As We Conclude Black History Month 2014, A Personal Memoir

Today, 28 February, marks the conclusion of Black History Month. I have been remiss by not explicitly recognizing this worthwhile observance. So, as we come to this conclusion, I would like to offer a very personal “history” for this occasion. This may be presumptuous of me, a White Male, to tell the story of a Black Female from a completely different background, but I feel it is suitable. History is composed of far more than the mighty and well known, and the “every-day” folk who make up history have stories worth telling. My subject was never a “mover and shaker,” nor a possessor of any great power. My subject contributed no famous inventions, nor led any potent movements. Yet for all her seeming lack of great distinction, she made a positive impact upon a great many lives, and, in her own way, she achieved a small measure of local fame. However, foremost, I choose to tell her story because I believe it serves as an important lesson in the larger picture of history as well.

I choose to write about Myrtle Davis of Berkeley, California. I first met Myrtle when I was a new freshman at The University of California, Berkeley in the Fall of 1977. We remained in regular contact from that time until her death in 1999. I came to know Myrtle in her capacity as cook for Tellefsen Hall, a residence for, at that time, male members of the University of California Marching Band. The house board had hired Myrtle the previous Spring. Myrtle had worked for almost twenty years previously at the campus’ ΑΟΠ sorority, and she had worked at other sororities prior to that position. When asked why she decided to take the job at Tellefsen Hall, she once observed that she had grown, “tired of dealing with the girls,” and wanted “to find out what dealing with the boys would be like.”

As cook for TH, as Tellefsen Hall is often known, Myrtle became a well known and well loved figure for several generations of Tellefsen Hall residents and Cal Band members in general. Myrtle served as cook for TH from the Fall of 1977 until her retirement in 1986. Myrtle was one of those cooks who may rightly be described as “a treasure.” She was a wonderfully talented cook. Her meals ranged from the plain and penny-wise to the festive and fancy. While it is a common stereotype that students hate the food at school, Tellefsen Hall residents enjoyed meals of remarkable quality and variety.

From a management perspective, Myrtle was a skilled kitchen administrator who ran a tight ship and consistently stayed within her allotted budget. I always marveled at the fact that Myrtle rarely wrote down her expenses. She kept all the kitchen receipts in a drawer. She would evaluate each receipt and invoice as it came in – and she would instantly spot any error or discrepancy – and then put it in the drawer. She simply kept a running total and budget in her head. In my time at Tellefsen Hall, she never once ran over budget and never had any errors in the accounts.

Myrtle was a tough negotiator, too. She maintained good relationships with all her suppliers, many of whom she had been dealing with for decades, but she never eased up if she felt they were delivering less than their best. Once when the butcher’s assistant delived some roasting beef that Myrtle found unacceptable, the owner himself showed up with the replacement order and apologized profusely.

“It was a mistake, Myrtle,” he insisted, “You know I’d never expect you to accept that.”

On another occasion, the bakery had sent French bread that had been labelled “Dark Bake.” Frankly the loaves appeared to be overdone and slightly burnt. I shall never forget Myrtle getting on the telephone and chewing out her route manager:

“Dark Bake? Dark bake?!?! You burnt a batch of bread and try to pass it off by slipping it into wrappers that say ‘Dark bake!?!?'”

Once again, replacements were rapidly forthcoming. Suppliers disappointed Myrtle at their peril.

Myrtle had a truly impressive memory. She retained perhaps several hundred recipes in her head, only rarely consulting her notes when preparing meals. For frequently made items, such as pie crusts or dinner rolls, she used no notes at all. Yet her output was consistent time after time, year after year.

Myrtle was keenly interested in current events, and on the break between breakfast and lunch, or between lunch and dinner, she would listen to her radio in the pantry – later a small television provided the news – and she would read the San Francsco Chronicle cover to cover. I never ceased to be amazed at the volume of information she digested daily, and how many news stories she kept abreast of. And I was always impressed at her ability to hold her own in discussions of current events. She once observed that because of these discussions, she had “been studying at Berkeley for years!”

After she retired, Myrtle took great pride in the fact that she had become a part of Cal Band history. In the 1993 publication The Pride Of California: A Cal Band Centennial Celebration, Myrtle is mentioned in Chapter 5: “Residents of the late ’70s and early ’80s have fond memories of Myrtle Davis, who was considered not only the best cook on campus but the de facto “house mother” as well.”

This was indeed the case. Many almuni of TH recall Myrtle acting as a confidant, dispensing advice as wished and admonishments as needed, as well as offering a shoulder to cry on when called for.

Myrtle could also be strict and stern with misbehavior. One June weekend in 1980, three of us celebrated a birthday with a late morning outing to the the pinnacle of Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley Hills. Once we arrived at this incredible vista point, from which one can view essentially the entire Bay Area, we unpacked a picnic lunch of Tillamook cheddar cheese, fresh sourdough bread, tart green apples, pickled onions, and Ranier Ale. Lots of Ranier Ale. The ale being consumed, and lunch being finished, we considered driving home. Thankfully a degree of prudence caused us to rethink the idea, and it was not until nearly six more hours had passed that we actually set out for TH. I took the wheel and safely navigated the twisted and torturous route back.

We arrived home so late that we had missed dinner, and we pulled up just as Myrtle was leaving. When she spotted us, Myrtle got out of her car to dress us down. I have rarely felt so small and guilty as when she scolded me for driving after having been drinking. “I don’t care if you waited six hours! That’s just plain dangerous! And stupid! If you’re going to go out and drink, walk!” (And she revisited the topic with me the following Monday morning. She was serious!)

On at least one occasion, during a Saturday after Finals Week in early Spring of 1979, Myrtle came to the “defense” of TH when a war party of band members who were not TH residents decided to storm the house, assaulting the building by using giant slingshots to launch unripe plums from the local suburban forest at the front of the building. Myrtle was working in the kitchen when she heard the first salvo strike the house, making a distinctive “thud-th-th-th-thud-thwap!” sound. When she stepped out to investigate, she saw the assault team and artillery; without hesitation, she began sounding the Tellefsen Hall dinner bell as an alarm.

“We’re being attacked!” she explained to everyone who responded. And so the battle was joined.

(I cannot recall every detail of that epic struggle, but I do recall that stains from semi-ripe plums speckled the house front for several weeks thereafter.)

I could fill pages and pages with further memories of Myrtle from my time in school, and perhaps I shall one of these days. But it is necessary that I move on from my own memories and relate Myrtle’s story as best I can, for it is in this story that the lesson lies.

Myrtle was born on 17 December 1916 in Houston, Texas. Her mother was a house cleaner and maid who worked for a well-to-do Jewish family in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston. River Oaks was an exclusive enclave of Houston’s very wealthy, and by a combination of deed restrictions and a “gentlemen’s agreement,” excluded minorities from being residents, including Blacks and Hispanics. It is also said that Jewish families were originally excluded as well, which would be consistent with the mores of that age, yet as Myrtle related her story, the family was Jewish. Any Blacks or Hispanics seen in River Oaks in that era were working as domestics, landscape workers, or laborers. It was a time when segregation and discrimination were openly and often unquestioningly accepted.

When Myrtle was 9, she began accompanying her mother to work, helping out in the kitchen. The family who employed Myrtle’s mother was wealthy enough to have a full-time maid and a cook. Myrtle showed early aptitude for cooking, and for some years worked as an unpaid assistant in the kitchen as well as a helper for her mother. The key thing was that it meant that Myrtle had meals during the day as well as leftovers to take home. As the Great Depression settled in and jobs became scarce and incomes shrank, payment in kind such as meals and leftovers became crucial to getting by.

Myrtle attended school until she completed 8th grade. At that time, it was considered unneccessary for females to pursue further education, and this was particularly true for female minorties. In a later age, who knows what Myrtle might have accomplished with a more extensive education? In her school days, Myrtle recalled, she excelled at both math and spelling. Her math skills and prodigious memory may be inferred from the fact that she maintained so much kitchen budget and bookkeeping data in her head. Her spelling expertise is attested by her annual appearance in a county-wide spelling bee every year from 4th grade to 7th grade. In her 5th grade year, Myrtle advanced to the final round, only to be eliminated on the word “deaf.” She asked them to repeat the word. Because she lived in an environment where that word was pronounced “deef,” she spelled out D-E-A-T-H, and lost the competition. I could detect that, even more than five decades after, she felt keenly that this was unfair.

In Texas of the late 1920s, educational opportunities for Black females were limited indeed, as were employment opportunities. If one’s mother worked as a domestic, it was all but a certainty that that is the path one would follow.

When Myrtle was 15 or 16, right about the very deepest period of the Great Depression, she was hired as the full-time cook for the family. Though the family was Jewish, they were not strictly observant. Myrtle recalled cooking breakfasts which included bacon and/or ham, along side Southern staples such as grits and cornbread. She remembered with evident pride that her cakes were a particular favorite of the head of the household.

Myrtle managed the kitchen budget and dealt with suppliers efficiently and effectively. She told of being praised by her employers for consistently managing to stay within or under budget while producing outstanding meals.

The family had a daughter just about Myrtle’s age. The two played together when they were small, but as they grew up, that was no longer acceptable. Nevertheless, Myrtle recalled that the daughter was always kind to her.

In the later 1930s, the family no longer employed full-time staff, and Myrtle took a job cooking in a small restaurant in addition to cooking breakfast and weekend dinners for the family.

Though the Great Depression was easing, times were still quite hard. Houston was less severely hit than Northern manufacturing centers, because demand for oil remained reasonably steady. But large numbers of unemployed people came to Houston from Louisiana and this influx made service jobs hard to find as well as further depressed wages.

At some point during her teen years, Myrtle “took up” with a young man who had no steady employment. I am not surprised that I have never learned details of this relationship, though Myrtle did reveal that the fellow once tried to beat her in a drunken rage when she refused his demand of cash to buy booze. She apparently had the better of the altercation and whupped him.

At some point peripheral to the Second World War, Myrtle met and later married Andrew Davis. I have attempted to find the specific date for the marriage, but have so far come up blank. I know that during her time at Tellefsen Hall, Myrtle and Andrew were celebrating anniversaries numbered into the 40s. Andrew Davis was trained as a chef, so perhaps they met because of some job in common.

During World War Two, Andrew served in the United states Navy aboard troop transports in the Pacific theater, so the couple relocated to Oakland, california for the duration. As a Black man, Andrew was limited to serving as a steward aboard the ships. Though he was a trained chef, his duties were limited to serving food and to making coffee and other menial chores.

Andrew once told of the time when he and some of his fellow stewards grew weary of continually making coffee in the immense, industrial sized pots. The troops aboard ship drank coffee almost continuously. After one complaint session among the stewards, Andrew announced that he’d slow down the coffee consumption. Taking a large scoop of plain white sugar in hand, Andrew, as he liked to recall with a chuckle, opened the lid of one of the huge coffee brewers and hollered back to a fellow steward, “Hey, you forgot to add the saltpeter!” and dumped the sugar in the vessel. Thus coffee consumption declined precipitously!

By the end of the war, Myrtle and Andrew decided to remain in California. Myrtle had begun working as a cook at a women’s dormitory on the Berkeley campus, and Andrew found work at Larry Blake’s Restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. In 1946, using money that they had saved during the war years, augmented by a considerable nest egg which Andrew had garnered aboard the troopships by playing craps among his fellow stewards and troops aboard, they purchased a small, neat house in South Berkeley at 1401 Alcatraz Avenue. They would remain in this house until their respective deaths almost 53 years later.

Andrew and Myrtle Davis in the kitchen of Tellefsen Hall, June 1982.

Andrew and Myrtle Davis in the kitchen of Tellefsen Hall, June 1982.

Myrtle continued to work as a cook on and around the Berkeley campus until she retired from Tellefsen Hall. Andrew remained at Larry Blake’s until he retired as head chef in the Spring of 1979. Although this represented his formal retirement, Andrew could not stay idle long. He began accompanying Myrtle to Tellefsen Hall on the weekends, “just to keep her company,” and quickly returned to cooking, making onion rings and barbecued ribs and all manner of delicious food, especially his soups. Andrew loved to tell how Larry Blake himself had once praised his soups, proclaiming, “Andrew, your soups are better than sex!” Though he was never an official employee of Tellefsen Hall, Andrew became a more and more frequent presence at TH, and no holiday or special occasion passed without his culinary contribution.

Myrtle and Andrew never had any children of their own, so they took especial pleasure in following the lives of the many young men and women they had come to know. They attended many weddings and other celebrations, and on at least one occasion provided the rehearsal dinner at Tellefsen Hall for a wedding between two Cal Band members. Occasionally, they would host Sunday afternoon dinner at their home on Alcatraz Avenue, inviting their “alumni.” They touched many lives.

Me, Myrtle, and Andrew Davis, just before my brother's wedding, 23 June 1984.

Me, Myrtle, and Andrew Davis, just before my brother’s wedding, 23 June 1984.

It goes without saying that they both were and remain important in my life. Barely a day goes by that I do not think of them, especially as I love to cook and I owe them so much for what they taught me, both in the kitchen and beyond. It is rare for a person to know me for more than a day or two without hearing some tale about Myrtle and Andrew.

Myrtle Davis was an uncommonly bright and capable person. Her management skills were such that she could have easily been a success running far larger enterprises than rooming house kitchens. Her unusal memory, her ability to consume and retain information, and her practical mathematical skills all indicate that she could have achieved greatly in a wide range of fields.

Unfortunately, Myrtle was born into an age which elevated and enshrined racial discrimination and segregation, and barred even the talented and promising from educational and employment opportunities “above their station.” A Black woman born in Houston, Texas in 1916 simply was not offered the opportunity to develop her abilities to their fullest. While we who knew Myrtle greatly appreciate her mastry of the kitchen, it has always seemed clear to me that in a later day and age, she would have had a very different career path, and would have been able to positively impact even more lives.

I earlier mentioned that I take a lesson from Myrtle’s story, a lesson that makes this memoir a fitting piece for inclusion in Black History Month. It is simply this: both individuals and the greater society as a whole are ill-served when discrimination is accepted policy. Even when determined individuals succeed in such an environment, full potential is generally sacrificed.

I am pleased that in the United States in 2014, racial discrimination is no longer approved of in law, and rarely openly approved of in any context. I know that there is still a long road ahead; we are far from free of this pernicious heritage. But we have improved, and that is all to the good.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents. — John F. Kennedy

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