France Davis. Photo by Adam Finkle.
In a black suit, red bow tie and matching pocket square, the Rev. France Davis exhorts his royal-blue-robed choir—backed by a Saturday-night lineup of electric guitars, keyboards and drums—to sing it like they mean it. He instructs his congregation, of blacks, whites, and African and Asian immigrants, to turn to someone they don’t know. “Tell them you love them and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
It’s Sunday morning at Calvary Baptist Church, a foothold of African American culture in Salt Lake City, an oasis of exuberance and diversity amid the monochromatic sanctuaries that dominate the city.
It’s a far cry from what Davis found when he first arrived here in 1972, starting what he thought would be a one-year teaching gig at the University of Utah before returning home to Georgia. Having ventured as far as Southeast Asia with the Air Force, Davis was unprepared for a cultural landscape so alien in his own country. Or so deeply inhospitable.
“It was like fighting the civil rights movement all over again,” says the 66-year-old pastor of the city’s largest and second-oldest African American congregation. Davis had been part of the movement as a Tuskegee University undergraduate and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. But when he arrived in Utah to move into an apartment he had leased long distance, the landlord refused to rent to him.
“Housing [in Utah] was not open, educational opportunities were limited, economic opportunities were very limited and political opportunities were completely nonexistent. Everything was run by the dominant [religious] community, excluding anyone else,” he says.
Over the last 40 years, Davis has become the most prominent and influential African American in Salt Lake City. Through his dedication, as devoted minister and community advocate, he has helped create a more welcoming home for Utah’s people of color. Because of the relationships he’s built with mayors, governors, business leaders and university administrators statewide, Salt Lake’s tiny black population (around 4,600 at last official count) is more integrated into the city’s social, economic and political life.
“He’s really the drum major of the community,” says Charles Henderson, a Calvary member and former Kearns Community Council member. “He sets the tone of what we should do and how we should do it.”
Davis’ emphasis on education, leadership and political engagement may become increasingly important as black Salt Lakers, like African Americans nationwide, face what Davis acknowledges is a shift, even a slowdown, in forward progress. “I’m distressed by the attitudes that still haven’t changed, by people thinking that difference means ‘less than,’ and by those who think we’ve arrived and all the issues have been handled.”