Honoring Local Black History: The late Roberta Davenport

As we here at The Chronicle continue to honor Black History Month, this week, we share the story of Roberta Davenport, who was the first African American woman to be elected as probate judge for Emanuel County. However, due to her passing, it was her son, Brian Cross, who we would interview to discuss his late mother. Cross, who is 48-years-old, was born and raised in Swainsboro, and he also has an older sister, Nancy Cross, as well. The two of them, alongside their mother. grew up on Racetrack Street. However, Brian now lives in Atlanta, and his sister lives in Sandersville. Brian works as a cyber security specialist with AT&T, where he has worked for 15 years. Brian graduated from Clark Atlanta University with a major in biology and earned a master’s degree from Georgia State University.

So, who is Roberta Davenport? She was the first African American woman to be elected as probate judge in Emanuel County, an office in which she would be sworn into in 1988. She would serve in this position for 13 years until complications with pancreatitis lead to her suffering cardiac resulting, resulting in her untimely death on November 6, 2001. She was 55-years-old at the time. Davenport would face no opposition en route to office, due in large part because of her presence and influence in her community as well as the support from those within the community (both black and white). Brian does remember, however, even at the age of 16, the campaign trail before his mother took office. He recalls events in Oak Park and Stillmore, saying, “It was like it was yesterday. I remember my sister and my mom. I was 16 at the time, and my sister had just returned home from college for the summer. We all just pitched in to help my mom, who was just very excited about the opportunity to serve her community. My mom was a very family-oriented person as well as a community-driven type person.” He continued in saying, “Still to this day, I have people come up to me and say how much of an impact my mom had on their life. It’s amazing because she was my mom. For both me and my sister, she was our biggest advocate, our best friend, our disciplinarian, but first and foremost, she was our mom. She had high expectations of us.” He goes on to say at the time he had no clue really of the impact his mother had on the lives of his community, just that he understood this was a very big achievement in his mother’s life. Brian says of his sister and himself, “We laugh about it all the time because she was always pressuring us to be excellent.” He laughs and continues, “So many people come up to me when I come back to Swainsboro and tell me my mom helped them so much. It makes me feel good to know she touched so many lives.” Davenport no doubt left a legacy behind her that will continue to inspire future generations of not only her family but the entire African American race in Emanuel County. However, her family is doing their very best to not only uphold the legacy she left behind but also carve their own paths.

Supreme Court Judge McMillian was the one to swear Davenport into office. She decided to run for office because of her willingness to help others. Brian goes on to say, “That was her spiritual, God-given gift to help people, to encourage people, and to lead by example.” No doubt as a probate judge, she would be allowed the opportunity to accomplish just that. This enabled her to help people and serve her community and be a beacon of light to those in need. While Davenport truly wanted to serve her community, Brian feels as though “there definitely was an inclination of hers to be apart of history,” but serving her community was definitely at the forefront of her intentions.

Davenport was indeed inspired by her predecessors, whether that be people within her community or people she admired from afar, but none more so than Maya Angelou. She had a deep love and appreciation for Maya and shortly before her death was actually able to meet her. They would become fast friends—imagine meeting your hero and becoming friends with them. That had to truly be an overwhelming feeling for Roberta and Brian feels as though it was. Davenport was also inspired by some of her teachers she had met throughout her lifetime as well as the owners of the Reno Tapley Funeral Mortuary.

Brian recalls that leading up to his mother being sworn in as the probate judge, there was “pure excitement” within the family. Brian goes on to explain that while his mom loved helping people, she was also a very competitive person. Whether it had been through sports, academics or even the opportunity to be an elected official, she always looked forward to the challenge. She played softball all the way until 50 years old and was always taking care of her body. Davenport was also a prominent figure for her church, the Mount Moriah AME Church located on Green Street in Swainsboro. Her husband was also the pastor of the St. Paul AME Church in Vidalia. Without question, the Davenport family has a large influence spread throughout the various parts of Georgia.

Davenport did, of course, face challenges throughout her life as someone who was not only a woman but also an African American. Racism at the time was still prevalent as she was forced to attend a segregated school and deal with the ridicule of being a different skin color. However, even when faced with these challenges, Brian says of his mother, “She would always tell us, no matter what, to give 110 percent of yourself. No matter what challenges you face, you must always find a way to overcome them.”

This propensity to overcome any challenge set before them is what makes the African American race so outstanding. Not only to be victorious in doing so but to also hold their community up high. To build each other up and instill in one another the knowledge necessary to survive. To be able to break into athletics, or professional office, or just everyday life and keep pushing forward regardless of the ridicule they face and the stereotypes imposed upon them. Roberta Davenport was no different in this regard and through 13 years of excellent service and raising a family, she has indeed added to the legacy of brilliance that is so apparent in the African American race. Brian finishes the interview with some words of advice for future generations in saying, “There are a lot more opportunities today as opposed to where I was as a teenager. Whether that is through education or professional life, we have more access to information today than what we were afforded then. You must understand that our dreams are countless, but it will require you to put in the work, time, and dedication necessary to achieve these goals. Remember to give back to the youth and help them, guide them to become outstanding members of society. To hold each other accountable and inspire one another to do the same.” This access to knowledge is perhaps the biggest difference today in contrast to those times where segregation was so rabid in everyday society. Even with this knowledge, Brian says, there will still no doubt be hurdles to overcome and boundaries you must break through. It all starts with leading by example and as so many African Americans have done unto this point, you must remember to stay the course and never break your resolve. It is with your resolve that you have and will continue to shatter the expectations placed upon you. Whether that means running for president of the United States or becoming a vice president, you’ve done it. There is nothing stopping you from achieving your dreams if you give everything you got.

The Chronicle would like to thank Brian Cross for giving us the opportunity to conduct this interview and for sharing his wonderful story about his revered mother, Roberta Davenport. We wish you the very best in your life going forward and hope you will continue to set an example of excellence that your mother would be very proud of.

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