Robena V. Davis grew up on her family’s farm in Floyd, VA, one of eight children of William Harvey Helm and Sarah Malinda Robertson Helm. Though she lived most of her life in Detroit, she maintained a special fondness for the farm throughout her life, often recounting the hard work and perseverance of her father to buy the land and of her parents to retain the land. Their example inspired Mrs. Davis to consistently, often successfully, challenge conventional class-, race- and gender-based expectations.
Mrs. Davis attended Harris Hart School in Floyd, VA, through the 10th grade. There being no school in her town at the time where African Americans could complete high school, Mrs. Davis moved in with relatives 200 miles away, in Asheville, NC, graduating from Stephens-Lee High School in 1937. At Stephens-Lee, Mrs. Davis served on the editorial staff of the Stephens-Lee Pioneer, as exchange editor.
In 1939, seeking greater economic and social opportunity, Mrs. Davis and her sister, Lucile Helm, joined their brother and his wife in Detroit. After working as a domestic helper, Mrs. Davis landed a job as a waitress at Black Bottom Detroit’s BNC night club, where she met her future husband, Claude Davis. They married shortly before he was deployed to the South Pacific, where he served as a supply sergeant during World War II.
Upon Mr. Davis’s return from the War, Mrs. Davis served as his administrative assistant in their real estate firm. Mr. Davis was among the realtors working with James Del Rio, who sold homes to African Americans in Pontiac, Michigan, facilitating that city’s racial integration. The Davises also owned and operated a restaurant in Detroit at 440 Antoinette, on land now part of Wayne State University’s campus.
Mrs. Davis later served as a social worker with Wayne County’s Department of Social Services, retiring in 1982. As a social worker, Mrs. Davis counseled drug addicts, helping to break their addiction and guiding them toward becoming productive members of society.
Mrs. Davis’s civic engagement and community involvement was substantial. Four years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregation in public schools, Mrs. Davis helped integrate Detroit’s High School of Commerce and Business Administration, successfully persuading administrators to enroll her daughters, who became proud alumnae.
An active member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Mrs. Davis served as president of Detroit’s Post 3080 from 1982 to 1987. She served as District 4 president from 1990 to 1991, and as State Rehabilitation Chair from 1991 to 1992. One of her favorite VFW activities was encouraging Detroit high school students to compete in the VFW’s annual Voice of Democracy speech contest.
For many years, Mrs. Davis volunteered full-time as a greeter at the Allen Park, MI Veterans Administration Hospital and, later, at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit. According to hospital officials, no volunteer contributed more hours at either location than Mrs. Davis.
Mrs. Davis was a life member of the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary, Disabled American Veterans, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
She was preceded in death by her husband, Claude Arville Davis, of Montezuma, TN, and a step-son, Wendell N. Davis. She leaves behind a sister, Lucile Helm; two daughters, Claudette Bond and Joann Davis; a step-son, Kenneth Davis; three grandchildren, Randall Walden, Jr., Melinda Shreve, and Clayton Bond (Ted); and a great-granddaughter, Cyan Shreve.
Services were held on Thursday, March 3, at Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, in Detroit. Funeral arrangements were handled by Wilson-Akins Funeral Home.