The local civil rights leader riding in Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march as grand marshal says she’s doing it to wave the flag for her late husband.
After decades of work to better the lives of Merced’s people of color, the march is honoring Yvonne Davis by putting her in the grand marshal’s chair. Davis said she at first wanted to shun the spotlight but on second thought decided it would be a fitting tribute to husband, Denard, who died Sept. 8 at 81.
“We were like two peas in a pod,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “Always, always together.”
The Davises came to Merced in the 1960s to work in local schools, and came to be widely known as “Mr. D and Mrs. D.” They gained a reputation, with other African American leaders, of looking to improve black neighborhoods and help support young people.
A local committee brings together hundred of marchers every year to honor King, the civil rights leader who led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, carried a message of a nonviolence, led the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was assassinated after speaking on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.
Natives of New Orleans, the Davises met at L.B. Landry High School. Denard Davis graduated a year before Yvonne and left for Texas College, a historically black university in the city of Tyler. They remained sweethearts, and she eventually followed him to the school.
Both went on to become educators.
“In New Orleans, you went to high school and the only thing you could do after that, being African American, (was) go to college,” she said. “That was the only way you could survive, make a living. Everybody had to go to college and become a teacher.”
After college, she said, Denard was drafted into the Marine Corps and stationed in San Diego. Race relations weren’t perfect in California, she said, but the state seemed more progressive than the South.
Her husband applied for a teaching job in San Francisco and, on the way to apply for one in Los Angeles, figured he’d give it a shot in Merced. They never made it to L.A.
Both of them landed teaching jobs in town, but finding a place to live was difficult. Two young professionals could have afforded to live just about anywhere in town, but were told by a man helping them to find a place they’d have to stay south of 16th Street.
“There wasn’t – and I put that in quotes – ‘any place for us to live over there,’ ” she said, referring to the segregated northern part of town. “We came from the South. You understood the language that he used.”
Initially, they rented a room from a single mother of three living in public housing, and later found a south Merced apartment at 12th and K streets of their own.
The Davises and other black leaders in Merced began to push for paved streets in south Merced, where the roads were dirt.
As teachers, the Davises worked to mentor African American students to aspire to go to college; Denard focused on young men and Yvonne on young women.
He was a Tenaya Junior High School teacher who went on to be an assistant superintendent of the Merced County Office of Education. A former student of his, Napoleon Washington Jr., also described him as a mentor. “He was always trying to reach down and lift somebody else up,” Washington said shortly after the death of “Mr. D.”
“Mrs. D” said she saw that young ladies in Merced did not have dreams of going to college. She said they too often were dependent on finding a breadwinning husband. They needed someone to show them they could go to a four-year school, too.
“I felt the need, or the calling – I call it a ‘calling,’ ” she said. “College was not a goal (for young women).”
Tamara Cobb, chairwoman of the parade, said Denard Davis is well-known for his work, but Yvonne Davis “was equally a pioneer in civil rights in Merced as he was.”
Davis said she was honored to be asked to be the grand marshal, and wants the day to honor her husband as well as other black women who paved the way for younger generations. The honor became “real” to her last week, and it brought tears to her eyes.
“That’s what I’m going to be doing, representing all these women who I grew up with, fellowshipped with,” she said.
The Davises met civil rights trailblazer King briefly at a rally in Atlanta. She said she wasn’t sure of the year, but King was just beginning to become well-known. She said she remembers King’s speeches inspiring her husband.
Davis, who is retired from teaching, said people of color still face many of the same hurdles they did when she was in the classroom. Young people still need someone to mentor them and get them to college.
The question remains, she said, “ ‘How does Merced get those college graduates to stay or to come back and be mentors?’ Someone needs to pick up the torch.”
The 20th annual Martin Luther King Jr. march in Merced will take participants down Martin Luther King Boulevard, starting at the Amtrak station on 24th Street and concluding at the Merced County Fairgrounds. The parade will start at 11 a.m.
Los Banos’ march will start at City Hall, 520 J St., and end at the Ted Falasco Arts Center, 1105 Fifth St. The march starts at 10:30 a.m. and will be followed by a program of speakers and choirs at 11 a.m.
Sun-Star reporter Ana Ibarra contributed to this report.