retired, Rodgers joined the CBS affiliate in 1979.
Regarded in the broadcast industry as “the Walter Cronkite” of northern California, Davis was an anchor, reporter and host of public affairs programs for three network TV affiliates until retiring last year. Among thousands of assignments, she interviewed U.S. presidents, reported on Vietnam War protests and covered the rise of the Black Panthers. Her specialties included politics and racial and gender issues. The winner of eight local Emmys, Davis has been inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.
Bill Cosby, who penned the forward of Davis’s memoir, Never in my Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism, has likened her to educator Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune in terms of appeal among White audiences. Cosby initially met Davis in the early 1960s when she was a fledgling journalist covering his comedy club performances. “When we had a houseboat in San Francisco Bay in the late 1960s, Mrs. Cosby and I, we would watch the news on TV,” Cosby wrote. “And there would be Belva Davis, out reporting stories and anchoring the newscasts. [She] was someone who sustained us, who made us proud. She was the first woman of color that many viewers came to know and trust, and she met that challenge with integrity and dignity and grace.”
But Davis’s early life and career weren’t smooth. Born to a teenage laundress and raised in Oakland, Calif. housing projects, she and her family were strangers to college financial aid applications and deadlines. Unable to cover the tuition, her college hopes dissolved.
As an office worker and young mother, Davis became active in Black women’s groups locally. While trying to get charity events mentioned in Black-owned newspapers, she unexpectedly wound up freelancing not only for them, but also for Jet and Ebony magazines. Her move into radio led to covering the 1964 Republican National Convention, where she was verbally and physically assaulted.
After Davis joined the CBS affiliate in 1967, some of her coworkers regularly expressed disdain. Some cameramen deliberately set up shots of her from angles that distorted the flare of her nostrils or unnecessarily emphasized other body parts. Sometimes organizers of press conferences informed Davis, upon her arrival, that only reporters were welcome there. Once, a White socialite coordinating a fashion show that Davis was assigned to cover scolded her for falling behind on the ironing duties — even though Davis arrived with a fully-equipped cameraman.
Looking back, Davis insists her difficulties paled against those of Blacks struggling to integrate public schools and other facilities, saying, “I didn’t have to endure big water hoses or vicious police dogs, just a few insults.”
She landed big stories, some of them exclusives. When the Black Panthers rose to prominence in the late 1960s, her access to Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and other leaders was sometimes unmatched by other reporters. Such access, she says, might have resulted from a trustworthy reputation she had earned while organizing regional “Miss Bronze” beauty pageants earlier that decade. While national “Miss America” contests remained segregated, “Miss Bronze” pageants celebrated Black women of every skin tone.
Ironically, these pageants helped propel Davis into TV journalism. She volunteered as program host of a televised “Miss Bronze” preview, and a newspaper column praised Davis’s skill and declared that a TV station ought to hire her. Buoyed by the compliment, she applied for TV news reporting jobs until getting hired in 1967.
Last year, then-SFSU President Dr. Robert Corrigan contacted her about developing a digital archive of her papers, Davis says, which includes scripts, photos, ephemera and other memorabilia. Corrigan, now retired, was a 2012 winner of the Dr. John Hope Franklin award, an annual recognition for excellence in higher education sponsored by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education magazine.
SFSU spokeswoman Ellen Griffin confirms that school officials have discussed with Davis the possibility of housing her archive there but that no agreement has been reached yet. Such talks are worthy, Griffin notes, “because Ms. Davis is one of the great practitioners in Bay Area journalism history.”
Rodgers calls it fitting that Davis and SFSU officials have held such talks, saying, “Belva really wanted to attend this university, but instead, this may become the culmination of a wonderful life journey for her.”
Since retiring, Davis has enjoyed spending more time with her husband, Bill Moore, one of the first Blacks to work as a TV news cameraman in this country, who in recent years, has taught digital video at Ohlone College.
The tribute honoring Davis is Saturday at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and includes a reception and video interviews. Among the newsmakers expected to attend is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a longtime news source for Davis and whose budding political career in San Francisco in the 1960s paralleled Davis’s TV career. More event information is available at www.babja.org
The Bay Area Black Journalists Association is planning a college journalism scholarship in Davis’s name that its members will administer, Rodgers says. Monies raised this weekend will fund this award, as well as the cost of the digital archive.
BABJA is accepting tax-deductible contributions to both funds in Davis’s name. Checks can be made payable to “Bay Area Black Journalists Association” and mailed to 1714 Franklin Street #100-260, Oakland, Calif., 94612. Specify on the memo line of the check whether the gift is for “Belva Davis archive project” or “Belva Davis scholarship.” If donors want their gift split between both purposes, please enclose a note with this instruction.