The wisdom of remembering

Published 10:04 pm Saturday, July 26, 2014

By Dennis Edwards

For years I didn’t know her first name was Bettie. Actually, she was so much larger than life, the fact she had a first name never really occurred to me.

Along with my cousin Suzy Reid, Nurse Davis was among the first black registered nurses in the state of Virginia. What’s more, she was Virginia’s first public health nurse of color. Starting in 1926 and for the 38 years following, she earned the love of a region while giving vaccinations, training midwives and helping deliver babies on both sides of the racial divide.

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Nurse Davis was the essential person in poor neighborhoods. There may never be a more appreciated woman to grace the streets of Suffolk. She was happy, jovial, with a sweet voice and a lovely disposition. In a day when pediatricians weren’t as numerous, she represented hope among the often hopeless.

I guess you could call her an early kind of “Pied Piper” for sanitary births and medical care among those who couldn’t afford hospitals in their day.

Numerous articles have been published about her. Carole Contous Maguires’ 1986 book “Suffolk Journal Vol. 1” outlines her exploits in teaching hygiene and baby care.

She reportedly used front porches to set up immunization clinics for typhoid fever, helped midwives overcome difficult home deliveries, never hesitated to make a midnight house call, and for some she was just about the only doctor their families ever knew.

Nurse Davis was never off duty. I remember one summer day in the early 1960s, she was walking by my Wellons Street home, when someone called out, “Nurse Davis, Nurse Davis please come quickly! The baby, the baby’s coming!” She went running off toward Wilson Street to help.

Even in later years, she was willing to disappear in a moment to usher in a new life.

In spite of all that good will, she was one of the loneliest figures I’d ever seen. Dressed every day in her white nurse’s uniform, she smiled through the weariness.

She used a sweet but firm voice to reassure the inconsolable with words like “It’s gonna be all right.”

She walked everywhere alone and then, at the end of the day, climbed the back stairs to her second-floor home in the house she shared with her brother, Harry Southall, and his wife Helen on the corner of Wilson and Wellons.

Hers was a life of personal sacrifice. Relatives still talk about the husband they say left her and then returned terminally ill to be cared for by her still-loving hand.

Her son was one of the rewards of her life. Benjamin Davis Jr. rose to become an assistant superintendent of Suffolk Public Schools. I knew him as Uncle Benjamin, my brother’s godfather.

I remember the night Nurse Davis died in 1964. Even darkness seemed to mourn her passing. The region wept at word of her death. She was one of those people we never expect to die. Many couldn’t imagine a world without her.

There are times when I wonder what happened to all the people like her? Then I walk into hospitals and clinics all over, and there they are. Thousands, millions of Nurse Davises all around us.

These men and women are there today because Nurse Davis was there yesterday.

Maybe it’s best we never forget that things weren’t always the way they are now. There’s wisdom in recognizing how people now long gone and often forgotten are the reason many of us are here today.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor. He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at