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|First Black Homecoming Queen at Virginia Tech: Marva Felder Davis, Class of 1983|
Date of interview: 27 March 1999
Location of interview: sound booth, Media Building at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
Interviewer: Tamara Kennelly
Transcriber: Jontae Ross
[Tape 1, side 1]
Kennelly: Where are you from?
Davis: I'm from Chester, Virginia.
Kennelly: And that's where you grew up?
Davis: Grew up in Chester, Virginia. Little bit of a military brat. Spent a little bit of time overseas as a very young child, but grew up in Chester, Virginia, the majority.
Kennelly: So your father was in the military?
Kennelly: And where did you go over seas?
Kennelly: What age was that?
Davis: Very young. I was, I left Germany at about three and a half.
Kennelly: That's really young.
Davis: Really young. Lot of memories still.
Kennelly: Memories of that? Like what kind of memories?
Davis: I remember my first bike ride without the training wheels. I remember my fall and the scar that I still have on my knee because of it on the first bike ride without the training wheels. I remember the apartment that we used to live in. We had a couple of German nannies that sat for us while my parents went to work. The playground that was behind the apartment complex that we lived in.
I remember my mother being pregnant with my younger sister, and going into the grocery store and how wide she was and just remembering she was full of baby.
I remember, I have a burn scar on my arm because I was toddling in places I wasn't supposed to, and the nanny went in the kitchen to do something and she had been outside in the family room ironing and watching me watch TV, and she went into the kitchen to get something, and I walked over to the ironing board which was, at that time seemed to be ten feet higher than me, and I lifted my arm on top the ironing board and was moving it around, and the iron fell on my arm, and I have a nice little iron scar that you can still see if look real close, but a lot of little memories.
We traveled to other countries, and I remember going into a market and buying our dutch shoes we wore around as kids. I used to carry a blanket around as my pacifier. And as we traveled on the express way in Germany, I lost one of my blankets there. Just little things.
Kennelly: That's a lot to remember. [Laughing by both]. Riding a bike without training wheels!
Kennelly: That's remarkable!
Davis: My dad had a white Ford, and he was out washing the car, and I had my bike with training wheels, and I asked if he would take the training wheels off, and he did, and he--you know how parents run with you down the side for a little bit--and I was riding the bike, and he let go of me, and I went a little bit further, fell down and scarred my knee. Got up and did it again! [Laughing]
Kennelly: Now you said you were an only child?
Davis: No, I'm one of four. My mother, I still have a younger sister also.
Kennelly: Four. Where are you in the family?
Davis: I'm the fourth of five.
Kennelly: And the fourth of five. Are they girls or boys?
Davis: All girls. No boys.
Kennelly: So, did your father stay in the military?
Davis: Yes. He did twenty years in the military. He--I believe he got out in 68, after he did his, he did a year tour in Vietnam and came back and retired after twenty years.
Kennelly: And what about your mother?
Davis: My mother was director of social work at the medical college of Virginia for twenty--well she was there as a social worker for 20 plus years, and the majority of it she was the director of social work.
Kennelly: So, when you grew up, you had a working mom, so she was working when you were...
Davis: Oh yes. I had working parents. My grandfather was a practicing physician, My grandmother, before I knew her was a librarian, and she worked in the office, my grandfather's office for the years that I knew her growing up, so everybody worked.
Kennelly: It's been so many, it sounds like in your family, I mean, education was..
Davis: Very important.
Kennelly: ...very important, not starting with your generation but starting back.
Davis: That's correct. That's correct. My dad went to college. My mother, my dad's a Tuskegee graduate. My mother is a Fisk University graduate. My grandfather graduated from Harry Medical School. My grandmother graduated from Virginia State.
Kennelly: Now I'm not familiar with Chester. Is that a city?
Davis: It's a city. It's between Richmond and Petersburg Virginia. It's about 20 minutes south of Richmond.
Kennelly: And was that, when you were growing up, was that a well integrated place?
Davis: No, (pause) somewhat integrated, but not well integrated. It wasn't 50/50 at all. The student population in my junior high school and high school was maybe 20 percent black.
Kennelly: So how , how was that for you growing up?
Davis: A pleasant change, actually. Grew up in the Richmond public schools up until the middle of sixth grade, and that was a predominately black school, and then transferred to Chester, Virginia and finished my, from the sixth grade through graduation, through the 12th grade in Chester. It was a very big difference.
I told people my experiences in the Richmond schools at that time was.. not very pleasant. I had a lot of friends. I never felt like I really was challenged to learn in the Richmond public schools at that time. I don't recall, I don't recall studying at any point. My grades were okay. I had some very good teachers, and I remember some teachers challenging me a lot, but also I remember just not, it was, to go to school, not really to take, I don't remember bringing home homework to have to do.
Everything was done in the classroom. My science teacher was my math teacher, and our science class we had maybe twice a week where the math teacher would clear the front, put out long tables with the flasks and the burners and each flask had different colors, and you'd mix these two colors and poof! you know something would minorly blow up, and that was your science experiments.
Then I moved out to the Chesterfield County school system and had a very hard time my first grading period. My grades were very poor, especially in math. I was in the sixth grade, the middle of the sixth grade. My science grades were very poor. We went from that flask experience to learning definitions, memorizing scientific definition and so forth, and the concept of, that meant I really had to go home and study which was incredibly new to me. I was in a foreign language class, was taking French, and again I would have to go home and study was a foreign event for me. So my first semester, my first grading period, my grades were not that good. I learned how to math, my science teacher in Chester was very good in understanding and talked with my parents.
I wasn't on my best behavior when I was there because I, I was the only African-American in my class at that time. I didn't have very many friends. Everything was a little bit different, but I enjoyed it because I had another atmosphere at the same time.
When I was in the Richmond public schools, I had friends and I had people that didn't like me because I was attractive, or not that I thought I was, but that the guys thought I was, and I had people who because I had nice clothes, or what they considered nice clothes, my parents were perceived as being rich, so I was the pretty little rich kid with long hair which was enough for a lot of people to not like me or not want to like me or want to get to know me, so there were always those conflicts in the Richmond public schools. I moved out to Chester, and I never really had a problem with race, but I never had a problem with being a guy's friend and not having a girl care that he was a friend and only a friend, you know someone to talk to.
I, it's just the experience was very different, I learned how to study when I got into the county school systems. I had to learn how to study. And I remember in the Richmond public schools, which was predominantly black at that time, I remember learning my first, my first learning experience was I had two or three white students that came out of the private school into my classroom, and they were incredibly smart to me. They didn't have to study. They knew the answers. They got straight A's without even trying. And I equated at that early age that the reason for that was because they went to private school. And so from that age, which was very young, I always said my kids would go to private school 'cause that's where you really learn how to learn. They learned how to study and what things were important at that time, and I kept that opinion even up through college as a matter fact, and it didn't change until I was married and had moved to another area and learned that it isn't the school, it's the principal or how the principals run the schools. It's the superintendent and what there requirements are for curriculum and board members and so forth. And then down to the teacher themselves and what their expectations are going to be of the students.
But the Chester public schools--I befriended a white girl in the eighth grade, ninth grade who was considered a geek because she was very smart and got all A's, and we were put together in a science class to do a science project, and I thought that was going to be the worst experience of my life [laughing], and we did the science project together, and I got to know her, and she was a wonderful person. We were best friends all through high school and into college. We've lost touch since.
But she and that experience took me from a C average student to a B+ and A student from the ninth grade on. I learned to study. She became a positive means of competition to me to see who could get the better grade, and that, that was my drive in studying, not just to make good grades, but to get me into the habit of studying and learning to study. It was, she was my competition. She was a straight A student, and it was I can do this too. And I carried it on from there.
I had a few teachers who also challenged me and the Chester school system. And if you really, really got on my bad side as a teacher, that made me do even better. I had one teacher walk into my classroom and tell all of us there was no way we could get an A out of her class. Boom! That was all I needed. That was my drive.
Kennelly: That's what you mean getting on your bad side?
Davis: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And that was, that was my drive. And when I, she would deliberate, she was an English teacher ,and English was not my forte. Math I enjoyed better. Science was an incredible challenge. I was always bored with basic science, but as I got into the higher science levels I really enjoyed that. When she walked in and told us there was no way we could get an A, especially on this one particular exam, and I remember slumping down in my seat and saying, "You watch." [Laughing by both].
And unfortunately the topic was--we were studying the writings of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, probably for me then the boringest subjects in the world, and I remember going home and just sitting down on my bed and saying, okay now what? We're studying Washington and his writings, studying Jefferson and his writings, what is she going to want to know about? This test--because part of it was multiple choice and part of it was essay, and what is this essay going to be about?
And something, I don't know where it came from, but I did open up both of those books and thinking about what we had gone through in class and said okay, hmm, let's contrast the writings of Washington and Jefferson. What are some of the difference here? Don't ask me where that thought came from, but I was determined to get this A, and I needed every angle that I could come up from, and I started listing, just writing down, doing some comparisons between the two--comparisons. Guess what my essay question was?
Kennelly: Oh my God! [Laughing]
Davis: Compare and contrast the writings of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. I said thank you, Lord! [Laughing]. I sat down and I didn't stop until that, that page--it was supposed to be a two page essay--it was done. I went back, proofread it, dotted all the i's, crossed every t, made sure every period's where it was supposed to be, every comma where it was most appropriate.
Came back later on that afternoon, and said, I can't, I can't remember the teacher's name at this point, but it's okay. You've got the grades right? Can you tell me what I've made? She looked and she says, 'Well you missed one.'
Okay, can I see my paper? So she showed me the paper. And I said umm, okay. She found some little grammatical error and she took off 3 or 4 points. And I said okay, I missed one. But this is still an A isn't it! That's all I want to know! This is an A! And I gave her the paper back and said, "I thought you said no one would do it. Have a nice day." [Laughing] And left
Kennelly: Did she save face?
Davis: No. You know what? She was not a bad teacher. I think that was her way to drive some of us, and I didn't even really realize then that that was, to tell me I can't do something was as motivating as it actually was. I really looked at it more from a high school mentality. Don't tell me what I can do. And it was more personality conflict over that issue, more than I'm going to prove you wrong. I never, until I got into college and got a little bit older, looked at it as her way of driving us to accomplish something.
She was the first person that taught me ignorant was, the definition of ignorant, because she came to the classroom and would tell us that we were ignorant frequently, and I was offended by that as were a lot of other people, and when she confronted with that we had to look up the definition of ignorance. It was not necessarily defined, nor could I could actually take it that way anymore as being dumb or as being derogatory, it is something that you don't know. To be ignorant is something that you don't know or that you don't understand. It does not explain why. Its just that you don't know. And she trying to teach us. And when I looked at it from that perspective, I said okay, I still don't like to be called ignorant [Laughing], but yeah, you're right. There are some things I don't know. That's why I'm here.
Kennelly: Well what about, you know, sixth grade is kind of when, maybe it starts earlier, but especially, you know, boy, girl things at parties and all that a kid would think, were you included in the social life with your, when you were in that, those ages prior to high school?
Davis: I had a lot of friends. I was not really included in a lot of social activities. I was, and I wasn't. I consider myself somewhat outgoing and talkative. I guess I've never been a shy person. But I had a very select group of friends that I did things with. I really only had three good friends in high school. It was a very cliquish environment.
I was the only black student in most of my classes. My girlfriend from the ninth grade, Naesha, was my best friend. I had another black girl that had, she and I became very good friends, Denise. And then a guy, he and I grew up like brothers from high school on. He was James. And James and I did everything together. Naesha and Denise would be in some different classes. James was in a few other classes. A lot of times I was the only black student in my classes. But in terms of extra-curricular activities, we did them based on what we were all doing. It was basically three of the four of us that would hang out together, but James and I did everything together.
So much so that we were always considered for the homecoming king and queen. We said you can't do that because we're not a couple. We're just together. We're just excellent friends. We're brothers and sisters. Our name got on the ballot every time [laughing] because no one could believe I guess that we were that close a friend and not really have that type of relationship.
And I didn't really have, I had some guys that I dated. I never really dated anyone in my school. Even here, I never really dated anyone in my school. That was too close. I never liked a lot of people in my personal business. But it was nice that I had a lot of white friends. We, just as friends, just socialize with during the day and talk to. Some of us, I never really, we never really went out. And I never looked at it as a racial problem or anything. It was just that I was more into my true friends, and we all did things together--went to concerts, do sleep-overs, things like that. But I didn't really go out a whole lot when I was in school. I was more of a homebody, just by choice for the most part.
Kennelly: Was James African-American?
Davis: Yes, he was African-American.
Kennelly: So, did you go to the school dances and things when you were in school?
Davis: With James.
Kennelly: With James. And you got nominated to be the..
Davis: Well yes, but we always cast it aside. We always declined because it was a couple situation, and it was meant for couples that were going together, and that's not the relationship that we had. We went to the junior and senior prom together. He was a football player. So we always go to the games and cheer him, you know, things like that. We would attend the activities, or I would go by myself, or Naesha and I would go. We'd all meet there for school activities and have a good time. That was about the extent of it.
Kennelly: And was that, was it in your high school, was that considered sort of groundbreaking, that you guys would be even, you know, that they would want you to run for homecoming king and queen? Where you the first African-American couple even though you weren't a couple that was..
Kennelly:...considered for that?
Davis: To my knowledge I think so, but race was never an issue in my life. I knew about it, I know it existed, I knew racism existed, but I, I guess you, to a large extent I was taught to cast that aside and move on. So I presume that a lot of racial connotations or comments that might have been there that I heard just... and I kept right on going which probably aggravated a lot of people who would have said them with intent to hurt.
But I wasn't confronted with racism actually till I got to Tech. I was in Vet school, and it smacked me in the face kind of hard. But we all just there, we were all just friends. I imagine that there were children who were raised not to like blacks. Well they weren't around me when I was in school, because they chose not be around me when I was in school
Kennelly: When did it smack you in the face?
Davis: Umm... (pause) It was my junior year in Vet school. My roommate and I, who was black, had decided not to stay in Fox Ridge anymore but to look for another apartment because we were doing our fourth year rotations and were weren't going to be in Blacksburg the entire time, so maybe we could find something a little less expensive and not do a full year's lease. So I looked in the ads, and we found one. Perfect location. Close to school. The rent rate and size and everything seemed to be okay.
And I made a phone call to the agent. Which was.. we talked and I had references and so forth, and she asked all the basic questions, and everything sounded okay to her. I asked all the basic questions, and everything sounded okay to me. The next step was arrange to see the place. And she said well I don't see any problem at all. Come by, and lets, you know, we'll take you by there and have a look at it, and we can sign the contract and go from there. I said great. I don't see a problem at all unless they have a problem with me being black. And I really just said that to say it , and she stopped, and she said well actually the owner does have a problem. She doesn't want to rent it to anyone black. Well , I said excuse me. And she says it not my preference at all, but the owner did state that she does not want to rent it to a black person at all. And I was like, well okay, I guess that is a problem.
And I hung up, and I was a little set back from it. And then I got really angry. And then I got even angrier because the real estate was working for a prominent, well-known real estate agency, and I thought it was completely unethical for her to even have the property to try to rent out to someone. And I was a hairs breathe away from pursuing that legally. I didn't want to stay there, I was just going to pursue...
Davis: them choosing...
Davis: Right. And I am a very principled person. I will go to the nth degree sometime just to prove a point. But after talking about it a little bit more I just decided, you know, it's going to be my fourth year in Vet school. Don't want this hassling headache. I think I called the owner of that firm back and made my comments to them, and I just left it.
Kennelly: Now what, around what year would that be.
Davis:'86. Going into '87. From there, racism slapped me in the face when I was living in Savannah, Georgia.
Kennelly: What happened there?
Davis: My ex-husband was the superintendent of schools in Savannah, Savannah public school system. And when we moved down there, he and his predecessor and his boss at that time were involved in, very heavily involved in writing the desegregation plan for their school system. When their predecessor left, he took over as superintendent, and... we were invited to attend a breakfast with one of the executive, one of the vice presidents of Dixie Crystal Sugar, and I was pregnant at that time, and it was a seven o-clock in the morning breakfast, so I passed, which I don't usually pass a lot because Savannah had some excellent restaurants, and this was one of them [laughing], you know.
And my ex-husband came back and told me about the breakfast and was a little distressed. What he told was that the gentleman he had breakfast with told him, Don't worry about trying to educate these blacks. Just teach them the difference between motor oil and antifreeze. They don't have the capacity to learn." And then patted my ex-husband on the arm and said, "Oh, but you're the exception, of course." Dixie Crystal Sugar. Till this day I have not bought Dixie Crystal Sugar. And I said you know there is a reason why I did not go to that breakfast that morning. God intended me not to go. Because I didn't turn down food at a good restaurant for any reason. Seven o'clock in the morning was not reason. So my ex-husband was a lit bit more passive than I was, and I said, "You know, its a real good thing because they would have been peeling me off of him from across that table."
That just infuriated me, and all my life I thought racism existed in the back woods. I thought--I knew it existed here. This was backwards for me. I never thought it existed from a highly educated and supposedly intelligent person who had made his way to one of the top executives at such a large facility. And it was living in Savannah where I learned and was exposed to a lot a racism. Not just with color, but with your socio-economic status as well. And I found that to be very insightful.
Savannah was a wonderful experience. Love to go there. A beautiful place to visit. There is a sign that says you're 20 miles away from 200 years ago. And we tell people that you have no idea how true that statement is. You have no idea. they did hold on to their culture, to their way of life almost too much. And there some wonderful people there as well. I left some very good friends, one of my best friends is still there. But it is extremely historical. And I told people, I said, "You know, I would go visit. I might even buy a house and retire there because its such a slow-paced community. But I'd never raise my family there.
I taught for a while, and I had white students who were old enough to be my parents come in, whose economic status was very low. But they were at a point in their life where they could finally go to college and wanted to go back and get their degree. And we sat in class after one of my sessions, and I don't know how we got on the subject, but I had a lot of older white women tell me that they were never taught to go to college. The concept was never about going to college, it was about learning a trade, for both blacks and low economic whites. It wasn't about going to college. And even when we got there, the push wasn't to go to college. The push was, if the push was to go to college at all, it was to go to the college that was there. It was never a big drive in the public schools to push their kids to go on to Yale or Clemson or Tech or Harvard. It was... little community college. And the antifreeze courses. Teach them how to take care of our cars and things. Yeah. So I learned that, I learned about it, or faced with it at an older age.
I didn't have a lot of confrontation in the high school. As a matter of fact, I always said I had it good in high school because I could go up to anybody that was a friend of mine and hug them and kiss them, kiss a guy and not be concerned with the girlfriend thinking that I was at all interested in him. The thought was never there. It was friendships that I was more interested in. Not having a sexual relationship with someone at that age. I guess my first real boyfriend wasn't until my senior year in high school. I just had friends. I just had a good time.
Kennelly: And what was your--is it like a suburban community?
Davis: Umm-hmm. It's.. yeah. It would be considered the suburbs of Richmond
Kennelly: So what about your family's social life? What did that revolve around? Did you have... Did your parents have black and white friends?
Davis: Yes. We split our lives between Richmond and Petersburg. We were smack in the middle between the two. Our church and all was in Petersburg and some of our friends were there. We had left Richmond, but my parents were very active in a lot of social clubs, sorority , fraternity. So we would be in Richmond sometimes, or they would be in Richmond sometimes. They both worked in Richmond at the Medical College of Virginia. They both commuted daily, back and forth. So our lives, our family lives existed around what I think is a 40 mile radius between Richmond and Petersburg
Kennelly: And so growing up there was never anything that felt like close? I mean, like including God. Those experiences that you were mentioning, but before that, anything that felt...
Davis: No. No.
Kennelly: Now why did you... Was your family active in NAACP or politically active or anything like that?
Davis: I don't know that they were members. I don't know that they were politically active, but they were very active. They expressed there concern in the organizations that they were in, the sororities, fraternities, cancer societies. I can't name all the organizations my parents were in. They were very active. And still are very active, even though they're retired. I think they've cut back some, but they're still very active in organizations. But not necessarily politically out there. Not in that respect.
Kennelly: It seems like you too were very, very active.
Davis: Sure. Sure.
Kennelly: That was something that sort of stands out when you look at all the different...when you were in college you engaged in many different kinds of organizations.
Davis: Tried to be.
Kennelly: But I kind of wondered...
Davis: Probably, probably because I flood downhill a little bit.
Kennelly: Maybe just how your family would approach life. I mean you'd do service or be involved.
Davis: My parents were never stagnant. I can't say that I was ever stagnant. There was a goal. There was a goal. Something that I believed in. Something that I wanted to be a part of--then I did it. Then they did it. And I guessed that's the way we were raised.
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