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‘Hunger’ for Success a Driving Force in Belva Davis’ Storied Journalism Career

April 6, 2011 at 6:13 PM EDT
Belva Davis, the first African-American woman television journalist on the West Coast, speaks with Judy Woodruff about her pioneering -- and sometimes difficult -- career in broadcast news and her new memoir. This story was done in partnership with KQED in San Francisco.

GWEN IFILL: Next, a pioneer from the world of broadcasting and the stories she can now tell.

Judy Woodruff has our profile of Belva Davis. The story was done in partnership with KQED San Francisco.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the San Francisco Bay area and much of the rest of Northern California, Belva Davis is a household name. For more than half-a-century, she’s been writing, reporting and broadcasting the news, starting in the 1950s, when the only media job open to blacks was a weekly newspaper, and women in news were hardly seen or heard, no matter their color.

I spoke with her recently at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco about her memoir that chronicles a journey from a life of poverty in segregated Monroe, La., to a career as a respected TV journalist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it has been an extraordinary life, not just growing up poor, but growing up in a family where you were moved from one place to another. And yet, you — here you are today.

BELVA DAVIS, KQED Television: That’s why the book is entitled “Never in My Wildest Dreams,” because I could not ever have imagined as I was growing up.

I spent many years trying to figure out where I was going to sleep the next night off and on, in periods, as I moved around from relative to relative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You moved from Louisiana as a young girl to Arkansas, grandparents, and then to California here, to the Bay Area.

BELVA DAVIS: And that was, again, part of this dream. I always thought I would spend my days in northern Louisiana, and that was going to be it, and until we were forced, really, to — the family, to leave the South and head for California.

And that was an education unto itself, because Southern blacks were not particularly welcomed even in West Oakland, where I ended up. It was a longtime Portuguese neighborhood, and we were invading. And so, that took some adjustments.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She was the first in her family to graduate from high school, but couldn’t come up with $300 to go to college. She wasn’t deterred.

You went to work, were married when you were, what, 19?


JUDY WOODRUFF: And then you quickly got into writing and into journalism. How hard was that for an African-American woman in the 1950s?

BELVA DAVIS: There were no examples.


BELVA DAVIS: There were no examples.

Well, I shouldn’t say that. There were examples if you wrote for the black press or if you did radio for a black-owned program, radio stations. But there was no opportunities for women of my color to see themselves in the broader society performing in those kinds of arenas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then, at some point, you made the transition from reporting for either black audiences, black-owned media to working in radio, in television, in the integrated news environment. How big a shift was that for you?

BELVA DAVIS: That was so big that, when I finally landed a job — and remember, there were no women of color that I had seen on television doing this job.

Well, when I went to work, I was very concerned, because I had always worked for advocacy publications. But my station manager, a very wise guy named Lou Cerman, called me into his office after I had been at work a few days, and said: “We want you to know, now you are a reporter for all of the people, not just some of the people. So, if you really want to succeed, you will remember to do that, keep in mind that you are no longer advocating for anything. You’re reporting the news as it happens.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how — was it hard to make that change?

BELVA DAVIS: It was extremely hard, because I was also the first girl street reporter.


BELVA DAVIS: And that’s what I was referred to: “going out with the girl.”

It was hard. But never did I doubt that it was worth it. And I think that’s the key to persevering and pushing forward. And many negative things happened, but I tried not to dwell on those. I tried to look for…


BELVA DAVIS: … what else can I do to convince these guys that I can handle this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the scariest experiences she had was covering the 1964 Republican presidential convention in San Francisco as a radio reporter, when fans of conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater turned on her and a black colleague, yelling the N-word and — quote — “What in the hell are you doing in here?”

BELVA DAVIS: And we were spotted in the rafters, and we were driven out. And we had many scary moments running the gauntlet of folks who didn’t like us, with bad names.

And when we got through with that, and we got in our car, and we were driving home, and I thought about the contrast of the journalists, who were just trying to tell the truth and how people needed to know that, but often they had — they didn’t have a person with my background to tell our side of the story.

And so I said to myself: This is it. I want to be like those guys.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The turbulence of the 1960s that saw anti-war protests and riots at the University of California at Berkeley gave Davis another chance to prove herself.

BELVA DAVIS: When I — I was covering Berkeley, and it was really difficult. So, my assignment editor says, “I will give you something new.”

And I said, “What’s that?”

And he said, “the Black Panther Party.”

Well, I didn’t think anything of it. Huey Newton is from Monroe, La. I knew Bobby Seale. And this was what I brought to the table, this knowledge of a community that they did not know, about the other side. They didn’t know about the anger that had built up because of inequities. They didn’t know about the demands for better treatment and better education.

And it was my job to tell that story. It’s a third-day story, maybe, but at least it got on the air.

It was mid-afternoon when Sen. Robert Kennedy arrived here at the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: When high-profile national figures, like Sen. Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali came to Northern California in that era, Davis’ reporting showed a unique perspective.

MUHAMMAD ALI, boxer: We don’t drink. We don’t smoke. We don’t chase white women. We’re not looking to integrate. We bathe twice a day, pray five times a day. And we don’t want to push white people out of the neighborhoods. We’re not pushing them out of the restaurants, but yet we seem to be the most despised and hated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For all of your achievements, you write in the book and you talk about being unflappable in the face of some really difficult circumstances that — where you were out covering a story.

You also write at one point — or maybe more than one point — that you felt you had to prove yourself day after day after day. Why?

BELVA DAVIS: Well, because I was always trying to anticipate what skills I would need for the next phase of the media as it grew. And I realized I didn’t have an alumni association to go to. I didn’t have a college backup. I didn’t have classmates I could call, that I had to find the people who would help me survive and move on to whatever the next frontier was.

And this hunger for — one would call it ambition — to be successful in a media where I have not been expected to be, had not been accepted for so long, and where expectations had been so low by so many people, I just couldn’t let them win. I couldn’t let them get the best of me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you still feel that way today, that…

BELVA DAVIS: I still do. I mean, I…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … that you have to prove yourself day after day?

BELVA DAVIS: I feel I have to do that, that the baggage you take with you from your childhood as to who you are, the concept of what it takes to make it for your group, your gender, that stays in the back of your mind, I think, no matter how far you advance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Belva Davis, thank you very much for talking with us.

The book is “Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism.”

Thank you.

BELVA DAVIS: Judy, this has been more than a pleasure.