Born in 1935 and raised in what he described as a split family in the ghetto, Fred Davis would go on to become one of the first black Memphis City Council members. Davis’ youth was spent memorizing bible verses with his mother, working as a farm laborer on cotton fields surrounding Memphis, and later working his way up to a waiter position at the Peabody Hotel. After graduating from Manassas High School, he attended Tennessee State University for an accounting degree while working there in the cafeteria. Upon graduation in 1957, he served two years in France with the US Army’s comptroller office. His return to Tennessee saw him spend periods as an insurance agent, state auditor, and county register librarian until 1967 when he opened his own insurance agency. During this period, he also began his foray into politics.
When he returned from France in 1959, instead of moving away like many of his college classmates, Davis wanted to face the opportunities denied to blacks head-on. His first activism came with his participation in Russell Sugarmon’s unsuccessful campaign for public works director, which also led to his involvement in the Shelby County Democratic Club. This involvement provided him firsthand experience of Memphis politics and the attitudes of those involved. The reality that black candidates did not win elections for commissioner was disheartening, but Davis took solace in the increase of black voters in each election.
His experience with the political scene and community organization kept him involved in others’ campaigns, but the selection of his district-line proposal for the new city council style of government finally convinced him to run for the city council representing District 4. His candidacy was met by eight challengers: seven white and one black. His own organization even ran a white liberal lawyer as a safeguard because they doubted a black candidate could win the majority-white district. Ultimately, Davis won in a runoff election in part because of the community organization experience he gained from his previous political involvement; he boasted that he could make five phone calls and reach every household in the area. His successful campaign would see him serve as the chairman of the Public Works Committee and he went on to be the first black chair of the Memphis City Council in 1972.
Wayne Dowdy, Manager of the History Department at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, interviews Fred L. Davis in 2013:
Biography. Fred L. Davis Insurance Agency.
Beifuss, Joan Turner. At The River I Stand. 2nd ed. Memphis: St. Luke’s Press, 1990.
Video – Memphis Room – Fred Davis. The M Files, DIG Memphis.
Williams, Nat D. “Fred Davis Moved Up From The Local Ghetto.” Tri-State Defender, January 20, 1968.