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‘Renaissance man’ Fred L. Davis lived to make a difference

Fred L. Davis “never stopped wanting to help, to give and to better the environment in his community,” said Lynn Norment, a family friend and church member.

The proprietor of Fred L. Davis Insurance Company, a former city councilman and a veteran civil rights activist, Davis died at his home, surrounded by his family on Tuesday afternoon. He was 86.

Fred L. Davis (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Davis’ sense of and appreciation for community were rooted in Orange Mound. “(He) loved telling stories from back in the day when Orange Mound was in its glory days,” said Norment.

“Fred Davis stories” rolled in all day Tuesday as word of his death spread across the Internet.

Bennett Moore called Mr. Davis “The Real Deal” and sent condolences to “Mrs. Davis and Sheila (Davis’ daughter) and the rest of the family.”

Denise Bollheimer said Davis once told her, “If you want to live like a Republican, vote Democratic.”

Mayor Jim Strickland said, “I was very sorry to hear about the loss of Fred Davis, four-term councilman, and business owner for more than 50 years.”

Strickland called Davis a “Memphis legend,” whose leadership inspired the naming of the Innovation Center at the Entrepreneur Network in Davis’ honor.

“His clarion call for building black-owned businesses will live on,” Strickland said.

In 1967, Davis was elected to the first Memphis City Council, which took office Jan.1, 1968, just as the city was transitioning to a mayor-commission form of government. Davis founded his insurance company in 1967.

“Mr. Davis was proud of living in that same house for more than 60 years, right there in Orange Mound,” said Norment. “He kept his business right there on Airways near Lamar for over 50 years. Mr. Davis was right where he wanted to be.”

Davis was sitting on the edge of the stage when Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous “Mountain Top” speech at Mason Temple the night before he was assassinated on April 4 1968 as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

King had come to Memphis to support the city’s striking sanitation workers.

Davis marched with Dr. King, along with the two other African-American City Council members, J.O. Patterson Jr., and the Rev. James L. Netters.

At the beginning of his second term, Davis was elected to chair the council, becoming the first first African American to do so. He remained on the council for 12 years.

Former Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton noted Davis’ love of family and community and added, “I have always admired Fred Davis for his visionary leadership in business and politics.”

Davis graduated from Manassas High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting at Tennessee State University. He met Ella Singleton on campus and they later married.

During a presentation on the campus of the University of Memphis, Fred. L. Davis accepted the Lifetime Achievement award, with his wife, Ella, alongside. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Davis’ insurance company was the first African-American, independent insurance company in six states – Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Missouri – and one of the first in the South.

Black Business Association of Memphis President and CEO Mark Yates lauded Davis for “having the ability to look toward the past and be encouraging about the future.

“He was one of the vanguards who embodied courage — a good man,” said Yates.

Pastor Anthony Henderson of Beulah Baptist Church called Davis part of a “strong core of their membership.” Davis served on the deacon board, was a past chair of the trustee board and a Sunday School teacher.

Charity’s House, named for Davis’ mother, was a house Davis opened for community outreach, said Henderson.

“He was a Renaissance man who reinvented himself many times,” Henderson said. “Brother Davis loved his people and he loved his community.”

Henderson said Davis would be “holding court” in his office when he dropped by to see him.

Davis enjoyed numerous positions of leadership, including founding board member of the Memphis Leadership Foundation, founder of the Mid-South Minority Business Consortium, past president of the Liberty Bowl and the first African-American member of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, Inc.

Davis received many awards, including the Humanitarian Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and “Kiwanian of the Year” from the Downtown Kiwanis Club.

Joann Massey, director of the city’s Office of Business Diversity & Compliance, said Davis was one of the first people to reach out when she began her service as director.

“He shared with me the history of black business in the city and how important my work was,” she said, calling Davis’ advice and encouragement inspiring.

“Black people in Memphis owe a great debt to Mr. Davis. He left us a legacy that will continue to live after him — for our children and our children’s children.”

Davis leaves his wife, Ella Davis; three children Michael Davis, Marvin Davis and Sheila Davis, and a host of other loved ones and friends.

M.J. Edwards Funeral Home has charge. Final arrangements are pending.

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