Guest blogger Corryn Hall, now attending law school at the University of Missouri, was the Shiloh Museum’s education assistant when she conducted a series of oral history interviews with Betty Davis of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
By Corryn Hall
Back when I worked at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, when friends and family asked me about my job, it was hard not to brag. Not only did I have a very fun and stimulating position as education assistant, I also received heaps of encouragement from the museum’s staff to pursue my own research projects. One of these projects started with the opportunity to interview Betty Davis, a very remarkable woman who grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the era of Jim Crow laws. A woman who faced obstacles in her life I can barely comprehend, but who through an immovable courage accomplished her dreams. I’d like to share a little bit about my experiences with interviewing Betty and how honored I was to record her life story.
I met Betty in 2014, at a Washington County Historical Society event. She was there to talk about some of the documents and artifacts she had inherited from her family. I was immediately taken in by her friendly personality and enthusiasm about sharing her family history. When it was revealed that Betty was 89 years old, I was shocked (she looks great, 75 tops). But if I thought I was floored then, I definitely had to pick my jaw up out of my lap when Betty began to talk about her great-grandmother: a freed former slave who lived right down the street from Betty as a child. Betty is surely one of a very few people alive in Arkansas today who can say they have touched the hands of a former slave. I still get chills thinking about it.
Over the course of about a month I met with Betty at her home. I was a little nervous because I had never formally interviewed anyone before and I didn’t want to mess up this awesome opportunity. It didn’t take long for Betty to completely put me at ease. The first thing she did was make me a cup of her pink lemonade and ginger tea. We chatted a while, getting to know each other. She is a kind-spirited but also very extroverted person, and I am so happy to say that we really clicked. For our first interview I ended up staying there well past the time the card in my digital recorder was full.
Betty Davis was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on December 21, 1925. The house and land on Olive Street where she grew up was passed down through her family by her great-grandparents. Betty can only speculate how these two freed slaves had the money to buy such extensive property. It is one of many family mysteries on both her mother and father’s side due to the nature of the slave system.
Betty emphasized several times during our time together about how joyous her childhood was, despite living under the restrictions of Jim Crow. With great fondness she recalled the closeness of the community and the three staples in her life growing up: home, church, and school. The church, she said, provided many resources and activities that they could not get elsewhere.
School days were the happiest days of Betty’s life. As a child she attended Henderson School and later Lincoln School, Fayetteville’s schools for black children. Betty said she still gets goose bumps when remembering the day she marched into the new Lincoln school building with her classmates. Everyone was so excited and proud about the new building that a song was created to commemorate the day and Betty, still remembering every word, sang it for me. When talking about attending school as a child, Betty recalled,
“It was just a wonderful time in my life because I was thirsty for knowledge. Every child I knew when I was growing up was encouraged to get an education. The only way you’re going to be able to get out of the Jim Crow era is to be educated and compete. I heard that all of my growing-up life: you must get an education so that you can compete. And I think that this fired up most of us to do the best we could in school.”
It was this fiery passion for an education that shaped Betty’s life journey. After eighth grade Betty was forced to leave her beloved hometown of Fayetteville to live with her uncle in St. Louis so she could continue into high school. (There was no high school for black students in Fayetteville at that time.) The denial of an education was something that cut deep and stayed with her. As Betty described,
“I think it was at that point in life when I started to feel the resentment toward the rules that separated me and made me a second class citizen. But here I am. I was always an avid reader and I was always a good student and I always looked forward to continuing my education, and [then] to come up to the end of the ninth grade to find that there’s a door that’s gonna bar me from taking that next step. Yes, I was resentful, very resentful.”
This attitude that she was “not too dumb for Fayetteville” propelled Betty to become an honor student at Sumner High School in St. Louis. She was offered a scholarship to attend St. Louis University as a part of the first class of African American students there. Tragically, Betty’s only remaining parent, her mother, died shortly before the semester was to start. Betty was devastated, and since she was now responsible for her childhood home, she decided she could not walk away from taking care of her family’s estate and other financial obligations. She moved back to Fayetteville and told herself she would work hard to save enough money to attend college. Her drive for an education eventually led Betty to join the United States Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), with the idea that she would use the money earned after two years of service to pay for college. Though she was segregated during induction, Betty found she was treated with respect throughout her time training in the WAVES medical corps.
When her military service ended, Betty was finally able to realize her dream. She wanted the best education possible and was adamant about attending an Ivy League school. She was accepted at New York University, and was also granted a prestigious position in the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.
Betty Davis’s story came full circle in 1989, the year she and her husband moved back to Fayetteville. Betty returned to a very different Fayetteville than the city of her childhood, where she couldn’t remain in the store to eat an ice cream cone.
There are many other stories about Betty’s life that I know will stick with me, but what I really came away with was her incredible determination and her strong belief in herself. As this next new chapter of my life begins, I hope to emulate the same resoluteness and passion which radiates from Betty Davis. She will forever be an inspiration to me.