Interview with Merlene Davis, April 30, 2015

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries

 

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00:00:24 - Integration in Owensboro, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: This, this is Betty Bayé. I'm interviewing Merlene Davis on April the 30th, 2015, at the Nunn Center at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Segment Synopsis: Davis discusses her experience in the fifth grade of the integration of the school system in Owensboro, Kentucky. She comments, however, more on her teacher's treatment of her misbehavior by making her write short stories, than on integration itself. She explains that teachers at that time, as much in the segregated school as in the integrated school, were more professional and more rigorous than teachers in the present day.

[[Recording is interrupted at 9:51.]]

Keywords: Mary Lee Cravens Elementary School; Short stories; Writing

Subjects: Education.; Elementary schools.; Owensboro (Ky.); School integration.; Segregation.

GPS: Owensboro (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 37.758, -87.118
00:09:52 - Tense race relations in Owensboro

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Partial Transcript: Merlene, you were born just, uh--what is it--three years before Brown v. Board of Education.

Segment Synopsis: Davis recalls, at four or five years of age, being turned away from the drive-in theater along with the rest of her family. She explains that in the fifth grade after the integration of the school system, she returned home every day with a stiff neck from the tension of being at school.

Keywords: Elementary schools; Mary Lee Cravens Elementary School; Tension

Subjects: Race relations.; School integration.; Segregation.; Stress (Physiology); Stress (Psychology)

00:14:38 - Her family / her education at the University of Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Okay. And so, Merlene, so now you're in Owensboro--and you know what I'd like you--please give me the name of your mother and your father.

Segment Synopsis: Davis, after discussing her family background and her siblings, explains that she attended the University of Kentucky briefly before leaving out of frustration at how badly she was treated by faculty and other students. After a hiatus of nine years, she says, the intelligence of her young daughter motivated her to earn a degree. She wanted a degree in education, she explains, until she switched to English literature after facing racism from a professor of education.

Keywords: English literature; Siblings; Teachers; Universities and colleges

Subjects: College majors; Education.; Family life.; Parents.; University of Kentucky

00:27:05 - Training in journalism / working in Memphis

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Partial Transcript: So I left there and started looking around. I said, I could still major in English. So I started taking all kinds of literature, uh, classes, and loved them, and, um, but I still didn't know what I was going to do with an English degree.

Segment Synopsis: Davis explains how by chance she took up journalism as a second major at the University of Kentucky. She describes her further training through the Maynard Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and she explains how, after working for a time in Memphis, Tennesee, she was recruited in 1980 to work for the Lexington Herald-Leader by editor John Carroll.

Keywords: Gay Parade; John Carroll; Maynard Institute; Memphis Press-Scimitar; Nancy Hicks Maynard; Robert C. Maynard; University of California, Berkeley.

Subjects: Journalism.; Memphis (Tenn.); University of Kentucky

GPS: Memphis (Tenn.)
Map Coordinates: 35.118, -89.971
00:33:53 - Lessons in journalism

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Partial Transcript: What were some of the lessons you might have learned from John, or, uh--because we're in the state of journalism right now in 2015 where a lot of the newspapers don't have older, experienced people there.

Segment Synopsis: Davis explains that after she was assigned to obituaries and police reporting by managers whom she had angered, she learned two principal lessons: that detail is important, and that she was too emotionally sensitive to be a good journalist.

Keywords: John Carroll; Obituaries; Police reporting

Subjects: Journalism.; Reporters and reporting.

00:39:55 - Getting her own column

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Partial Transcript: No, no, I was gonna say let's talk about Merlene Davis and the transition--

Segment Synopsis: Davis talks about being given a column in the paper, and in the process faced discrimination from an editor.

Keywords: City hall reporting; Columnists; Feature writing; Newspaper columns

Subjects: Journalism.; Race discrimination.; Racism.; Reporters and reporting.

00:48:42 - The power of her column

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Partial Transcript: So early on, Merlene, you learned the power of a column.

Segment Synopsis: Davis discusses some of the most controversial pieces in her column, such as her very first piece in 1986 which pointed out how the north side of Lexington, Kentucky was neglected; a request in 1988 that Happy Chandler apologize after he used a racial slur in a committee meeting of University of Kentucky Board of Trustees; and an open letter to Tubby Smith in 1997 attempting to dissuade him from accepting an invitation to coach the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team.

Keywords: Happy Chandler; Rick Pitino; Threats; Tim Kelly; Tubby Smith

Subjects: Chandler, Happy, 1898-1991.; Hate mail; Kentucky Wildcats (Basketball team); Lexington (Ky.); Smith, Tubby

01:03:43 - Demonstrations at the University of Kentucky / the continuing problem of racism

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Partial Transcript: And even before, Merlene, now you did have involvement in the civil rights movement before your journalism thing. What, what were some of the experiences you had?

Segment Synopsis: Davis explains that she participated in demonstrations at the University of Kentucky around 1970, but that these demonstrations were as much against the Vietnam War as for civil rights. She compares the continuing problem of racism to a wound covered by a band-aid instead of being properly treated, and she attributes the continuation of the problem to fear on both sides. On the other hand, she discusses the weakness of those who do not see what progress has been made in the past several decades, explaining that the antidote to this weakness is good education, which today is hardly to be found because of the lack of professionalism among teachers.

Keywords: Baltimore (Md.); Barack Obama; Eric Holder; Janet Reno; Jeremiah Wright; Loretta Lynch; Student protests

Subjects: Anti-war demonstrations; Civil rights.; Peace movements.; Race relations.

01:16:10 - Advice to young journalists

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Partial Transcript: Well, Merlene Davis, you keep talking about--you said several times about retirement.

Segment Synopsis: Davis advises aspiring young journalists to enter a different profession because in recent decades the profession has declined from its previous role of watchdog, and is now concerned only with profit. As an example, she names the Iraq War as a turning point for the worse.

[[Recording is interrupted at 1:21:17.]]

Keywords: Cable News Network (CNN); Careers; Fox News; Microsoft and the National Broadcasting Company (MSNBC); News media; Popular cultures; Youth

Subjects: Civil rights.; Iraq War, 2003-2011.; Journalism.; Newspapers.; Press.; Reporters and reporting.; Teaching.

01:21:37 - A history lesson for freshmen

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Partial Transcript: So, Merlene Davis, you're a graduate of UK.

Segment Synopsis: Davis says that freshman at the University of Kentucky should know how long ago the first black student, Lyman Johnson, was admitted to the university, in 1949. She describes the racist comments of white students concerning a demonstration held in 2014 against the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She urges white students to take the initiative in speaking out against the racism they observe in fellow students and in professors.

[[Recording is interrupted at 1:28:54.]]

Keywords: African American students; Black students; Kentucky Wildcats (Basketball team); Lyman T. Johnson; Michael Brown shooting

Subjects: Civil rights demonstrations.; Race relations.; Racism.; University of Kentucky.

01:28:56 - The role of the African American columnist

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Partial Transcript: Merlene, when you got your column in nineteen eighty--

Segment Synopsis: Davis discusses the "Colored Notes" section of newspapers before they began regularly reporting news related to African Americans. Davis and Betty Bayé, former columnist for the Lexington Courier-Journal, discuss their role as black columnists.

Keywords: Betty Bayé; Colored Notes; Lexington Courier-Journal; Lexington Herald-Leader; News columns; Tim Kelly

Subjects: Journalism.; Newspapers.; Press.; Reporters and reporting.

01:38:50 - The wisdom of a mother

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Partial Transcript: And my last tag on this is, what about your role as a woman? How has your voice as a woman affected your work, or the reception by the public for what you write?

Segment Synopsis: Davis explains that while she does not have much to say about certain women's issues, she does have much to share from her experience as a mother, such as the experience of her son going to prison, which, she explains, is a relief because his safety at least is assured. She draws a parallel between this experience and a mother's beating her son during a violent Baltimore, Maryland demonstration against the police, forcing him to go home and away from a dangerous situation.

[[Recording is interrupted at 1:44:58.]]

Keywords: Baltimore (Md.); Demonstrations; Riots; Women's rights

Subjects: Drugs.; Mothers.; Police--Violence against.; Sons.

01:45:33 - A family of civil rights heroes

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Partial Transcript: Is there something that you want to s--I do know that there's something that we've said--there are other people in the Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Um, who, among everybody, or a lot of people--did you have some heroes of your own who should be in the Hall of Fame that maybe aren't, or some who are in, that you consider civil rights heroes?

Segment Synopsis: Davis expresses her gratitude to all the relatives who enabled her to become the woman she is. Specifically, she tells of her father's efforts to help her and her siblings with their schoolwork, and she recalls how her mother possibly prevented her father from being arrested by taking him away from a white man whom he was tempted to hit.

Keywords: Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame; Relatives

Subjects: Family life.; Fathers.; Mothers.; Race relations.; Racism.