Tag Archives: Virginia Wood Davis

“If Cuba Belonged to Us”

As U.S.-Cuba relations enter a new era, collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections offer a look back at America’s fascination with the island in the days before Castro.

Writing to his parents in Kentucky in the mid-1850s, E. S. Baker told them of an offer he had received to supervise a sugar house in Cuba, where his prospective employer owned three farms.  Americans, in fact, owned one-quarter of Cuban farms, Baker had learned, but “the Catholic and Spanish control restricts them too much.”  Profits from cotton, corn and sugar would be fatter, he believed, “if Cuba belonged to us.”  At the time, private armies of Americans known as “filibusterers” were complicating U.S. territorial designs on the island; Baker had been told of men secretly organizing in Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas to go there and “disperse over the farms” in support of their countrymen.

Cuba travel brochure, 1950s

Cuba travel brochure, 1950s

Forty years later, in 1893, Grace Beecher Goodhue of Massachusetts visited Cuba.  As her ship arrived in Havana’s harbor at sunrise, she admired the “exquisitely delicate coloring of the plastered houses – Blue faded pink and the tiled roofs.”  While others went to bullfights and masked balls, Grace and her mother explored the pawn shops, but found little to buy as “the English have been here . . . and have carried everything off in the shape of silver.”   They managed to purchase some white linen for dresses, however, “much to the horror of the clerk who sold it to us” and who insisted that such cloth was for “nun’s dresses not for ladies.”

Another sixty years later, in 1952, journalist and Smiths Grove native Virginia Wood Davis made the excursion to Cuba by plane.  Reporting on her visit for the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News, she described the scenery, industry, street life, and even burial customs of Matanzas, the island’s third-largest city.  Fidel  Castro’s Cuban Revolution had yet to grasp power, but signs of strife were on the horizon:  in black paint on the sidewalk in front of a local college, Davis saw the words “Students:  Communism is not for you.  Do not listen to the Communists.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For other collections relating to Cuba, including the Spanish-American War, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Virginia Davis's luggage tag

Virginia Davis’s luggage tag

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A Journalist’s Life…With a Surprise Ending

Virginia Wood Davis, 1919-1990

Virginia Wood Davis, 1919-1990

After she got a job in 1942 doing war work in an Owensboro factory, Smiths Grove native Virginia Wood Davis was unsure about finishing her degree at Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now WKU).  On one hand, the war wouldn’t last forever, but on the other hand Virginia and her widowed mother had learned to watch their pennies, and her $80-per-month paycheck at least allowed them to stop worrying about food.

But Virginia did return to school and graduated in 1943.  Taking a teacher’s suggestion that she pursue newspaper work, she embarked on a career that lasted more than 40 years and took her to reporting and editorial positions in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and finally back to Kentucky, where she spent eight years as managing editor of the McCreary County Record.

In a profession where women were still a curiosity, Virginia trod the reporter’s beat, learned to “go toe to toe” with men, and cultivated her resume.  She won an award from the South Carolina Press Association in 1960, became the first woman to run the main copy desk at the Florida Times-Union, and earned numerous press awards for the McCreary County Record.  She covered civil rights marches in Alabama, migrant workers in Florida, and striking miners in Kentucky.  But the hours were long and the pay was low.  From a starting salary of $25 per week in 1943, Virginia retired in 1985 earning $325 per week at the Record.

To colleagues and friends, Virginia’s personal habits, which included an obsessive frugality and a lifestyle that some called “primitive,” were proof of her lifelong poverty.  But they were in for a shock.  When she died in 1990, Virginia left a small house, a beat-up truck, some personal possessions… and investments that, after being rumored to be as much as $2.5 million, were eventually valued at $400,000.  The major beneficiary of her scrimping and saving was her alma mater.  Virginia left 80% of her estate to WKU–the largest bequest ever given up to that time–to be used for the benefit of its journalism department.

WKU was equally honored when a family member donated Virginia Wood Davis’s personal papers to WKU’s Special Collections Library.  This collection, which includes more than 4,000 items of correspondence, diaries, genealogy records, news writing and photos, is now processed and available to researchers.  It provides a full and fascinating picture of the life and times of a daughter of Smiths Grove, a hardworking woman journalist, and a uniquely successful investor.  Click here to download a finding aid.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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