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Activist preacher clings to meaning of Christmas

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The commercialization of Christmas disturbs him and offends him. He spent much of his life as a preacher, eventually rising to the rank of a Methodist district superintendent. Through it all, with great gusto, he revered the season that celebrated the birth of Christ.

The Rev. Homer Davis grew up in a West Side "ghetto." He fondly remembers the church-centered Christmases of his boyhood, a special, family-oriented holiday more about togetherness than parties and elaborate presents (as if they could afford them).

At 90, he will preserve those familial Christmas traditions with his children and grandchildren at his downtown home. Christmas Eve church service is a must, of course.

He once dreamed of an acting career. He believes that flair for drama enhanced his preaching, that God blessed him with oratory skills for a higher purpose.

He's satisfied with the role he played on the stage of life, particularly his part as an iconic leader in Charleston's civil rights movement.

Preacher. Social activist. All part of God's plan, for sure.

 "I grew up on the West Side on First Avenue just below Florida Street. It was sort of a ghetto existence, because the black community was comprised of approximately a 13-block area starting at Florida Street and going to Patrick Street and over to Third Avenue.

"As youngsters, we at times wanted to go to the East End. In fact, my wife lived off of Court Street. When I would want to date my then-girlfriend, we would have to go above Florida Street -- we didn't have cars, either bicycles or we walked -- and sometimes we would have to fight our way to the East End. Charleston was a very segregated city.

"I went to Boyd Elementary and Garnet High School.

"I had one older brother and two sisters. My dad was an interior decorator for the early part of his life and for the last 15 years was an instructor in decorating at West Virginia State.

"Christmases were happy times with great family gatherings. Although the gift-giving was not that great, we were always overjoyed with whatever gifts we received.

"We always looked forward to celebrating the birth of Christ at Simpson Methodist Church on Shrewsbury Street.

"My mother fixed the usual turkey, as well as ham with all the trimmings. She was an excellent cook.

"With the advent of holiday shopping, my dad gave each of us an allowance to do our shopping. We stretched it as far as we could. We'd go to the Diamond, the big department store, even though we couldn't eat there. We accepted it. That was the way of life then.

"Racism was an everyday thing. We couldn't get away from it. We were confronted with it everywhere we went. Our parents counseled us not to push an issue too far, lest we end up going to jail.

"In high school, I played football and baseball. I was a catcher. We played schools in Bluefield, Fairmont, Clarksburg, black schools playing black schools. I graduated in 1941.

"I got drafted by the Army. I spent three years in the quartermaster corps all over Europe. We made the Normandy invasion. We were always right behind the infantry because we supplied them.

"I was fortunate enough to get promoted up to technical sergeant as head of the motor pool division. I wouldn't take anything for my experience in the Army.

"I remember being lonely and wanting to be home at Christmas. They provided small gifts and a Christmas atmosphere for us. We had great Christmas dinners. We were in tents and we decorated for Christmas just like we do at home, but it wasn't like being home.

"When I was discharged, I came back to Charleston, and thanks to military service, I was able to go to college. I wouldn't have been able to go without the G.I. Bill. I enrolled at West Virginia State. I was a drama major.

"In high school, there were two young ladies and me and another guy who were always in the plays. It was my dream to be an actor. I never made it, of course.

"I finished college and had the degree, but for a black person in those days, opportunities in that field weren't out there like they are now.

"I don't know if drama and acting had anything to do with my calling to the ministry, but it certainly didn't hurt, me having the skills to be a speaker.

"The best job I could get was as a fireman with the Charleston Fire Department. I was there for three years. I did everything, even drove the fire truck, and we had some dangerous experiences.

"One day, we were testing a fire hose on Kanawha Avenue in Kanawha City and a gentleman named Dayton Jones from the Post Office was walking up Kanawha Avenue. I worked Christmases at the Post Office because mail was so heavy and they always hired extra help. I did that for two or three years. Dayton Jones recognized me and said to come see him at the Post Office.

"I went the next week, and he hired me. I went from letter carrier to parcel postman, driving the truck delivering parcels. When John Kennedy became president, things opened up for black people, and I became a supervisor as a route examiner.

"Christmas was so busy that we didn't really get to do much celebrating until after Christmas. But we didn't mind. That's when we made the big money with the overtime. We would work clear up to the last minute.

"I felt the call to the ministry after I retired and decided to go to school. There was a way where you could work and go to school in the summer for six weeks. I went to Bennett College in North Carolina for my seminary training and was ordained an elder in the church.

"I was in my early 30s then. My first church was a small church on Coal Branch Heights. Then I went to Wheeling and served two churches, a large Anglo congregation and a small black congregation. I was fortunate because the Anglo congregation loved me. It was an endowed church. I had some rich years there.

"Even today, I love to preach. We had great services at Christmas, celebrating Christ coming into the world to save us. It's a special time.

"Today, the commercial wizards have taken Christ out of Christmas. They've got to make that buck. People lose sight of why we celebrate Christmas. That bothers me.

 "We will have Christmas here. My family is coming to me. I've got four daughters and nine grandkids. We'll go to Simpson Church for services early on Christmas Eve.

 "I came back here in retirement. After a year or two, I was asked to go to Bluefield to a United Methodist congregation. I served five years there and retired again, so they call me a double dipper.

"Then I was superintendent of the Charleston district with 77 churches under my jurisdiction. The bishop appoints you. Now I'm just a retired clergyperson.

"Social activism has always been a part of me. I grew up in that 14-block ghetto, and it has been a part of my calling to make life better for my fellow citizens. That's what drove me.

"Remember Rock Lake Pool? We organized a march on Rock Lake Pool. It wasn't that we wanted to swim. I can't even swim. We chose that as a symbol to try to break down the barrier of segregation in public facilities.

"We organized an affiliate of Dr. Martin Luther King's organization, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC. We organized a chapter here and chose Rock Lake as the place where we would publicly demonstrate.

 "We asked Dr. King to come and lead the march. He couldn't come, but he sent his lieutenant, C.T. Vivian, and we had a huge march from Charleston to Rock Lake Pool.

"We had a black gentleman on City Council who was very strong and assertive, Dr. Virgil Matthews, a Ph.D. He fought the fight in City Council to open public accommodations that were segregated. He led that fight, and we were successful in getting an ordinance passed. That was our greatest victory. We were always indebted to Dr. Matthews.

"I'm 90 years old, so I have seen a lot of change. Things are worlds better than they were back in the '60s. There is always room for improvement. Worrisome now is the incarceration of black males and this whole drug culture thing.

"I feel blessed. I've had such rich experiences all my life. I have tried to help a lot of people. I have no regrets. I've done about everything I set out to do, and I'm just living a relaxed life now."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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