News / USA

Pioneering Reporter Helped Change Face of US TV News

African-American Belva Davis was among the first to break the color barrier

Belva Davis on the set of the television program, 'This Week In Northern California.'
Belva Davis on the set of the television program, 'This Week In Northern California.'



Through the first half of the 20th century, as television became a fixture in U.S. homes, the reporters Americans saw on TV were white, and almost all men. That began to change in the 1960s. African-American Belva Davis was at the forefront of that shift.

For thousands of TV viewers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Davis is a trusted, familiar face on the evening news. But, she recalls, while growing up, there were few black faces on TV.

"When I was a kid at home, we used to yell, 'Come look, come look. There's a colored man on television.' And the whole family would stop and we'd come to get a little glimpse of whoever that person of color was," says Davis. "Well, my goodness, if you did that now, you'd be exhausted by the end of the day."

Early years

Davis is one of the reasons American television now reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the country. She grew up in a poor Louisiana family in the 1930s, a place and a time in which segregation and discrimination were rampant.

Things weren’t much different when her family moved west, when Davis was still in school.

"We arrived in California expecting milk and honey, was not at all so," she recalls. "Just being disliked by so many people who didn't like our accents, didn't like our names, just didn't like very much about us because we were so different.”

Belva Davis interviews Coretta Scott King.
Belva Davis interviews Coretta Scott King.

Challenging times

Davis began her career writing for Jet, a black magazine, before moving on to radio. She remembers the early years as pretty tough.

“All my experience, the majority of it was working in totally segregated media. I could only work at stations that were programmed especially for black people. I could only write for newspapers that were published for a black audience. And no one else would give me even a decent (job) interview for many years."

But Davis persevered. She was among the first to break the color barrier when she was hired by a San Francisco TV station in 1967. As the first woman of color in the newsroom, Davis was seen as an oddball and many of her colleagues thought she wouldn't last.

At that time, Davis says, society at large wasn't ready for a black female TV reporter. She recalls encountering hostility and skepticism.

Breaking in

"I was working, doing the City Hall beat, and I wasn't allowed in the press room. I couldn't even put a telephone in the press room. And when I was asked to leave news conferences, because they'd say 'This is for reporters.' No one could believe that I was a reporter," she says. "Or a couple of times in hotels, being mistaken for the ironing person or the cleaning person. Those were all parts of growing in the business."

Belva Davis interviews Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Belva Davis interviews Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Determined to prove the skeptics wrong, Davis worked long hours and eventually reported on some of the most explosive stories in the headlines; Vietnam war protests, the Al Qaeda bombings in Africa that preceded 9/11 and the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and gay activist Harvey Milk.

In addition to the headline news, Davis sought out stories that would otherwise go untold. In the 70s and 80s, she was among the first in the nation to report on breast cancer, dyslexia and the mysterious new disease that was killing gay men - AIDS.

"The very first live interview with someone diagnosed with AIDS was a guy named Bobbi Campbell. Our technicians didn't understand the disease and it moved so swift and was killing so fast, that there was a lot of hysteria around it," she says.

Pioneering African-American reporter Belva Davis
Pioneering African-American reporter Belva Davis

According to Davis, the technicians refusd to set up the microphone because they didn't want Campbell touching any of the equipment.

"It was one of those real demonstrations of women power. They decided that the medical reporter would put the mic on him and the producer would go ahead and crank it up upstairs and we recorded that program and it made history of a sort," she says, "and were rewarded greatly by the fact that some lives were saved because of those early stories."

Today, Davis is still telling important stories. Now in her 70s, she remains active in journalism as host of a weekly current affairs show on public television.

Off the air, she continues to promote the hiring of minorities in the media, and serves as a role model for young journalists who will tell the important stories of the future.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs