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Reverend made lasting impression on city

Enoch D. Davis worked his way up from the cotton fields of Georgia to the pulpit in St. Petersburg, inspiring many along the way.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Enoch Douglas Davis rose from the cotton fields of Burke County, Ga., in 1925 and later blessed thousands here with salvation and freedom.

The Rev. Davis "was like Martin Luther King," Davis parishioner Harold Walker told the St. Petersburg Times in 1985.

As "the backbone of the city's black clergy," Davis increased his Bethel Community Baptist Church congregation from 180 to more than 700 members.

As an author, Davis unleashed social insight and religious inspiration in an autobiography, On the Bethel Trail, and Toward the Promised Land.

As a civil rights leader, Davis helped end citywide segregation, earning him 11 honors, including the National Conference of Christians and Jews' 1980 Silver Medallion Brotherhood Award.

Born in 1908, Davis remembered only nine of his 15 siblings. "Some died early," Davis wrote in his memoirs. "One was killed by lightning."

Prayers and hard work filled Davis' childhood in Waynesboro, Ga. "I dropped corn with such accuracy that other farmers would send for me," Davis wrote.

The area's sharecroppers, Davis recalled, attached guns to their plows for protection against white landowners. Davis' first teacher carried a whip, a strap and a switch.

In November 1925, Davis came to St. Petersburg. He first worked with the Georgia Engineering Co., laying Augusta block for $21 a week. Many evenings he unloaded ships at the city docks.

"Those were great days," Davis remembered. "Clothes were cheap, food was cheap, and we didn't have many places to go."

At 21, Davis delivered his first sermon at Second Bethel Baptist Church, now Bethel Community Baptist. He became the church's pastor two years later in 1932.

"The church always thought he was something special religiously," Hazel Davis, the minister's wife of 40 years, said recently.

Under Davis, the church opened green benches for blacks and boosted voter registration. The 84-unit Bethel Community Heights housing project at 731 15th St. S also became a reality.

Davis was the first black president of the St. Petersburg Council of Churches.

"He was in his own class as a minister," said the Rev. J.L. Fennell, pastor emeritus of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.

"I had in mind to serve the Lord," Davis said. "But to become an activist, no."

But when sanitation workers went on strike in 1950, "Davis took the whole town as his parish," said the Rev. Lacy R. Harwell in 1985. The city was spared great trauma.

Blood flowed in other cities, but Davis used communication, demonstration and the courts to fight segregation. "He built bridges, he didn't burn them," wrote Don Jones, the city's mayor from 1967 to 1969.

Davis' wife, now 77, called the period an exciting but scary time.

"Our living room was often full of Freedom Riders," she said. The Freedom Riders tested nationwide segregation laws and were headquartered locally at the church.

When segregationists threatened, bedrooms moved upstairs. Davis' brother, Willie, guarded the living room door as police patrolled. Nearby, an armed neighbor kept watch.

"I didn't think about the risks then," Davis said in a 1984 video interview. "Just the right."

Through it all, Davis remained altruistic. "I never held a race responsible for what some members of that race did."

Davis lost a City Council race in 1969. "His purpose was to help people. Not politics," his wife said.

The city honored Davis with the Enoch Davis Center at 1111 18th Ave. S on Sept. 13, 1981. His wife remembered him being very calm at the dedication.

"History has not been kind to black preachers, but you have made me an exception," Davis told 400 at the ceremony. "I've asked myself again and again, why me?"

The 18,000-square-foot multipurpose center today conducts book fairs, festivals and club meetings and houses the James Weldon Johnson Library.

At 75, Davis retired after 52 years of service, making him then the longest-serving pastor in city history. On Sept. 29, 1985, Davis died of pancreatic cancer at Bayfront Medical Center.

Nearly 840 people attended the service at Bethel Community Baptist Church at 1045 16th St. S. The Times reported that the stream of mourners lasted all day and into the night.

Meanwhile, Davis' words still comfort many: "The message of the resurrection is that evil has never and never will have the last word. Truth crushed to the earth always rises again."

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