Former slave William E. Davis lived to see the Civil Rights era
In the 1996 Stephen King novel “The Green Mile,” Paul Edgecombe, a retired Deep South penitentiary death row supervisor, received a divine gift from a condemned inmate that gave him an extraordinarily long life. That gift in turn cursed Edgecombe, as he soon learned that he had to endure the loss of all his friends and family to sickness and old age while he inexplicably kept on living. The “green mile” in the prison, which was the long walk from the death row holding cells to the electric chair, became a metaphor for Edgecombe’s life.
Charleston resident William Edward Davis may have felt he was walking his own green mile, having died on Dec. 23, 1960, just one day shy of his 122nd birthday. Like Edgecombe, “Uncle Dave” outlived all his loved ones, including two wives, numerous children and many friends. He also outlasted slavery and Jim Crow, even surviving long enough to see the beginnings of the Civil Rights era.
While he was born a slave and had no birth certificate, Davis’ Dec. 24, 1838, date of birth was verified and accepted by the U.S. Social Security Administration. He is also listed on the 1940 Kanawha County census as 102 years of age, working as a gardener and living with a family named McNealy at 106 Hansford St. in Charleston.
Davis received his social security card in 1944 at age 106, but he did not start collecting benefits until 1946, when he finally retired from his job in a bus terminal lunch room. He was at the time, and may still be, the oldest social security recipient in American history.
Davis possessed extraordinary health and a remarkably lucid memory of his early life as a slave in Virginia and North Carolina. In a May 1956 interview with a social security field representative, published in 1960, Davis said he was born in the household of a white man named William Davis, but explained that “I was taken from my mother and younger brothers when I was 12 years old, and was sold by my master ... to William T. Mefford in Winston-Salem.”
Since slaves were routinely stripped of their birth names, they usually assumed the names of their owners. Davis explained he thus accepted the name William Mefford from his new master, and went by this name until he was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. He added that Mefford, a railroad man, was abusive to him, so after he was freed he reverted back to his original name of Davis.
He never disclosed if he remembered his birth name.
After the Civil War, Davis drifted around the country for 15 years “like a lost sheep” working on railroads and steamboats. He eventually settled north of Charleston around 1890 to work on a Kanawha River steamboat named the Henry M. Stanley.
Davis was fortunate his long life was not cut short by his employment on the Stanley, as the ship was beset by atrocious luck. According to the Herman T. Pott Inland Waterways Library, in 1900 the Stanley struck a pier and sank, killing one. She was raised the next month and repaired. Then, only one month later, she was struck by a coal barge and sank again. Again, she was raised and put back into operation. In 1907 she was struck by a dredge at Gallipolis Island and sank a third time. This time during raising, the Stanley was incinerated in a fire.
Davis claimed in a 1960 United Press International story to have been married twice, and told multiple sources that he had a total of 18 daughters from the two unions. He added also that his wives were dead and he had not heard from any of his children in many years. Since some of them would themselves be pushing ages 90-100 by that time, he presumed they too were all dead.
Davis had another close call Dec. 23, 1956, when at age 116 he was struck by a car in downtown Charleston that broke his leg. Doctors told him that due to his advanced age he would never walk again, but one year later he was back up, resuming his everyday life.
Davis’ everyday life at this time included mowing lawns to supplement his monthly $33 social security payment. At a “Past-80” club luncheon in 1959, he told the group to let him know if anyone needed a good yard man, because he wanted “to get off social security.”
At this luncheon he also sang an original hymn he claimed to have composed, called “Jesus on the Mainline.” It is unknown if this is the same song performed by the Rev. Gatemouth Moore and his Gospel Singers that year, or recorded in 1972 by Ry Cooder.
On Jan. 5, 1960, Davis — as America’s oldest surviving social security recipient — was chauffeured to the Charleston office to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the administration. “The elderly (Black man) was all smiles at the occasion, displaying a spryness of men many years his junior in age,” reported the Hinton Daily News. “With the exception of failing eyesight, he is in remarkably good physical condition for his age.”
After getting his check, he was taken for a ride around Charleston, which included a stop at the Kanawha Airport, where he watched several big planes take off and land.
Bear in mind, Davis was 65 years of age when the Wright Brothers took their first flight at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903.
Davis claimed no secrets behind his long life. He smoked a pipe until age 102, but one day he decided since he was getting up in years he should probably quit. He snapped the pipe in two and threw it away.
Like Paul Edgecombe in the novel, William Edward Davis harbored no illusions of immortality. At 11:45 p.m. on Dec. 23, 1960, Uncle Dave quietly reached the end of his own green mile in his rocking chair a mere 15 minutes before his birthday. Less than 30 people attended his funeral, and fewer than a dozen gathered in a drizzle at Spring Hill Cemetery to pay their respects, before this venerable man was lowered into a donated grave.
“Sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.”
Dale Brumfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.