Notes taken on the life of Jeffrey Davis, in a conversation with him March 10, 1977. He was born January 9, 1895 in Tchula, Mississippi and died January 4, 1984.
[Prior to this occasion, Dad told us many times just a little of his early childhood in Tchula. His mother (Ruperta Darnell, called “Purtie,” died in 1901 at age 28, and his father married India Fryer in about 1906. His stepmother was apparently routinely unkind to him, and once beat him with a buggy whip—for getting paint on his half sister, Mary Sue Davis, as I recall. (In later life, JD was never fond of his half sister.) But his father scolded the woman, and she never hit the boy again. His father (William Davis, called “Will”) died in 1909 at age 41, and India apparently died or kicked JD out. At any rate, he was orphaned and went to live with his cousin in Texas.]
San Antonio, Texas—After JD’s first year of high school, Cousin Mechling, his second cousin and guardian [Don’t know who this is.], demanded that JD quit school and go to work. He had been taking a business course of studies in high school. Thus, about 1912 JD was apprenticed to a photoengraver at $3.00 a week. On the advice of the juvenile court, Cousin Mechling sent JD to his nearest kin, his grandmother, Parthenia Mercer. [She lived in Crichton, Alabama, now a part of Mobile.] He worked for Ainsley Lithographing and Engraving Company. The journeyman there complained that JD knew too much about the business and might take the journeyman’s job; consequently, JD was sent to the lithography department.
JD began to visit his sister Mechling in Birmingham, Alabama. She convinced him that he should take a job there. Both lived with Parthenia’s sister, Aunt Mamie Traynham. Five years’ experience was required of an apprentice before he could become a journeyman; therefore, JD continued as an apprentice, at Alabama Engraving Company, at $5.00 a week. Eventually he became a “finishing proofer,” then a photographer, working up to $12.00 a week. Business fell off when war broke out, however, and his salary was reduced to $6.00 a week. JD’s earlier salary of $5.00 was entirely demanded by his great aunt for room and board, so he took a paper route to earn more money. Eventually, he was laid off from the engraving job and became a collector for the Birmingham Age-Herald, a hard job with much walking.
During this period, JD had been a member of the National Guard, artillery branch. (He received no pay for belonging; he joined out of interest only.) In 1914, he decided to join the navy in order to learn [another] trade. JD was old enough to join legally, but having no birth certificate to prove his age, he needed his guardian’s statement that he was old enough. Cousin Mechling, still his legal guardian even though she herself, apparently, was not of age, refused to sign the papers. A lawyer friend that JD had met in the National Guard suggested that he sign an affidavit attesting to his age; and while Mechling (sister) and Aunt Mamie were on vacation in Amory, Mississippi (where Mamie had previously lived and Mechling had gone to school), JD joined the navy. The year was 1915. Soon after JD left for duty, Uncle Will, Mamie’s husband, threw out JD’s chest containing his belongings.
JD attended boot camp at St. Helena, Virginia, and became a squad leader and section leader while he was there. After six months, he transferred to the main training station at Norfolk, Virginia. He spent six months there, also, in wireless (that is, radiotelegraph) training. Thereafter, he went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to continue radio school. Finally, he was rated a third class radio operator (third class petty officer).
JD’s first ship was USS New Jersey, a “receiving ship” on which new men waited assignment. Then he was transferred temporarily to USS New York, and then to USS Yorktown, a converted yacht used as a dispatch boat. The vessel was sent to protect American-owned cane fields in Cuba. He was transferred to USS Machias, a fourth-class cruiser, a coal-burner originally classed as a battleship, and named after the city in Maine. Marines were aboard as part of the mission.
Machias was sent to Gibraltar, her base throughout the war. Her job was to patrol. At one point an enemy submarine was sighted, and the ship tried to ram it. A depth charged was dropped—a possible kill. Later, Machias took convoys through the straits to the Mediterranean. Still later, JD transferred to USS Wheeling, a gunboat. On this ship, JD was promoted to chief petty officer. He served on this ship on convoy duty till the end of the war.
With no desire to ship over for a second four-year hitch, in 1919 JD asked for a discharge. He got off the ship in New Orleans and went back to Birmingham. He apparently met Sarah Lillian Sullivan at this time. He decided to work the wheat fields in Kansas with two former shipmates, one named Felix, but rain prevented the harvest. Nearly penniless, he went to Peabody, Kansas to work in the oil fields. He got a job with a casing crew—they put in pipes or casings to shut water out of the drilling operation. He worked at this hard but good-paying job for three of four months, but left because of its difficulty and returned to Birmingham. He lived there with Cousin Mildred Mansfield [the daughter of Willie Etta, his grandmother’s and also Mamie’s sister] upstairs over Lillian Sullivan’s apartment. The time was about 1919-1920. He worked for Sheffield Iron Works as a watchman, and began to go out with Lillian Sullivan.
No other more desirable jobs were available—no job as an electrician or radio operator—so JD went to New Orleans, got a license from the FCC, and went to sea with Southern Pacific Steamship Company. He shipped out on SS Excelsior as second operator at $100.00 a month, running from New Orleans to Cuba. He asked for a promotion and became first operator on SS Chalmette, sister ship to Excelsior, on the same run. His salary was now $125.00 a month. Since he had reached the highest possible salary in the radio department, JD eventually asked for a quartermaster’s job. And he rose eventually to fourth mate. When the company was sold to the Morgan line, JD transferred to SS Creole on the New York to New Orleans passenger run. (Attaining a deck job made possible his return to sea in WW II.) He took the examination for third mate, and eventually held a first mate’s license although still shipping as fourth mate.
Meanwhile, Lillian Sullivan, who had been working for Perfection Mattress Company in Birmingham, was writing to JD and visited New Orleans to see him. She promised to marry him, so JD decided to leave the sea. No shore jobs were available in the area, and he consequently took a job with the Rio Motor Car Company in Brooklyn, New York. In 1926, Lillian Sullivan came there to marry him.
A friend in his Masonic Lodge (Walter Denton, who witnessed the marriage license) got JD a job as a chaser, one who hunts delinquent debtors and collects from them. The company financed its own cars that were provided to the chasers. When the company sold the loans to a finance company, JD lost the car and the job. His next job was as a chauffeur-salesman, driving a truck, for the selling part, and offering cheese in Long Island, Brooklyn and Staten Island. His salary was $30.00 a week and 1% of sales.
Soon after the marriage, LSD’s mother, Sallie Sullivan, started living with LSD and JD.
First son born September 17, 1927.
The superintendent of the apartment building where the couple lived had badgered LSD. A fight ensued [not clear what kind of fight and between whom], and the matter was taken to court. LSD’s mother paid the legal expenses. They fled to New Jersey to avoid jail [I don’t know why I didn’t ask why jail was a threat, but I didn’t] and lived with JD’s brother James and his wife Hilda. But they decided to move back south. At this time, LSD’s brother Huey visited New Jersey and offered JD a job with a finance company. (JD was grateful to Huey Sullivan, but did not like him then and apparently never came to like him.) Early in 1927, JD and LSD moved to Atlanta for the job and lived there with Huey and Janie Sullivan. They left Atlanta for a job in Birmingham with the same company; JD would be chaser and assistant manager. The name of the Birmingham company (not the same as the parent company) was the Staley Finance Company.
Second son born in Birmingham May 26, 1929.
JD was transferred to Covington, Kentucky, still working as chaser. He was then transferred to Atlanta, Georgia as manager of the Fulton Brokerage Company making $150.00 a month. JD boosted business in this office and so was sent to an office in Macon, Georgia to bring it out of decline. His salary was raised to $165.00 a month.
[JD’s memory of this period was not as vivid as with earlier periods.]
He was transferred to Savannah, Georgia, and then to Jacksonville, Florida. There, a charge of usury was brought against him, and he was arrested. In jail, the prisoners held a kangaroo court at which JD was fined $2.00. The contract with the company described JD’s job as “salary buying,” a subterfuge to avoid usury laws. JD went before a grand jury with a company representative and a lawyer, and because of the wording of the contract, no indictment was returned.
Thirds son born May 2, 1933.
Still building up weak offices, JD was transferred to Tampa, Florida.
JD was transferred again to Savannah, Georgia. He quit the finance company in 1941 to return to sea. His top salary with the company was $235.00 a month, and he quit to get higher wages at sea. (My brother remembers another motive—to escape the difficulty of living with his mother-in-law in the house.) He went to Charleston, South Carolina to consult the Maritime Commission, attended a refresher course at Fort Trumbull and eventually returned to sea, going on the beach only upon retirement.