Of all the things that Charlie A. Davis has done and seen in his 104 years, nothing compares to the joys of being a husband and father. He and his late wife, Ruth, raised nine daughters. Nine. Mostly in a three-bedroom house. With one bathroom.
“I’d pray to God to help me make ends meet,” Davis recalled.
Davis was born Oct. 6, 1914, in a rural southern Alabama town called Suggsville. At a birthday party for him in Birmingham, Ala., daughters and their families — at least 100 people including grandchildren and great-grandchildren from throughout the country — gathered to sing his praises.
Davis and his wife had one life mission: their girls. They wanted to protect them and send them to college. They wanted to keep them out of harm’s way until they could fend for themselves. That was their preoccupation, 24/7. And Davis would do anything to achieve that goal.
“My father would point his finger at my nose and say, ‘God bless the child that has his own.’ And he’d say, ‘Do you have your own?’ ” said Marshá Y. Davis, 65, the eighth-born daughter, a lawyer who recently retired from the U.S. Energy Department in Washington. “I’d say, ‘No, Daddy, I’m not there yet.’ He’d say, ‘All right, you’ve got work to do.’ ”
Brenda Kendricks, 67, was the seventh-born, a mathematician who graduated from the University of Alabama. She recalled her father having a reputation for carrying a gun. “Everybody knew not to mess with the Davis girls,” she said.
Charlsie Cook, 75, was the third-born and became an educator. “Nobody was good enough for his girls,” she said.
Davis’s intense efforts are reminders that the issues spurring today’s #MeToo movement are age-old. Black women are doubly vulnerable — targeted because of gender and race, by men of all races.
Davis was particularly adamant that his daughters not become domestic workers, a common occupation for black women in the South during the mid-20th century.
“I did not want any of them doing laundry or cleaning in a white person’s house,” he said.
It wasn’t that the work was dishonorable, or just that it paid so little. It was the risk of sexual assault — by a white husband or his sons. As Davis saw it, the best way to protect his daughters from abusive men was to help them become educated women, supportive of one another and economically self-sufficient.
“He’d tell us to never accept gifts from a man, especially clothes,” said Arvella Davis-Stephens, 69, an ultrasonographer and the sixth daughter in the birth order. “If you’re wearing clothes that a man gave you and he gets mad at you, he could try to make you take them off in the middle of the street. He’d say if a man brings you a drink at a club, take it into the bathroom and pour it out because he might have spiked it with drugs. He’d give us money before we left the house so we’d always be able to get back home.”
But there were no guarantees. Danger was ever present. In Birmingham, in 1963, four daughters sitting in church could be killed by a bomb set off by the Ku Klux Klan.
“Did I worry about my girls? All the time,” Davis said.
Another reason Davis emphasized education was that he had been forced to end his own schooling at sixth grade. In his hometown, like many other Southern towns, there were no public junior high or high schools that blacks could attend. Education was not just separate and unequal; it was separate and nonexistent, the result of a system of racial segregation violently enforced.
But Davis persevered, encouraged by family members — including a grandfather, an herbal medicine man, self-taught veterinarian and casketmaker who had been a slave. From him he learned how dangerous life can be for black people.
“He told me about black men being taken into the woods, tied to trees and burned alive,” Davis recalled.
And from him he learned how to work to provide for his family. In the 1930s, Davis worked at a steel mill in Birmingham, unloading bricks from boxcars — in unwieldy wheelbarrows that he had to roll down steep ramps. During World War II, he moved north to the District, where he became a Pullman porter based at Union Station. On one memorable occasion, he was selected to work a sleeper car that had been set aside for one passenger: first lady Eleanor Roosevelt — a champion of the working class.
“The next morning, she thanked me and gave me a tip, a check for $100,” Davis recalled.
He made enough money to buy a truck that he could use to sell vegetables as he drove through black neighborhoods, ringing a bell to signal his arrival. That was his morning job. In the afternoon he drove a school bus and then, after taking a nap, helped his sister operate a social club that stayed open until midnight.
Still, his main job was his daughters. He was strict, old-fashioned. Boys could visit only on Sundays. They’d have to arrive promptly at 6:30 p.m. and be gone by 8 p.m. Anyone who did not show up wearing a shirt and tie was turned away.
“He required me to live in the nuns’ dormitory when I left home to attend Xavier University,” recalled Denise Davis Moore, who at age 59 is the youngest of the daughters. “None of the boys would even speak to me because they thought I was studying to be a nun. I decided to join a sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, just to be around girls I could talk to. But everyone was told to treat me special because I could be the first nun to pledge AKA.”
Moore became a pharmacist and works at a CVS near Judiciary Square. Her customers include all kinds of people, from high-ranking elected officials to those who stay in homeless shelters. “Daddy always told us to treat everybody with respect. When I received a Valentine’s card from a homeless man, it felt really good.”
Each time a daughter graduated from college, she was expected to help the next daughter get into school, providing tutoring if necessary and financial support. First came Shearlene Hall, who earned a doctorate in education; she is deceased but would be 82. Geraldine McCain, 79, second-born, went to Howard University and became an engineer. Charlsie Cook, the educator, was next, followed by their late sister Onedia Davis, the fourth-born. She was a consultant. She would be 73 today.
LeeBresta Davis, 71, was No. 5. She was born disabled and, of course, her family took care of her, too.
Arvella Stephens, No. 6, recalled Davis likening his daughters to a chain — Brenda, Marsha and Denise bring up the rear.
“He’d ask us where does a chain break? The answer was the weakest link. So for us to be strong, and not get broken, we’d have to support each other. When one was feeling weak, the others would be strong for her. We were links in a chain of sisters, keeping each other strong.”
Nine daughters, raised in an era when a black girl could be attacked with impunity. When all that stood between the Davis girls and danger was a father who’d defend them by any means necessary.
“I am so proud of the wonderful women you’ve become, but you’re still my girls and I will always be here for you,” Davis said at his birthday party.
And at 104, he really meant it.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.