Categories: Local Voices

Dr. Katie Davis: A Witness to Jim Crow

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal  and Guide

For many Americans, they are exposed to the  brutality and segregation of Jim Crow on the pages of books, Internet websites,  newspaper articles or TV news.

But there African Americans and whites who are in their 60s and older who have witnessed it firsthand.

They lived in the colored “sections” of their hometowns, attended all-Black public schools, sat near the rear entrance of physicians  offices in the “colored” waiting rooms, saw lynching’s or were beaten senseless for demanding to be respected.

There are younger folks who have been victimized or witnessed the contemporary version of Jim Crow.

“Tall Cotton…Watch  Me Grow,” (Amazon)  is Dr.  Katie Davis’ memories of Jim Crow she witnessed firsthand, as a child living in the South, in the 1940s, during the height of  the American version of apartheid.

Davis now 82, was a Professor of English at NSU from 1974 to 2000, when she retired. She and a broad range of  writers share their encounters with

Jim Crow, with the ongoing Seven Cities Writer’s Project Jim Crow Era Memoir Writer’s Workshops

A new workshop starts on March 1 weekly from 10 a.m. to noon at Portsmouth’s Colored Community Library Museum at 904 Elm Street.

Lisa Hartz is the Executive Director of the Seven Cities Writers Project.  She was born in Detroit, Michigan and said she migrated to Hampton Roads, living in Portsmouth and Norfolk.

“It  (the workshop) will allow  the writers  to explore how a person coped with the daily pressure and challenges posed by institutionalized racism, currently and historically.”

“We are collecting stories of Black people who lived and witnessed Jim Crow,” said Hartz.

“They will write  them, share them for comments, then placed on our blog for the entire community to read. We not only have older people but people from all age ranges and backgrounds who want to share their experiences.”

Dr. Katie Campbell Davis, she said, was born in Lumber City, Georgia. Her father and mother were farm workers.  But P.C. Campbell, her father,  had a calling to the pulpit.

He had a career as a Methodist minister, and her father moved his family from one town to another in the South to lead various churches in Florida, Georgia,  Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

The title of Davis’ book is derived from her first vivid memories of toiling in the cotton fields.

“I was too small to work in the field,” she recalled. “I could not reach up high enough yet. But I do recall my mother, specifically, picking and going up and down the rows every day.”

Davis recalled that her father landed a job as a preacher in a church in  Sardis, Mississippi and he caught the attention of the white powers-that-be for his activities.

 “’Daddy became involved and started speaking out about the injustices he saw in that town,”  said Davis. “He was the only voice.

“One night we were in the church and Daddy was getting ready to preach. Suddenly this line of  KKK came in and sat in the back two rows of pews. Daddy did not flinch and he continued the service and did his sermon.

“During the offering, they (The KKK)  got up and marched around the offering table and walked out the back door,” Dr. Davis recalled. “A minute later an usher was looking out the back door and started hollering ‘fire’. They had set the church parsonage, which was our home afire.”

The Campbells were spirited out of town that night, fearing they would be targeted by the Klan, Davis said.

In Verona, Mississippi, Davis said one evening her family was driving from church down a narrow country road.   A truckload of white men came up behind them and forced my father to let them pass by. When they did pass, the truckload of men turned around, stopped in front of our car and shot a front tire of the car out and sped off down the road.

“Later a carload of Black men assisted my father in changing the tire,” she said.  “We could not report it to the police and we drove on home.”

Davis recalled that one day her father was driving alone down another rural road and spotted what she thought was a scarecrow dangling from a tree outside of Tupelo, Mississippi.

‘Initially, I thought it was so funny to see the scarecrow” said Davis. Then daddy began to drive slower. What we thought was a Blackman dangling from a rope… he and been lynched.”

Her family finally migrated to Nashville, Tennessee. Davis recalled the racial climate there was not as harsh as Mississippi. But her family was relegated to living in the “Black section of town” where her father headed a church.

She attended the Jim Crow schools in the city and later enrolled in Tennessee State University. She later attended the University of Illinois.

Davis said that she applied her degree as a teacher in the Nashville Public Schools system at a time when it was gearing up to desegregate.

But before they transferred the Black students to the all-white schools, many of the Black teachers were assigned to the white schools ahead of them.

“They picked the best teachers, coaches and other support staff from the Black schools,” said Davis. “I got an assignment at Hillwood school.  I did well as a teacher of the white students. I was busy planning various student activities.  I also had to educate the white administrators.”

“When they called for a white janitor or maintenance person over the intercom, they called him by his first or last name,” Davis said. “When they called a Black male janitor they call him ‘Jimbo or Sambo’. They called a  Black female by her first name.”

“I talked to the principal and he said he meant no disrespect. The Black workers, he said, were his friends and cut his grass during the summer,” Davis recalled. ”I  told him about the disrespect he was exhibiting to that Black person. Eventually, they stopped that and a few other practices.”

In the mid-1970s, Davis said Dr. Lyman B.  Brooks, President of NSU at the time, was casting a national net search for Black educators with Doctorates.

‘”Thanks to Dr. Thelma Carroll, I was recruited to Norfolk State in the Department of  English,” she said. “I  directed plays and other cultural events until I retired in 2000.”

“When I look back and think of how my parents provided for me,” said Davis,  “I settled on whom I am based on the Christian faith they planted in me like a seed.  I was able to grow  just like that cotton I watched my parents pick as a child.”

The eight-week writing course on recording thoughts and memories on Jim Crow segregation begins March 1, 2019 at the Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum, 904 Elm Avenue, Portsmouth, Virginia 23704. There is no fee, but registration is required and space is limited. Please call 757-393-8591 to reserve your space.

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