Many know her name; few know her story
By Matt Miller
The City of Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department is responsible for 3,225 acres of parkland spread across the city’s 72 parks. One of those, Evelyn Davis Park, has received a substantial amount of media coverage due to crime in the area. It’s a part of town that has been hit hard by unruly behavior coupled by negative perceptions from outsiders. But those involved in the area and close to the late woman it’s named after believe positive changes are taking place. It’s something that Davis, who died in 2001, would be proud of.
“Everyone is so ready to talk about the crime happening in the neighborhood that everything else is swept under the rug,” said Marlene Doby, director of the Evelyn Davis Early Childhood Learning Academy located at 1409 Clark St. “We don’t appreciate the unlawful events that take place around here, and we’re sure it’s something that Evelyn wouldn’t like. It goes against everything she stands for. But at the same time, we think this great community can come together and create opportunities that demonstrate better behavior.”
A history lesson
Located at 14th and Forest Avenue, Evelyn Davis Park is considered to be the “town square” of the King-Irving neighborhood. Over the years, the 9.8-acre park has received grants and donations from local businesses of approximately $1 million to remodel and update it. Today, the park has basketball courts, a picnic area, softball diamonds and also serves as a center for neighborhood events, church activities and family gatherings. Yet much of the positives happening around Evelyn Davis Park are overshadowed by multiple shootings, fights, assaults and vandalism.
According to police reports, as of May 2010, law enforcement had been called to Evelyn Davis Park approximately 100 times. In July 2010, a midnight shooting in the area resulted in the death of Daryl Lee Kinchelow, 30, who was shot in the chest and later died at a local hospital. Jacobly Leon Wright, 18, was also shot in the leg but was later released. Law enforcement officials say they tend to see a rise in incidents during the spring, summer and fall months.
“During the warmer months, more people are outside, which heightens the possibility of events like these happening,” said Sgt. Jeff Edwards, public information officer for the Des Moines Police Department. “Last fall we saw an increase in criminal activity around the park, so in response, we added extra patrol to help calm things down.”
Davis certainly would not be proud of some of the behavior that has taken place around the park, which opened in 1993 to honor her efforts to break down racial barriers and economic injustices.
Davis was born in Kansas City, Kan., on April 20, 1921, the daughter of coalminer Lewis (Bud) Scott and his wife, Nettie Finks Scott. The eldest of five children, she was originally born Kay Evelyn Scott, but changed her name to Evelyn K. Davis when she moved to Des Moines from Hiteman, Iowa, in 1939. As a single mother of two children, with no formal education past grammar school and no job skills, Davis cleaned houses for wealthy white women in Des Moines. It was here that Davis’ vision for a brighter future took shape.
“What I remember most about her was that she always listened,” said Cheryl Bolden, who met Evelyn in the 1960s. “She was like a mentor to me — she always had the time. As a leader, she really pushed us out into the world.”
In 1965, Davis started Tiny Tots Family Outreach Center (located at the current location of the Evelyn Davis Learning Early Learning Academy), Iowa’s first daycare center for at-risk children. Throughout her career, she and her small staff cared for, and educated, more than 12,000 of the city’s neediest children. Over the years, the renowned daycare has transitioned into an academic preschool with approximately 60 youngsters age 3-5.
“Back then, the Tiny Tots Family Center was a safe haven for people to go,” Doby said. “As you go through the community, there are a lot of people who have been touched by Tiny Tots and Evelyn’s work. I don’t know where some of them would be without her.”
Davis’ contribution as an early childhood educator and advocate for the poor are well documented. She developed the first daycare certification program with Iowa State University and also opened the Evelyn Davis Free Medical Clinic located in the House of Mercy.
In 1983, Davis was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women. She is one of more than 150 women honored for their heritage and recognized for their contributions. Isaiah McGee, who was recently elected by Gov. Terry Branstad as head of the Iowa Department of Human Rights, says Davis’ hard work and dedication should be an example for all.
“Evelyn was an excellent life philanthropist, and it’s definitely something to be commended for,” he said. “You look for women to make an impact across boundaries, and Evelyn certainly did that — she had that take-charge leadership. Whether it’s someone like Evelyn Davis or Linda Upmeyer (first woman House Majority Leader in Iowa), I’m struck by leadership like theirs. It should be celebrated when a glass ceiling like this breaks. It’s important that they didn’t let their gender stop them from something they feel compassionate about.”
Davis was also heavily interested in politics. She was state co-chair in 1988 for Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s presidential campaign, co-chair of her neighborhood caucus and supported all of the minority candidates who worked in politics or ran for office in or outside her neighborhood.
By 1992, Davis had led the Mid-City Vision Committee to help revitalize one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Her hard work paid off with the development of the Forest Avenue Library, the new Grubb YMCA and the park dedicated in her name.
“Evelyn meant business, but she had a heart of gold,” Doby said. “She would give you the coat off her back. She gave me a huge boost of confidence and support in my early years. I thought if this woman could do what she’s doing, I can make it, too.”
Davis was married for more than 50 years to Lawrence Davis until his death. The couple had four children — Larry, Jimmy, Eddie and Sherie (Sherie was legally adopted). Davis was also mother to Bobby and Donna Lewis as a result of her first marriage at age 15. Davis died at the age of 80 on Oct. 27, 2001, at Mercy Hospital as a result of complications from a stroke. Her visitation and funeral were held at Maple Street Baptist Church in Des Moines.
“We certainly lost one of our heroes,” Doby said. “When you lose a person like that, there’s a hole in your heart. She had that certain type of touch within the community that could bring people together, not separate them. We’re saddened by her loss, but it gives us great determination to keep moving forward.”
Those thoughts are also echoed by McGee.
“Evelyn had just passed away when I moved to the area, but the work she did throughout her life is all around us,” McGee said. “The city and state are blessed to have such a great woman be a part of its history.”
More than the same last name
Many lives have been touched by Davis’ work, yet not many had the opportunity to peer into her personal life. Beverly Davis did. She was fortunate to see firsthand how Evelyn worked to unite city leaders and residents and be a mother to a handful of children. Beverly remembers the first night she met Davis in 1968 when she was a reporter for the Urbandale High School newspaper. Beverly says she borrowed her parents’ car, without their knowledge, to drive to the inner-city neighborhood where a protest had been planned.
“At this time, Evelyn was beginning to make a major impact in the community,” said Beverly, who was 17 at the time. “She was going back and forth between protesters and city leaders trying to get them to see eye to eye. What I took away from that night was that she was a lady with no fear. She never asked permission before she took action. She was a woman guided by fierce love and committed action.”
Over the next several years, Beverly and Davis “crossed paths” numerous times as one continued to write about the other’s work. Beverly remembers the time Davis hiked up the capitol rotunda with 50-some children from the Tiny Tots Family Center to voice her opinion on daycare funding.
“It was quite a sight to see,” Beverly said. “She knew how to get things done.”
Beverly has been touched so much by Davis that she began to chronicle the numerous untold stories of the woman’s life. Beverly says she worked on the book entitled “Grits & Grace, The Extraordinary Life of Evelyn Davis,” for more than 10 years and read the book to Davis just two months prior to her death. The book is filled with quotes from Davis and others like Bill Knapp, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., former Gov. Robert D. Ray and David Kruideneir. The book is expected to be published this spring, and proceeds from the book launch will benefit the Evelyn Davis Early Learning Academy’s scholarship fund.
“I felt it was appropriate to write a book about a very special woman,” Beverly said. “She is very much deserving of it.”
Looking to the future
Many people know the name, but few know the true story of Evelyn Davis and her impact in the Des Moines area and beyond. With warmer weather ahead, families and friends will once again congregate at the park. There will also be the chance of crime, but leaders want residents to understand the park isn’t any different than the others.
“The park and areas are great places to spend time,” Beverly said. “We want people to come out and have fun. It’s when we don’t do anything that nothing happens, and that’s when bad things come around. We don’t want that to happen.” CV