Reminisce: Davenport’s ministry in Lima

When Hollywood came to Lima in 1980 to film the made-for-TV movie “Attica,” Lima State Hospital stood in for the New York State prison, site of a deadly 1971 uprising, while many local people got a taste of moviemaking as extras and some even landed minor speaking parts.

“Perhaps the most apt piece of casting done locally involved Rev. John T. Davenport, pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church,” The Lima News staff writer Mike Lackey wrote in a March 2, 1980, story. “Davenport, an erect, tranquil man of 58, was cast as a minister extra” and “appeared in several scenes with George Grizzard, Ron Foster and other actors” who played outside observers brought in to mediate between prisoners and state officials.

“I hadn’t given too much thought to Attica or the riot before, but this is really going to look real to somebody. I think it will help people understand what really happened, what the people really went through,” Davenport said.

After decades as a pastor in Lima, Davenport, who was known as “Uncle Doc,” had an understanding of what people went through as well as an appreciation of their history. “He sometimes knew more about a person’s family history than they did,” The Lima News wrote in October 1996.

Davenport’s own family history had roots in Mississippi, where he was born July 21, 1922, in the town of Tensly in Yazoo County.

“We were sharecropper farmers. … We furnished the labor, and someone else furnished the equipment. We did the labor, and they got half the harvest,” Davenport told Hans Houshower in a 1990 interview.

Houshower, a historian and folklorist from Bluffton, was working for American House, a non-profit group, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s researched the community’s traditional life and culture.

“Mostly we grew cotton, very little corn, but the main thing was cotton,” Davenport told Houshower. “I went through public school, and when I was ready to go to high school I dropped out and started working as the head of the house (at) about 16 years old. My mother … she had four children to try and raise, and I felt that I could be more help to my mother by helping her to farm than going to school.”

In 1946, Davenport, who by then was married, moved from Mississippi to Chicago, lived there for about a year and then moved to Lima around 1947 and went to work at Ohio Steel.

“I hired in over there at less than one dollar an hour,” he said.

After being laid off at Ohio Steel in 1949, Davenport worked briefly at the General Motors Foundry in Defiance before returning to Chicago and attending trade school. Returning to the area, he jumped around to different jobs – going back to both General Motors and Ohio Steel, the tank depot and Westinghouse.

“I suppose I worked every place (where) they needed laborers, in the hospitals, service stations, motels, hotels, construction,” Davenport told Houshower.

Eventually, Davenport found a job he could not leave.

“The year 1957, I was called into the ministry, I accepted the call and challenge, and I started out as a minister of the gospel,” he told Houshower.

Davenport was soon serving his congregation’s earthly as well as spiritual needs. In 1958, while an assistant pastor of Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, Davenport’s adopted niece died of polio, and he had a hard time scraping up money for burial expenses. Davenport, according to a 1962 story in The Lima News, hit on the idea of a burial club, in which members made monthly payments into a fund, which paid a funeral benefit when a member died. Forty-four people of various denominations joined.

On June 29, 1963, Davenport was ordained to the ministry by the Northwestern Association of Baptists.

“The new minister will preach his first sermon Sunday as pastor of the Olive Baptist Church. He has chosen the topic ‘A New Life … New Birth,’” The Lima News wrote.

Davenport, who started the Mount Olive church, would serve it the rest of his life.

“Mount Olive had several homes before moving to its current location (1406 St. Johns Ave.) in 1973, starting with a house on 13th Street in Perry Township, which the 10 original members turned into a church,” the News wrote in August 2003.

On Oct. 22, 1996, two days after he died at the age of 74, The Lima News wrote that “Lima has lost a great pastor, leader, historian and friend.” Fellow pastor Dr. Frank H. Taylor, of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, told The Lima News that Davenport was a walking historian for the Black community.

In his interview with Houshower, Davenport talked of being in the South in the early 1940s, when Blacks were being recruited in Mississippi and Alabama to work in northern industrial cities, like Lima.

“I was living in the South, and we had a man there by the name of Bailey Friley. … He had a five-ton, panel truck, he put a canvas over that truck … and he would bring truckloads of people. Twenty-five or 30 people would get in that truck, and he would make about two trips here a week. People were leaving the South, coming to Ohio to work in steel mills.”

He recalled a time when lending practices kept most of those who had come up from the South to work south of Fourth Street. Davenport, who served in the Navy during World War II, said he, too, had difficulty building a house despite the backing of the Veterans Administration.

Davenport also remembered a vibrant Black community, with many Black-owned nightclubs like the Tea Room, the Cotton Club and the Silver Moon that once dotted Lima. He recalled a grocer named Harvey Chapman on Third Street who would deliver groceries. Another man, who lived on Ninth Street, where there was city water, would sell it for 50 cents a barrel to those living south of there, who relied on wells or had no running water at all, he told Houshower.

Around 1960, Davenport partnered with Wade Wilson in the Courtesy Cab Company, which at the time was one of four serving the city. Davenport told Houshower that Courtesy Cab operated for about five years.

Along with the Brotherhood Fellowship Union, Davenport sought to bring the part of Lima’s history he knew so well to the attention of others, initiating a program at the Allen County Museum to bring to light the contributions of Blacks to the community.

“Each year he would ask people to put their modesty aside for a moment and share their lives with everyone,” wrote Raymond F. Schuck, who was the museum director in 1996. Davenport worked at the museum for nearly a decade.

“John’s contributions to this community were many,” Schuck noted in a tribute penned shortly after Davenport’s death. “In his quiet and unselfish way, he sought to bring meaning to every person’s life by giving them hope, courage, and a sense of place within their community. It was his sense of place within the community that was perhaps his greatest contribution, particularly in view of the fact that this community was his by virtue of adoption many years ago – his own native soil being much to the south.”

Davenport was the son of Rev. D.D. Davenport and Ruby Inez Clayborn. His wife, Nettie B. Davenport, whom he had married in June 1957, died Nov. 27, 2010, in Columbus, Georgia. She was 76.


This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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