Growing up in Wilmington’s West Center City, Dwight Davis says, he was never exposed to racism. That’s because, he says, “I didn’t know any white folks.”
He saw plenty of whites in his youth, but he never got to know them.
“We were different African-Americans then. I never realized how different we were, growing up in a company town,” he remembers.
His neighborhood, along Madison Street, was in the midst of rapid change. An urban renewal project on the east side of Market Street had torn down a relatively stable African-American neighborhood to make way for what would eventually become a series of new government buildings. Construction of the newly built I-95 had cut off West Center City from the Cool Spring and Hilltop neighborhoods on the other side of the highway. To the north, as always, loomed the DuPont Co., whose headquarters buildings stretched west from Rodney Square along 10th Street to Delaware Avenue.
Yet, “we lived in substandard housing,” Davis says, noting that he still lives at 626 Madison. “I’m a product of a single parent, with everything that goes along with that.”
Little remains of the hustle and bustle of the Madison of the 1950s and ’60s. Davis lists the businesses on the street north from Fourth Street, familiar names like Cohen Brothers Furniture, Yatz’s Sub Shop, Serpe’s Bakery, Dawson’s Seafood, Dun-Rite Cleaners—all long gone or moved on—plus a bank and a string of bars, liquor stores and corner markets. “There was a church where the Hicks Anderson Community Center is now. We had dances at West Presbyterian Church, and there was a place called Jazz Shine, an arcade where you could play pinball, listen to music, get your shoes shined. That’s where you took your girlfriend,” he says.
At the time, Davis didn’t realize the subtle influence the DuPont Co. had on his neighborhood. From his vantage point today, he believes it was the corporations, more than the white males who were their leaders, that were responsible for keeping minority populations “in their place.”
“The companies understood. Their employees had to come to work, park on the street, go to work and be productive, leave work and get home safely. So they had to keep the environment safe, sanitary and decent,” he says. It was just one of the costs of doing business.
Meanwhile, young African-Americans were being influenced by several movements as they sought empowerment and a greater sense of independence. Davis recalls the Garvey movement, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, pan-Africanism, “and then you had the civil rights movement.” It was a confusing time, he says, so it was hard to know which way to turn.
The fragile calm that Wilmington’s corporate leaders had managed to maintain shattered in April 1968, as rioting broke out in the aftermath of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Gov. Charles L. Terry Jr. responded with force and vigor, calling out the National Guard to keep the peace. The violence didn’t last long, but the Guard’s occupation lasted nine months, until moments after newly elected Gov. Russell W. Peterson took office and directed the Guard to leave the city.
“The occupation wasn’t the entire city. It was like from Fourth to Ninth, from Adams back over to around Market,” Davis says.
In the first few days, he would look out his bedroom window and “feel the intensity of fires right across the street.” He remembers hearing of snipers poised on rooftops, but he never saw any. “The only weapons that people I saw had were cans of food. They were throwing cans of food at the police. The looting was of the liquor stores. For nearly a month, the whole community ate and stayed pretty much intoxicated.”
Davis was 17 that summer, preparing to begin his senior year at Howard High School, so he spent plenty of time on the streets, which meant playing cat-and-mouse with police and the Guard as the evening curfew approached. “If you were caught, they would shine lights in your face. If you weren’t home, you had to sneak home, ducking in and out of the alleyways until you got home.”
Vietnam wasn’t a big concern for Davis. After graduating from Howard, he entered Delaware State University. The draft ended during his first semester, and he drew a high number in the lottery. He would earn a degree in business administration and pursue careers in sales, first in insurance, then with a trucking company before settling into community service work.
For 35 years he has been associated with the Model Cities Motivational Center, where his prime role now is to assist ex-offenders with applications for pardons and to help them become employable.
In 1978, shortly after his mother died, Davis began reading the Quran and embraced Islam. “It gave me a model to help other people. It gave me the balance I needed—prayer, learning and a discipline so I would not self-destruct.”
Through the years, Davis occasionally ventured into Wilmington politics, but never succeeded in winning public office. Today, he’s somewhat of an anomaly, an African-American Muslim supporter of Donald Trump.
“Since 1966,” Davis says, “there’s been an ongoing effort to destroy African-American people while making it appear that you’re saving them.
“During the civil rights struggle, the only people that benefited were the black middle class. The poor remain poor,” he says. He views liberal immigration policies as a system that enables foreigners to take jobs from African-Americans. “What Trump is doing is an opportunity for us to grow,” he says.