More than 100 years ago, the future Rev. Silas Leonard “S.L.” Davis worked as a farm laborer southeast of Austin. One day, this son of former slaves announced that he could not work on Sundays.
“God’s calling me,” S.L. told his boss. “I have to go to church.”
So the boss fired him when he did not show up.
“Then he rehired him each time,” says his daughter Vessie Davis Tutt, 92, with a smile, “until he gave up.”
Good thing, too. Her father went on to study at Guadalupe College, a Baptist school founded for African-Americans in Seguin in 1884, and was ordained as a minister in 1927. After a time in San Antonio, S.L. moved his family to East Austin, where, in 1937, he oversaw the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
On Oct. 23, 1939, he led several families from David Chapel to found Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Avenue. He served as Mt. Calvary’s pastor for 49 years and became one of the most respected leaders in Austin, a stern taskmaster at home and in public, but one with an intimate, absolute knowledge of the Bible.
He died March 30, 1988, 11 days after his 100th birthday. For many, he was “East Austin’s Pastor.”
Four sisters remember
Mt. Calvary, these days led by S.L.’s grandson the Rev. L.K. Jones, is a brick structure with a simple, central white steeple, located at what is now 2111 S.L. Davis Ave.
S.L. and his wife, Willie (alternately Willia) Cora Thompson Davis, were both born in the St. John (alternately John’s) Colony near Dale in Caldwell County. They reared 11 children.
By one count, they had more than 100 grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren.
On a windy day, their four surviving children — along with Vessie, there are Scottie Lee Davis Ivory, 88, Teresia Davis Lewis, 85, and Barbara Davis Dotson, 80 — gathered in a room at Vessie’s farmhouse in Cedar Creek, just over the low green hills from the St. John Colony. Vessie has turned the front parlor into a sort of shrine to her father, with crisp photographs, enlarged newspaper and magazine articles, musical scores, immaculate memorabilia — including S.L.’s ticket to the 1936 Texas Centennial in Dallas, which Vessie found in a trunk — and samples of S.L.’s elegant handwriting.
The sisters’ memories are thickly layered, and not always pleasant. In the face of everything, however, the preacher’s high-spirited offspring stuck together. They even kept a sacred pact during their youth not to snitch on one another.
“When one got a whippin’, all of us got a whippin’,” Teresia laughed. “Father would ask, ‘Who did this?’ We wouldn’t tell. We were loyal. True to each other. He then went down the line. We’d be yelling and yelling. When he left, we’d break out laughing.”
The closeness among the sisters has not waned.
“Don’t try to buddy with the Davis girls,” the word went out in their East Austin neighborhood, Vessie recalls from their days living on East 14th Street as well as East 12th Street. “They are friends of their own. They don’t need anymore.”
In Vessie’s front parlor, an early picture of S.L. Davis hangs in a brown frame. A burly young man, he is dressed in his Sunday best — tight-fitting suit, thin tie, striped socks, blocky shoes. His big hands are clasped together as if in prayer, or at least in firm resolution.
His eyes focus directly on the camera. Clearly, S.L. was a man of his own mind.
“He was one of the greatest doctrinal teachers of his day,” the Rev. Raphael Smith of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church said at the time of Davis’ death. “He had the charisma, but his forte was that he was one of the few preachers who was rooted and grounded in the doctrine of the faith. You have a lot of present-day ministers who are trying to swoon and sway you with platitudes, but he stayed strictly as a biblical teacher.”
“I don’t care if you were black or white or whatever race you belong to, they called him up to ask, ‘What about this thing in the Bible?’” Vessie says. “He’d know.”
In 1950, the Rev. Davis supervised construction, by two of his sons, of the church’s current brick building.
“He also was known as the ‘12th Street Pastor,’” said Scottie Lee, referring to the string of bars, clubs, eateries and other black-owned businesses along that East Austin thoroughfare. “He’d walk into any of those joints, and they respected him. If you had a bottle, you better put it on the floor. Clipper was his horse, a chestnut with a diamond on its forehead. I’d go to the clubs and see him from a distance on the horse. You should see me ducking. He never saw me. Or he saw me and he didn’t recognize me.”
But the pastor’s power reached far beyond the back pews of his church or the clubs on 12th Street. Texas District Judge Ralph Yarborough tried misdemeanor cases in the Rev. Davis’ home, at times designating S.L. an unofficial parole officer.
“The judge knew he could hold those people morally responsible for their conduct,” S.L.’s late son Floyd Davis told this newspaper on his father’s death.
When the Texas Legislature declared Juneteenth a statewide holiday, S.L. performed the invocation at the Capitol ceremony.
“When he went down the street, each man would tip his hat. ‘Rev. Davis,’ they all said,” Vessie recalls. “They’d also say, ‘I want him to do my service!’ When he died, you’d see cars, cars, cars lined up like he was the president of the United States.”
During his later years, S.L. never lost faith in turning 100.
His daughter Scottie Lee: “When he got to be 98 years old, he said, ‘I’m 98, and I’m glad to be here, but I’m not going to ask the Lord to be 100; I’m just going to trust that he’ll let me get to 100 years old, and I’ll be satisfied.’”
That same parlor portrait from the early 20th century shows Willie Davis wearing a light unstructured dress, lighter stockings and low, sensible shoes. Her hair is pulled back around her strikingly oval features.
Unlike S.L., she looks into the distance beyond the camera as if greatly fatigued, or at least resolute in her determination to avoid eye contact with the lens. A toddler sits in her lap and nuzzles against her breast.
That toddler grew up to be the mother of longtime Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis.
Like her husband, Willie clearly was a person of her own mind.
Yet her duties were split between her husband and her children — including a son who grew up to be among the first black fire captains in Texas — and their children.
“Mom was like a mother hen,” Scottie Lee says. “She was going to take care of her children and not let anybody mistreat her children.”
At the same time, Willie catered to S.L.’s every need.
“She was the kind of wife who ironed his underwear.” Teresia says. “She’d pack his suitcase a month ahead of any trip.”
“Dad used to preach in the morning,” Vessie says. “After the morning service, she’d wash his clothes, hang them up for the wind to dry, and iron that suit so he could preach that night.”
Willie seems to have been the nurturer in the family, not the disciplinarian. That task she delegated to S.L.
“My mother was always great,” Teresia says. “But we had to walk the chalk line or she’d say, ‘I’ll tell your Daddy on you.’”
The family scraped by on little money, and it was Willie’s job to make it work. She constructed the children’s clothes from flour sacks. She could make a fine meal out of neck bones and potatoes and always kept a garden out for the greens that accompanied almost every meal.
“She could feed us off $1.50,” Barbara says. “Or $2 for dinner. And that’s with 17 of us at home, including grandchildren.”
Married in 1916, the Davises were married for 72 years, much of that time living in East Austin. Willie died at age 98 on April 12, 1996.
Vessie, whose grandparents were the former slaves Andrew and Laura Davis, was born in rural St. John Colony in 1926.
St. John was established in the 1870s by the Rev. John Henry Winn, whose flock migrated on foot and by wagon from the areas around Hog Eye and Webberville in eastern Travis County. For decades, children there attended a country school supported by the church community. The kids were integrated into the Lockhart system in 1966.
“My grandmother was a midwife,” Vessie says. “I was the last child she delivered before she passed.” Vessie hangs a fragile apron that was worn by Laura Davis, the freed slave, in her front parlor as a cherished reminder.
Vessie was Willie and S.L.’s fifth child — “of those that lived.”
She remembers being a good kid, at least while people were watching.
“We learned it from the table,” Vessie says. “Our father controlled us. We had to be home, for instance, by a certain time. Even when we were grown women.”
In fact, Vessie’s father grounded her for eating at a restaurant with some female friends while her husband was serving in Vietnam. He thought it was unseemly. At the time, she was about to become a grandmother.
Unlike her parents, Vessie married four times.
“You have a husband who fights you, or courts on you, you say goodbye,” she says emphatically. “I’m too independent for that.”
That independence was not always encouraged by the family. When Vessie felt sorry for herself, for instance, when her husband served overseas in the military, her parents’ response was, “Go home and pray for him.”
Vessie had five children. Two died. One, Patricia Darlene Wright, born in Tripoli, Libya, while her father served there, was murdered in Austin on Jan. 21, 1979.
Not unusual for an African-American woman of the time, she worked for a while as a maid in a white household. The man of the house was disabled.
“The boss tried to feed me what her husband spit out,” Vessie says. “I walked out.”
Instead, she attended the Madam C.J. Walker School of Cosmetology in Dallas.
“I was the first black beautician to work in the Edwards Air Force Base beauty shop,” Vessie says. “I came back here in 1972. My husband then was in the military. I started teaching food and nutrition for Texas Agricultural Extension and retired in 1988.”
Her current husband, soft-spoken Ezelle Tutt, 86, is a church worker.
“The others weren’t church workers,” Vessie clarifies. “They were fighting, drinking, acting a fool.”
In 1985, the Tutts moved out to a gray house on a hill in Cedar Creek near her birthplace. They are members of nearby St. John Baptist Church, headed by the Rev. H.L. Carter.
“We have a cohesive community here,” Vessie says. “On Juneteenth, 300 to 500 people come back. We have programs and talk about our history. We want the people to remember where we came from and why we are here. We are trying to fix up the old school now. We love its historical status, like a museum that brings all things back to life.”
The second-eldest surviving daughter is Scottie Lee — Davis child No. 7. Born in Seguin while her father was in college, she can remember family life before East Austin. The early years here were spent in a one-story board-and-batten house at 1507 E. 14th St.
“I still have the contract of sale,” Vessie says. “My father paid $1,300 for it on Nov. 6, 1939.”
“We had a lotta fun,” Scottie Lee says. “We had cows. Had chickens. Had hogs. Even in Austin, we had cows before they changed the ordinance. We grazed them off East 14th Street on Comal at Oakwood Cemetery.”
Like many of her siblings, Scottie Lee attended Campbell Elementary, Kealing Junior High and Anderson Senior High School. Some of the Davis children also went to the Olive Street School, which had served several functions for the East Austin community for decades, including an early home for segregated Anderson.
The Davis family was poor, but the kids didn’t really notice it.
“We didn’t have store toys,” Scottie Lee says. “We made them. We used the rope from the ice box to make hair for a dog. For Christmas, it was a piece of candy, an orange, a cane. We were so happy, we didn’t know what to do. We made a swing out of tire and put the rope up on the garage. For dinner, we’d take a possum and put it in the ashes of the old iron stove with onion, hot peppers and sweet potatoes. That’s the way we ate possum. All of it. Armadillo? Dad would fix it, but nobody else would eat it.”
“Dad lent people money,” Vessie says. “But he wanted it back. And during the Depression, if your sons didn’t go to the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camps, they stayed home and helped the family.”
Scottie Lee, too, remembers her father as strict, even by the standards of the day.
“We were preacher’s children,” she says. “We didn’t get to go many places. I got a whippin’ every Friday night, even if I didn’t do anything. I liked to dance. I’d hurry to get back from the dance before my Dad got home. Kids would say, ‘You’re gonna get it.’ Me? ‘That’s all right. I had a good time.’”
She didn’t mind a little trouble, too.
“I liked a good party,” the daring rebel says. “My drink was rum and Coke. You feel good. Later, you get evil. I liked to fight. I didn’t fight girls. I fought men.”
Scottie Lee also attended cosmetology school.
“I didn’t do it very long,” she says. “Lost interest in it.”
She spent many years doing housework for others. She kept house and raised children for the wealthy Russell Allen family, with whom she is still close, and served on housekeeping crews at the University of Texas and the State School.
Scottie Lee took care of her parents during their long, slow declines.
“I worked the night shift,” she says. “I prayed the Lord to take them. When he did, I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ I thanked him for letting me stay there until they died.”
She still lives on rapidly evolving East 12th Street and has served as a Sunday school teacher, mission worker, choir member and neighborhood activist.
“Oh, I’ve seen many changes,” says Scottie Lee, who attends Mt. Calvary, the old family church. “The trolley came down East 12th and ended at Chicon. There were so many black businesses on 11th and 12th.
“I was here in the past. I am here in the present. And I will be here in the future.”
Unlike her older sisters, Teresia, who lives near Rosewood Park, attended college: Huston-Tillotson University, UT and Texas State University. She has been an elementary school teacher and principal, college academic dean and church musician.
“We had a good life,” Teresia says about the Davis upbringing. “We went to church. But since we were preacher’s kids, you get in trouble a lot because everybody raises you.”
In fact, all the sisters testify to the fact that because their teachers, principals, preachers, doctors, nurses and other authority figures lived within blocks of each other in East Austin, they formed a sort of village mentality. Everyone knew everyone else’s business.
Perhaps she didn’t stray as much as Scottie Lee, but even flirting with boys passing by the front porch brought on a stern punishment.
“We minded Mom until she was 98,” Teresia says. “And Dad until he was 100. We had that kind of respect for Mom and Dad.”
Just as Vessie was urged to go home and pray for her husband, Teresia received similar marital advice, for instance, when she considered leaving her late husband, Ira Lewis.
“I was married to a very fine man, best in the world,” she tells the story with relish. “Now, he was from the country. One weekend, one of his old girlfriends came in town. I found out that he talked to her. So I cooked him a scrumptious dinner, cleaned house, shut the house and went home to Mom and Dad: ‘I’m leaving Ira.’ Mom: ‘S.L., this girl talking about she’s gonna leave Ira.’ Dad got on phone: ‘Brother Lewis, get you a cab and come down here and get your wife.’ When we got in the car, we went to the grocery store, and we never thought about it anymore. Dad believed in husbands and wives staying together.”
Many of her memories are of pure good times, some of them at a 120-acre ranch that the Rev. S.L. Davis purchased in 1943 and divided among his children. Or there might be a church member who landed a prize job, such as working at the Governor’s Mansion, and who brought over leftover steaks and porterhouse rolls.
“We’ve been blessed as a family,” Teresia says. “We have nothing to complain about.”
Barbara was the last Davis child born before the big move to Austin. Her son, the Rev. L.K. Jones, took over Mt. Calvary in 1988, when her father died. Barbara was married to a military man and spent 22 years raising five children around the world.
Yet many of her memories could have been borrowed from her parents’ distant era.
“Back in the day, they’d go to the St. John’s revivals,” she says about the vast summer convocations on rural land that later became Highland Mall, then Austin Community College and the surrounding neighborhoods. “They’d be gone all day. Now, Mom preserved peaches. We were not to eat them. I was with nieces and nephews, though, and we ate them. Nobody would tell on each other. We lined up. We’d come out of the kitchen, and each time we’d run past, we’d get a whack.”
Still, Barbara says of her father, “He was the greatest man who ever lived.”
Barbara, who once ran Dotson Beauty and Boutique on U.S. 183 and now lives not far off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, admired her mother almost more.
“She was one of the greatest ladies,” Barbara says. “I try to pattern myself after her as a wife. She would have my daddy’s clothes clean, made sure he had his food, starched his handkerchiefs. I take care of my husband, too. Got that from my mom. I respect my husband like my dad.”
Ever inventive, Barbara’s mother made her shoes out of her father’s old hats. Vessie, who informally adopted Barbara as her own, as older sisters do, would have nothing of it.
“I found me a job where I got $3 a week,” Vessie says. “I worked 40 hours a week and walked both ways. When I made 50 cents, I’d put it down on shoes for Barbara.”
“Once Vessie bought me a red coat with a black velvet collar,” Barbara says. “A girl beat me up for it. Vessie took care of that, too.”
‘Love to all of you’
The descriptions of physical punishments in the Davis household are hard to hear today. When they are not laughing about it, however, the Davis sisters recognize the philosophy behind it.
“We appreciate the scoldings right up to today,” Teresia say. “Every lick from my dad helped me. I know right from wrong.”
“I never did like the whippins,” Vessie admits. “But we were a bunch of children who never went to jail.”
None of the sisters recall any of their father’s stories about the Texas Centennial at the State Fairgrounds, but a tender ritual was enacted every time he returned from a religious meeting out of town.
“Right away, he’d let us know how many people were there, how everybody was dressed up,” Teresia says. “He’d always bring each of us something, a new nickel, a new dime. That was big money.”
It was enough that dad made it home safely. And that his mission in life transcended all.
During one of his travels, S.L. wrote: “From Waco. Dear wife and kiddies, we are having a nice time here in the meeting. I think I shall be home Monday. Love to all of you, in the business of the Lord. Bye, Dad.”
Since 2011, reporter Michael Barnes has profiled more than a dozen Austin families who have led public lives for multiple generations. Among those have been the Limón-Estrada alliance, which numbers more than 3,500 members, the Koock-Faulk-Kuykendall family long associated with Green Pastures, and the relatives of school namesake Bertha Sadler Means.