“He always had an idea”

RUDOLPH DAVENPORT June 2, 1928-April 7, 2018
“He always had an idea”

Rudolph Davenport – everyone called him Rudy – wasn’t a boastful pillar.

One of Springfield’s best-known civil rights activists, he was one of three black men, later joined by two additional plaintiffs, who went to court in the 1980s to force a change in Springfield municipal government, which had been under control of white people for decades. Frank McNeil, a fellow plaintiff, says that Davenport agreed to fight the establishment when others had reservations.

Before the lawsuit, filed under the federal Voting Rights Act, there were no wards. Instead, voters citywide selected commissioners, and no black person had ever been elected with that form of government, which was installed in 1911, three years after a race riot tore the city apart. After forcing change, Davenport ran for city council against McNeil, who won the Ward Two race and recalls an issue-focused campaign.

Davenport was more than a politician and plaintiff. He loved chocolate, books about history and classic movies. He insisted on bleach when laundering shirts so they would come out as white as possible. He empathized with the poor and believed that everyone should strive to better themselves. Dr. Tracey Davenport, a niece who lived with him while attending Southern Illinois University School of Medicine during the mid-1990s, recalls the day she graduated.

“My uncle whispered this in my ear: ‘I’m really proud of you, Tracey,’” recalls Dr. Davenport, who lives in Chicago. “‘Now that you’ve accomplished this, I don’t want you to become an ass.’ That stuck with me. My uncle never spoke to me like that, ever. He usually was laughing and smiling. He was not smiling.”

When Davenport was named Copley First Citizen in 2001, Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter was deliberate in how he announced the selection, saying that the honoree was a “gentle man,” pausing between the two words to make his meaning clear. Davenport had a gift for starting things. He co-founded Habitat For Humanity in Springfield, the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum and Citizens Club of Springfield, often bringing together folks of different backgrounds and political persuasions. After his unsuccessful run for city council, he became president of the Springfield chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Born in Georgia, Davenport was an infant when his parents moved the family to Chicago in 1929. During a 2004 interview as part of an oral history project, Davenport recalled that his father was barely literate but a good provider, working as a bartender and in a drugstore before landing a railroad job. After serving in the army during the Korean War, Davenport earned a degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago, then became a salesman. While in the Windy City, he married a woman from Springfield, then moved to the capital city in 1966 when his wife, he said in 2004, developed “a mental condition” that his niece recalls as a serious mental illness. Davenport couldn’t care for his wife alone, and so the couple moved in with his mother-in-law on East Edwards Street. Trained as an accountant, Davenport got a job with the state and bought a house on East Jackson Street.

It wasn’t long before Davenport went public. He helped form a civil rights group called People For Progress with the late William Washington, a newspaper owner who became a co-plaintiff in the voting rights lawsuit, which led him to become active in the NAACP – he said he figured that he could accomplish more with a national group than one that didn’t reach beyond city limits. Housing was a particular interest, and black people, he said, were often reluctant to move into white neighborhoods.

“To be honest with you, the comfort zone for all of us is really among those who are like ourselves,” Davenport said in 2004. “We’ve had like experiences, we’ve had like understandings, we’ve had a like sympathy for this group of people that can provide us protection and you can live with us in a community, even if the housing was run down, at least you know it was safe from hostility that many first-time homebuyers in a white neighborhood may start experiencing.”

The poor in America, he insisted, pay more than the wealthy in shouldering the cost of government in that poor people pay a larger proportion of their income than the rich. He supported reparations to help make up for the sins of slavery. He compared housing patterns, with whites avoiding the east side and blacks concentrated there, with a dog that has grown so accustomed to its doghouse that it doesn’t move, even when given the chance.

Dr. Davenport recalls him as a man who hated waste. She says she liked her orange juice with lots of pulp, but didn’t like the pulp itself, and so her uncle would drink pulp-filled dregs rather than pour anything out. She once bought him a four-piece box of Godiva chocolate. “He said ‘Godiva – for me?’” Dr. Davenport said. And he made it last, eating one piece a night.

He favored inexpensive buffets when dining out, but he was generous. When he loaned her money, usually $20 or so at a time, his niece says Davenport would pull out a paper and write down her name, the loan amount and the date. “When it would get close to $100, he would say ‘Tracey, you’re getting close to $100,’” Dr. Davenport says. That inevitably led to quick repayment. When she once fell ill and asked him to bring her some movies, she was hoping for horror or action flicks. He returned with Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve, triggering her lasting interest in classic movies.

He was known for living up to promises: If Davenport said he would do something, he did. He never had children, but adopted his bride’s three grandchildren when he married his second wife (who died three years ago) in 1998, when he was 70. “He was a family man who never had children of his own,” says Teresa Haley, president of the Springfield chapter of the NAACP as well as the state organization. “When he walked into a room, you felt his presence.”

Dr. Davenport recalls asking her uncle for advice when she heard someone use the term “nigger toe” in reference to a Brazil nut, something she’d never heard before. “His basic position was, you don’t show them satisfaction by getting upset, you show by example,” Dr. Davenport says. “People don’t look at what you say, they look at what your behavior represents. Don’t strike out verbally.”

Davenport kept his head when others got mad. Dr. Davenport recalls an instance when her dog died, almost certainly from being poisoned. She wanted to track down the culprit. Her uncle said no. “I remember how upset I was,” she recalls. “He said, ‘We’re living in a community where people don’t have a lot. You don’t make a situation better by punishing people who are maybe not thinking correctly because they can’t eat or maybe they’re not educated or they have a lack of education.’”

Black people in the capital city, Davenport said in 2004, were often reluctant to get involved with civil rights issues. “Springfield is the type of place where almost anyone who wants to know what you’re doing can find out, and they will find out,” Davenport said. “And I think that some of that reluctance is in the church. You know, church members are people with jobs, with other things, but they sometimes have a fear that if they do move out and take some type of leadership action with regard to voting or any other civil rights activity, then there will be repercussions. I can understand it, on the one hand, and yet I’m disappointed.”

Despite his disappointment, Davenport was a regular at Grace United Methodist Church, where he was known for his singing voice. Georgia Javilay, who attended Grace United Methodist Church with Davenport, recalls singing “Amazing Grace” with him the day before he died after a long illness – Dr. Davenport says that he had heart trouble and also suffered strokes in his later years. The Rev. Jacson Moody also remembers Davenport singing in his final days, and in a strong voice. His mind was sharp to the end and, even while hospitalized, he would call with suggestions on church finances.

“He never lacked in the area of faith,” Moody says. “And, even in his sickest moments – when he was the ill-est he could possibly be – he would pick up the phone. That was just Rudy: He was always thinking.”

Javilay, also, remembers Davenport as a man with a mind that never stopped. “He had an idea – he always had an idea,” Javilay says. “Nobody was a failure to him. It was always ‘Let’s try something else.’”

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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  • Greg Morton

    @ Casey's Pub

    Fri., Jan. 21, 8 p.m. and Sat., Jan. 22, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m.