Joplin woman overcomes poverty, hard times to pursue her lifelong dream

The Cupp family helps celebrate Irene Davis´s 90th birthday last August at Cici´s Pizza in Joplin. Davis used to baby-sit Becky, left, when she was a little girl and is now friends with the family.

Photo Courtesy of Irene Davis

The Cupp family helps celebrate Irene Davis´s 90th birthday last August at Cici´s Pizza in Joplin. Davis used to baby-sit Becky, left, when she was a little girl and is now friends with the family.

Jerry Manter

The corn stalks were shoulder high the day Irene Davis lost her job as a farm worker for a wealthy plantation man in Northern Louisiana.

“You’re going to have to move,” the plantation owner told her in the mid-1930s. “I need to move a new family in.”

With her parents deceased, two of her siblings under her watchful eye, Davis, who was born in 1912, found herself at the doorsteps of a closed door with nothing but a few clothing items and some materials that she could build into a tent.

She was homeless, out of work, hungry and longing for some clean water to take a bath.

“I didn’t have anything to lean on,” Davis said. “I was in the pit of trouble and the pit of starvation.”

It was the beginning of a long journey for Davis who wanted nothing more than a roof over her head and a hot meal to ease the hunger pains she dealt with on a daily basis. Davis, now a Joplin resident, was able to find a home for her siblings before too long. At the time, she was relieved they had food and a proper place to live. But she was still desperate for work and a home. Throughout the farming community surrounding Minden, La., Davis knocked on every door asking for work.

But no one answered her plea.

A dream worth fighting for

Davis remained cold, distraught and hungry, barely holding on.

Some nights it was a worn out wooden cupboard on the side of a dirt road. Some nights it was a hollow tree trunk that would keep her from the rain.

“I can’t believe how I felt all by myself,” she said.

Day after day, the search continued. She needed to find a job relatively soon before her years of severe poverty overwhelmed her body. For so long, she was unable to bathe and was forced to clean herself in dirty puddles of water.

“I didn’t know what a bath was,” she said. “I kept asking for help, but all I would get was ‘no.'”

The local funeral home acted as another temporary home for Davis. She was never able to sleep indoors, but she did manage to crawl underneath the home’s ambulance, hoping to avoid the weather.

“That was my home,” she said. “I can’t believe I didn’t get run over.”

One night while resting her head on the cold concrete, Davis had a dream of a life so beautiful and real at the same time. The dream was simple: she wanted her very own house. She was tired of dodging storms, avoiding the cold and not having the opportunity to watch the sunset in a rocking chair on her very own porch.

She quit asking locals for help. It was always no.

After a few setbacks, Davis found her way to the Busy Bee Café in nearby Cotton Valley, a little town 19 miles away. Davis walked in asking for help, looking for any position they had. The old, rundown restaurant gave her an opportunity.

Davis would pocket $9.70 a week.

“That was big money back then,” she said.

She saved every dime, every penny for her dream. Working around the clock, day after day, Davis continued putting away the money in a jar. She became aware of a little place that resembled a shed more than anything. But this house was in her budget.

She paid cash — $75.

Through all the hard work, persistence and a strong belief in God, Davis was finally able to move into her home. Opening the door with nothing more than a pillow sack full of clothes and a couple personal belongings, she saw the wood heater and it finally dawned on her that her dream underneath the ambulance had finally come true.

“I was rich then,” she said. “It wasn’t fancy, but I had my own house.”

But all that she’d worked for was about to be taken away.

“Then the tornado came,” she said. “It took the whole town, it took my house and everything in there.”

Davis remembers the night she almost lost her life. Hearing the tornado approach, all she could do was pray and crawl underneath the bed so she wouldn’t be carried away by the wind.

But it was too powerful.

When she saw her bed lift up into the sky, she jumped up and began to run. Dodging debris, she tripped and fell, wedging her legs in between a fallen tree.

“I’m laying there, I couldn’t move my feet,” she said.

Davis laid in pain while waiting out the storm that just took her home.

“I fell into the pit,” she said. “There I was.”

The storm left 172 people dead.

Although Davis was again homeless, the state notified her that it would build her a home using federal disaster money. It took a while, but the state built it on the very site of her original home. That was her land, and she didn’t want to leave it.

The new home even had a concrete porch.

“I thought I was in heaven,” she said.

For more than 16 years, Davis worked at the Busy Bee. During her 16th year with the restaurant, Davis discovered she had a half brother, Willy Lee McGee, who was living in Hayti, Mo. She wanted to meet him.

“I just walked out of the café, got a pickup truck, found a man and left,” she said.

Offer a hand, save a friend

It was late in the evening on April 12, 1952, when she and the driver, M.D. Davis, arrived in Joplin. The next morning M.D. went on a walk to check out the construction of Seventh Street. The project manager yelled out to him.

“What are you doing? Get that shovel and get to work.”

With M.D. receiving the construction job, Davis wouldn’t be able to meet her half brother for another four years.

Davis landed a job as an economic surveyor, an outreach worker that went to homes in the district to survey families and their economic status.

But not all residents enjoyed a middle-aged black woman knocking on their doors asking personal questions about their family. But Davis wouldn’t let that slow her down. Not even the day she had a double gauge shotgun pointed directly at her face.

On the long list of families Davis had to visit, none stood out more than the family with seven sons on the outskirts of town. The family was notorious for poverty and violence. The police even avoided the home. Not much was known about Al, his wife Fern and their seven sons. It was whispered, however, that Al was almost always drunk, beat his children to a pulp and had his wife leery of every move she would make. It wasn’t uncommon for Fern’s body to be covered with black and blue bruises from head to toe.

“She’d be black just as I am,” Davis said. “He was a drunker.”

Davis ignored the warnings she received from fellow co-workers.

“If you go, take a man with you,” an employee told her.

Driving toward the house in her pickup, Davis brought a little Bible that was sitting on the passenger seat.

Overcoming nerves, she pulled alongside the front of the house and was surprised to see all seven sons and Al sitting on the edge of the porch.

She grabbed the Bible, opened the door and heard a loud uproar of snarls and barking from the family’s dogs.

She walked gingerly to the edge of the porch with all eyes directed at her.

“Can I sit down?” she said to the boys.

After a few seconds, the boys slid over, allowing just enough room for Davis to sit down.

As the little black woman from Louisiana sat on the porch with the husband and the wild seven, she was interrupted just as she was about to begin asking her survey questions.

“What’s that you got in your hand?” one of the boys asked.

Davis showed them her Bible.

“They started talking to me,” she said.

That afternoon Davis and the family had conversations about life and the Bible. After a while, Fern made her presence on the porch.

“Why don’t you come to church on Sunday,” she said to Fern.

Davis was unaware that on Sunday mornings Fern could almost always hear the distant sounds of church service stretching beyond their property.

“I can hear the preaching from here,” Fern said.

After all her questions were answered, Davis packed up her things and said goodbye. One by one, each member of the family shook her hand. She turned around and started walking to the pickup.

“When you coming back?” one of the boys said.

Within a few days, she did go back to the home.

Wanting to help the family in every way that she could, she knew she was going to have to concentrate on Al and his drunken lifestyle that plagued him and his family.

“He was mean, but he had a good spot,” she said. “I could see it in him.”

Davis frequently visited Fern, the children and Al. She promised herself that she would never turn her back on them. She was going to keep her word. She always told them:

“I love you for who you is.”

Through friendly counseling, patience and a lot of struggle, Al slowly began to listen, and was able to see how the alcohol was destroying his family and his life.

“I could see something in him,” she said. “I’m going to keep him until I find him.”

Davis helped Al sober up and realize the opportunity that awaited him.

“He quit beating his wife and kids,” she said. “I saw a different Al.”

Although there’s not much that can surprise Davis, Al’s next step in life did. He became a preacher in a church near Neosho.

When Davis learned about Al’s death in 1965 from a heart attack during a mid-morning service, she was sad but relieved.

“I thank God that he changed before he left,” she said.

For 35 years, Davis was happily married to M.D. before he died in 1987.

They were never able to have children, but she still filled her love for children when she quit her survey job and opened her home for baby-sitting.

“I loved children, and always wanted them, but I wasn’t able to have any,” she said.

At the time, some on-lookers would question an African-American woman tending to the needs of white children.

Davis, however, ignored them and continued on with her job.

“I don’t look at colors,” she said. “They are my children.”

An inspiration to everyone

Today, Davis is 90 years old, and refuses to live the rest of her life in a nursing home. Independent and still holding a sharp mind, she can never forget the struggle she went through to discover a life filled with happiness.

“I can look back and think about how I got here,” she said.

Dorothy McPherson, a close friend of Davis for 27 years, said she’s been blessed knowing such a beautiful person.

“She’s been a mentor to me,” McPherson said. “She’s an inspiration to everyone that meets her.”

McPherson said she’s amazed at how much a 90-year-old woman can offer under the circumstances.

“She gives me strength and gives me a lot of wisdom,” McPherson said. “She’s very special to me.”

Although the journey has been long for Davis, she’s happy where she’s ended up.

It’s always been the dream that’s helped her ignore the struggle of life. No matter what, she’s been ready.

And today, she continues living out that dream.

She still has her very own home.

“This is my palace,” she said. “I’ve come to a place where I can sit down and rest a while.”