Wherever there was big Bay Area news, Belva Davis was there.
Greg Habiby © KQED 2009
Longtime East Bay resident Belva Davis is more than a familiar face on the news: She’s a Bay Area media icon. The host of KQED’s This Week in Northern California was the first African American television reporter on the West Coast when she first hit the airwaves in 1967 and has had a steady presence in the highly competitive news business ever since. Davis, who now lives in San Francisco, recounts her career in her new book, Never in My Wildest Dreams: a Black Woman’s Life in Journalism. In a recent interview, she talked to Diablo about the remarkable trail she has blazed.
Diablo: Your family moved to the East Bay just before the start of World War II. Why?
Belva Davis: I had an uncle who filed a lawsuit in Louisiana against a major employer—and he won. The town was ready to tar and feather him. So, the whole family needed to migrate, and we came to California. We took a segregated train across the country. My little suitcase was my seat. We moved into Eighth and Peralta streets in Oakland.
What was California like at the time?
I had these fantasy dreams of California, but when we arrived, it was not what I expected. We had 11 relatives living in a two-room basement apartment.
When we moved to El Cerrito, we moved from one economic class to another: We bought our first house there. When I got a decent job in television, we were able to move up into the hills and have a view of three bridges. It gave us a chance to feel like we’d reached the real America—the America we had heard so much about.
How did you get into TV news?
I drifted into the media—started as a volunteer. I wrote cutlines for a group of ambitious black women who wanted to work with the March of Dimes. Then, I started writing little bits of information for Jet magazine, then became a columnist, and then an editor for black newspapers. And that led to black radio, which led to being crazy enough to try to go on mainstream TV.
Which you did. What was your first story?
On February 7, 1967, I covered the Miss Chinatown pageant for Chinese New Year. I started soft with a beauty pageant and moved up from there.
I didn’t really remember that was my first assignment until I started researching the book. I found so much, thanks to the resources of the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive. It was wonderful to see a very young Muhammad Ali and Belva Davis sitting on a park bench and talking, or to find the film of me interviewing Dr. Martin Luther King.
The late 1960s were quite a time to become a news reporter. What stories stand out the most from that time?
Spending time with Robert F. Kennedy just days before he was shot. Native American issues were his cause at the time, and we rode on a helicopter together to a reservation. I was the only reporter on the trip. One of the things we talked about was the idea of change: He was so focused on the have-nots. And a few days later, he was dead … so, to have had that opportunity was a special thing.
Another big East Bay story from that time was the Black Panthers. What are your reflections on your interviews with Huey Newton and the Panthers’ story?
That was my Waterloo. It was difficult—to have brown skin and report this story, and not have people think that the reporting was biased. This was complicated by the fact that Huey Newton and I came from the same small town in Louisiana. I had met him at a beauty pageant, long before I was covering him in the Panthers.
The Panthers that evolved were not the group that started: Their origins were a sincere effort. But after they marched on the capitol with guns, it became an international story, and every news reporter was chasing them.
It was a really stomach-churning period of time, which kept getting more and more complicated as it went along. But the stories that resonate with me even more were covering demonstrations at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State, where I witnessed people being clubbed. I remember being so horrified by the violence and wanting to look away. I had to remind myself, ‘It’s your job to watch this.’