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Veteran TV broadcaster Belva Davis shares uphill climb with Rotarians

Photo By: Steve Pomeroy/Special to the Town Crier
Photo Steve Pomeroy/Special To The Town Crier

Belva Davis addresses a crowd at a Rotary Club of Los Altos meeting May 30.

Award-winning journalist Belva Davis addressed members of the Rotary Club of Los Altos May 30, sharing how she overcame tremendous odds growing up in Louisiana to become the first female African-American TV reporter on the West Coast.

Davis’ memoir, “Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism” (Berrett-Koehler, 2012), describes in detail her tumultuous youth as the child of a 15-year-old mother in the segregated South, shuffled among seven families who could offer only temporary space.

One of her uncles sued Armour Meat Packing Co. after an industrial accident ended his ability to work, an unheard-of challenge at that time for an African-American. Her family moved West when she was 8 years old to an overcrowded project in Oakland, with 11 people sharing a two-bedroom apartment.

Despite the difficulties, the family’s move to California was “the best thing that ever happened to me,” Davis said, because she attended Berkeley High School and became the first in her family to graduate.

Davis learned at an early age to stand up for herself, particularly when racism and sexism reared their heads. As early as third grade, when her new teacher “corrected” her given name of Belvagene to Belva Jean, Davis insisted on using her proper name. Such challenges encouraged her to advocate for herself. She learned how to “get along” through such experiences, she said, not through any anger-management courses.

After working her way up to become a disc jockey at KSAN radio, Davis realized she wanted to be a journalist at the 1964 Republican Convention at the Cow Palace, when she and another African-American journalist were jeered out of the venue with racial slurs and thrown garbage. It was scary, she said, but when she witnessed other news people reporting their outrage, she decided she wanted to be like them.

She began writing for Jet magazine, and then the Bay Area Independent newspaper in Oakland. During the turbulent political demonstrations of the 1960s, Davis found ways to advance the causes of equality and black pride, including producing the Miss Bronze Northern California Beauty Pageant.

As the first female African-American journalist to cover many landmark stories, she interviewed Linus Pauling and reported on such high-profile events as the birth of the Black Panthers, the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

Over the next two decades, Davis made a name for herself as she worked through the ranks as news anchor at KPIX-TV, KQED Public Television 9 and KRON-TV and as host of KQED’s “This Week in Northern California.” After a career that spanned nearly 50 years, she retired last November.

Davis said that during a speech she gave for Korean journalists, she encouraged them, “Don’t be afraid of the space between your dreams and reality.” One of the Koreans responded, “Me and my friends, we don’t dream anymore.”

Her goal in writing “Never in My Wildest Dreams,” Davis said, was to shine a light on the everyday injustices that many African-Americans rose above and to inspire all people to strive to achieve their dreams.

Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit www.losaltosrotary.org.

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