Man With a Foundation
Article & photos by Dan Johnson
Lloyd Davis fills a bucket with water. "I’m watering my wife’s flowers," he explains, carrying the bucket into a greenhouse attached to the back of his neat brick home in Hampton. Task done, he steps from the green concrete of the greenhouse floor out onto the brick-red concrete of the driveway. A large oak tree stands like a sentinel at the entrance.
"I transplanted that tree from Beaufort when I was doing concrete work at the air base there," Davis says. "My wife saw those oak trees down there and just had to have one."
The lawn beneath the oak has been freshly raked. In shady spots where grass doesn’t grow beneath the tree, chicken tracks criss-cross the rake marks. Davis backs his 1998 Cadillac out of the garage. "I only drive it on the weekends," he says. "There ain’t no mileage on it."
During the week, he drives a 17-year-old Sierra pick-up that has faded to the color of Spanish moss. His concrete-finishing equipment rides in the bed of the pick-up, and smaller tools of the trade are jumbled on the seat and floor of the cab. The truck is well-known on construction sites. "People ain’t got to see me," Davis says. "They see the truck and know I’m somewhere there."
The Cadillac is spotless inside and out. A Bible rests on the front seat and a bookmark with a sketch of his church hangs from the mirror. He drives through his quiet neighborhood, crosses the main street and eases over the railroad. As he passes a manufacturing plant, he notes that the parking lot is nearly empty; the Saturday shift has been cut back. A downturn in the economy has affected everyone. Davis had lined up some concrete jobs, but economic jitters have postponed the work.
He stops at the country club on the other side of town and takes a satisfied look at concrete walkways he constructed last summer in 101-degree weather. Driving back toward town, he stops at Bethlehem Baptist Church. His grandfather was the first pastor when the congregation of former slaves met in a brush arbor in 1878. Davis poured a concrete floor in the church when the wooden floor wore out. "That floor is solid," he says. "You can get happy and make as much noise as you want."
He walks slowly across the church grounds to the cemetery and points to a gravestone. "There is my dear, beloved wife," he says. His robust voice sounds weak now because his throat is tight, his jaws clenched. The inscription reads: Alma Watts Davis, 1912 - 1994. "Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies." Proverbs 31:10. Davis says, "We were married lacking six months of being 60 years. She died the twenty-third of December in my arms at home. She was a Christian-hearted woman. She was more than a wife. When I got down and out, she’d get that Bible and pretty soon I’d be happy."
As a memorial to her, he made a concrete patio in front of the church. He inscribed Scripture in concrete pavers set around the perimeter of the patio. When he makes pavers for customers, he decorates them with heart shapes or horse silhouettes or "whatever I like or whatever they want." But he would rather inscribe Scripture "because we sure need to pray."
Alma Davis taught school in Hampton County for 42 years. With her salary, his earnings from concrete finishing and his investments in real estate, they became prosperous African-Americans in an era of racial inequality. The Davises sent their daughter Alma Davis Moss to college, their son-in-law to dental school and their two granddaughters to college and graduate school. Both granddaughters live in Baltimore; Sharon Moss is a physical therapist, Pamela Mitchell a lawyer. "They’ve got respect," Davis says. "They go to church. Yes sir. Yes sirree. Yes sirree."
Master workman Lloyd Davis.
Davis learned to work with concrete as a teen-ager when he was employed by the state highway department in the 1930s. Then he helped build a military air station at Beaufort and a bomb-making facility at the Savannah River Plant. He went to Cape Canaveral to work on the launch pads for America’s entry into the space race.
For seven years, he worked in Atlanta during the week and came home to his family in Hampton on weekends. He was part of a crew that built a 32-story building from the ground up. On another project, he and three other men worked nonstop for three days on a platform suspended from cables; the platform had a toilet and a kitchen, and the men took turns sleeping. "We slept sitting on a bucket, propped up," he recalls.
After coming back to Hampton, one of his major jobs was a medical waste incinerator in Hampton. Danny Zorn, a shift supervisor for Safety Disposal System, remembers that some of the construction workers grumbled about Davis’ strict work ethic. "But he didn’t want them to do any more than he did himself," Zorn says. "I’ve seen him take the shovel out of a young man’s hand."
When renovations were underway at Auldbrass Plantation near Yemassee, the contractors sought Davis to replace the concrete floor. The owner, movie producer Joel Silver, wanted the house meticulously restored to architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s standards. "A carpenter came by and got me and said I had three days to do it," Davis recalls. "He said, ‘You buy whatever you need, but you do it right.’ "
Davis always wants to do the job right. "Concrete is a thing you don’t do but once," he says.
Davis marked his 89th birthday September 12. He can still touch his toes without bending his knees. "Eighty-nine years has seen some great changes in my life and in the times and the people and the country," he says. "Yes sirree, yes sirree."
Davis stays busy working in the yard, tending 16 chickens, planting a garden and canning produce. And he finishes concrete whenever he gets a chance. "I feel better when I work," he says. "I can feel bad and go to work with concrete and forget about it."
Former newspaper editor Dan Johnson teaches English at Allendale-Fairfax High School.
THIS ARTICLE IS FUNDED BY:
* Wiggins Concrete, Estill
* Palmetto State Bank, Hampton
* Ferguson Forest Products Inc., Luray
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