For 49 years the Fred L. Davis Insurance Agency has operated out of Orange Mound at 1374 Airways Boulevard in a small tan building bearing the owner’s name. Davis has served his community across a long career stretching beyond insurance sales and including civil rights activism and politics.
“We were the first black insurance brokers in six states,” he said. “Before I was established you couldn’t insure a home, car or church with a black person.”
The inside of the insurance company is decorated with plaques, awards and pictures of Davis through the years commemorating milestones.
There’s a photo of Davis marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis. A plaque commemorates Davis as a founding board member of the Brannon-McCulloch Clinic, which in the 1970s served as a night clinic in Orange Mound and is now Christ Community Health Center at 2569 Douglass Avenue. An award from the 114-year-old Beulah Baptist Church on 2407 Douglass Avenue, where he is a member, commemorates Davis for service to the community among many other framed certificates and plaques of the same ilk.
Fred Davis, longtime Orange Mound resident and activist, stands for a portrait at his insurance office on Airways Boulevard. Davis is a person of firsts: He opened one of the first black insurance agencies in the South, he served as the first black Memphis city councilman. He also marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the sanitation workers strike.
Yet Davis, with a crop of gray hair, a blue suit, and legs crossed is not intimidating. He laughed at his own jokes and said his career moves were based on things that simply, “needed to be done.”
“I’ve been working since the fourth grade,” he said. “My mother used to take us to Arkansas to pick cotton with a man who was a sharecropper, a Mr. Henderson. All of the cotton I picked, the money was kept separate and when we got back to Memphis that helped buy my school clothes.”
Davis was the first black chairman on the Memphis City Council and served as chairman and founding director of the Mid-South Minority Business Council. A host of other positions led to educational and economic impact not only in Orange Mound, but in the city of Memphis.
Born in 1934, Davis grew up in South Memphis on Horace Street. He graduated from Manassas High School in 1953 and met his wife Ella Davis while attending class at Tennessee State University (She was an accounting lab instructor and they, “courted over worksheets.”). He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 1957 and then served in the U.S. Army from 1957 to 1959 as an interpreter in France.
After 13 months in France, Davis returned to Memphis and started selling insurance door-to-door. He credits the job with helping him build relationships in Orange Mound, becoming, “knee deep in politics” and getting involved in civil rights.
“Orange Mound adopted me. I came out here 50 years ago as a debit insurance agent out of college and out of the army. I didn’t intend to do what I was doing out here, but it seemed that every door that I was trying to go through was closed,” he said.
The insurance company that Davis represented, North Carolina Mutual, asked him to go to Orange Mound and take a debit. A debit, he said, is a territory and insurance people had territories that had certain fiscal boundaries.
red Davis, longtime Orange Mound resident and activist, is reflected in the glass of a framed photograph he has in his office on Airways Boulevard. The photograph is Davis (in the glasses) walking with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during a visit by the civil rights leader to Memphis to support the sanitation workers in March 1968.
“At the time, I had a wife and two children and no car, walking this debit which included Park over to the beltline and, in the process, I became very involved in the community,” he said. “We collected premiums door-to-door, but what they did for me was to give me an intimate knowledge of this neighborhood. I knew everybody in every house on every street. So when I decided to process and organize this area, I was no stranger to anybody because they had all met me in one way or the other.”
As the neighborhood accepted him, Davis became president of the Orange Mound Civic club at the encouragement of the community seniors.
“I was 25 and I was energetic and all of the seniors said, 'let that young man do it!'” he said, laughing. “I organized Orange Mound completely to the point where I could make five phone calls and touch every house in Orange Mound.”
As he discussed his participation in the Memphis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and getting arrested one year in the 1960s for trying to help desegregate the fairgrounds, he maintained that he participated in civil rights movement because it was something that needed to be done.
“There was no choice. That was not something you thought about. You were there, you did it. You were denied, you fought. I’m still fighting,” he said.
As Davis continues his life and business in Orange Mound, he said deciding to open the insurance company and keep it in the neighborhood is one of the best decisions he’s ever made as it's given him the independence that he needed.
“If I didn’t work for myself I couldn’t do all of that,” he said referencing the community involvement and activism that shines across his career.
“Time is the most precious commodity that you have. When someone else owns your time, you’re subjected to them. The more powerful people and the more influential people in the world are those who don’t report to anybody. They are the people who decide they want to go do something today and they go do it.”