Bonnie Newman Davis will soon release a book that tells the stories of Black women journalists over the span of 60 years.
“Truth Tellers: The Power and Presence of Black Women Journalists since 1960” has been a work in progress for the Richmond Free Press managing editor for the past seven years.
The idea for the book came when she was teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University and was writing articles for National Association of Black Journalists magazine. Davis noticed that most of the profiles published in the magazine were about Black males. Black women had been in the field longer, she noted.
Davis interviewed 24 Black women journalists from around the country to tell the story of their individual experiences working in mainstream media.
“I’m excited about it,” the 65-year-old said. “For me it was full circle—definitely one of my proudest moments in life—being able to start something and finish it.”
It has been an emotional experience, though, she said, learning about the atrocities and indignities some of the women have gone through during their careers.
“When we were coming up, not just Black women, but women period, in a male-dominated newsroom—it’s brutal,” she said. “It’s not an easy business.”
The book contains stories about one reporter who covered school integration during the civil rights movement being forced to sleep in a funeral home because she couldn’t stay at a hotel because of the color of her skin.
Another story details the treatment another female journalist received while covering KKK rallies and the offensive actions of a fellow reporter in her newsroom who used racial slurs to refer to her.
“That was shocking, the audacity that so-called professionals would do that,” Davis said. “It just makes your heart hurt to know that people had to go through that because they were pursuing a career.”
Davis expressed her admiration for the women she interviewed and their diligence in not letting the indignities wear them down. The demands of the business coupled with the demands of family is not an easy road, she noted.
The book is the culmination of Davis’s more than 40 years as a student, journalist and teacher at many universities.
Davis grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, during the civil rights movement. As a child, her understanding of what was happening around her was limited, even though the famous Greensboro sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter took place close to her home.
She was in sixth grade when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered. Her teacher talked about it with the class and Davis began reading stories about Black people, frequenting her local library.
“It had an impact on me and a lot of what I’ve done,” she said.
As a student at North Carolina A&T State University, she took a course that explored elected Black politicians who were coming into their own at the time.
“That kind of opened my eyes to the way things were, “she said.
It was there that she was also introduced to many of the leading African American journalists of the time who came to speak at the university.
“These were the kind of people who were telling us about journalism,” she said. “I bit the bullet, so to speak.”
She gained experience working for the Wilmington Star-News and Greensboro Daily News while in college and interned at The Louisville Times on a minority scholarship before enrolling in the University of Michigan to earn her master’s degree. During her internship at the Ann Arbor news, she interviewed the likes of Barbara Bush and Bootsy Collins, who is recognized by Rolling Stones Magazine as the top bassist of all time.
She became involved in the National Association of Black Journalists and attended a job fair the organization hosted in Washington, D. C.
There she met Dorothy Gilliam, the first African American female reporter at The Washington Post. Gilliam read Davis’s clips and offered the budding journalist encouragement.
“Thinking back on her support and encouragement helped me along the way,” Davis said. “I’m grateful for that.”
Davis was offered a job at the Richmond News Leader, where she started out typing up obituaries and other copy for the newspaper. Before long, she was covering schools, school boards and county government.
She left the paper for a few years for another opportunity, but eventually returned to the News Leader in 1991 just as it was merging into the Richmond Times Dispatch.
Before she left for a second time in 1999, she was editor of the RTD’s Sunday arts and entertainment section, overseeing a 12-person team. She had also established the Richmond Chapter of Black Journalists, which was recognized by the NABJ as Chapter of the Year in 1999.
But Davis had grown restless, trading journalism for academia – first as director of communications for Virginia Union University, and later as a visiting professor at numerous universities where she taught a variety of journalism related courses. She also was a substitute teacher in Henrico County Public Schools.
She was named Journalism Educator of the Year by the NABJ in 2011 and has received numerous awards and honors throughout her long career for both teaching and journalism.
Davis had begun substitute editing for the Richmond Free Press and agreed to help with editing last December while the paper’s editor went on vacation.
A few months later, the paper’s owner, Jean Patterson Boone, called Davis and asked if she would be willing to take over the reins as managing editor.
“I wasn’t going to turn it down,” Davis said. “It’s been great.”
The free weekly newspaper, founded by the late Raymond Boone in 1992, is focused on covering Richmond’s Black community.
Davis’s mission is to provide readers with information that will help them navigate their daily lives – from what’s happening in city hall and in the schools, to policing, law enforcement, utilities, and housing.
“We tend to pay a lot of attention to housing, to available resources,” she said. “There’s a huge issue with homelessness in the city, and impoverishment.”
Davis said that 25 percent of people in Richmond live in poverty, and one of her goals is to shed light on the issue and provide information to people about where they can go for assistance while at the same time letting readers know how they can help.
“That to me is keenly important. I think that’s the role of journalism, providing this information so people know what to do on any given day,” Davis said.
Davis is focused on presenting the Black perspective and said she brings her own personality and unique perspective to the newspaper each week. She has also made it her goal to include more news about young people in the community.
“That’s a natural for me having spent so much time in the classroom–shedding light on what they’re doing,” she said. “And sometimes it depends on what I like or what I’m seeing or how I feel.”
For Davis, whose sisters describe her as a workaholic, life truly has come full circle. The fact that her parents, now both deceased, were able to live long enough to see her career accomplishments is gratifying to her.
“I’ve been able to walk in and out of various news organizations and institutions of higher learning,” she said. “I don’t have any regrets at all. I enjoy what I’m doing,” she said. “It’s been a good ride and I’m looking forward to the future.”
Correction: This article has been corrected to report that Bonnie Newman Davis was a substitute teacher in Henrico County Public Schools, not Richmond City schools as intially reported.
Article by Deana Meredith, Communications Manager, Virginia Press Association