Davis first African-American elected to serve on commission

By Julie Fann
star staff

Change may come slowly, but it will, and did come to Carter County last week when Robert Davis was elected to the Carter County Commission representing the 8th district. Davis is the first African-American ever to serve on the commission during its 206-year history.
   "It goes to show that people are changing. It feels good knowing that I've done something no one else has done, and it's going to be different," Davis, 60, said in an interview conducted by the STAR on Friday.
   Although he said he has a lot to learn, Davis looks forward to being the ears and mouthpiece for the people of his district. He also looks forward to working closely with the entire commission as he becomes familiar with his new role.
   "What I have to do is wait until after the swearing-in ceremony and just step in and get my feet wet and find out how I can best be utilized, or how I can best serve my community and my district," he said.
   Each of the eight districts in Carter County elect three commissioners who serve on the 24-member County Commission. Davis's three opponents in the race to county commissioner were Paul Tolley, who received 13 percent of the votes cast in the 8th district compared to Davis's 26 percent Roy Merryman, and Bill Armstrong.
   The percentage of votes for Davis tied those of Merryman, an incumbent who, along with Armstrong, was re-elected. Armstrong garnered 35 percent of the votes for the 8th district.
   Davis is a 1960 graduate of Johnson City's Langston High School, a segregated secondary school that closed its doors during the Civil Rights movement. He was president of his graduating class before joining the U.S. Marines, where he served for 6-1/2 years.
   "After the Marine Corps, I joined the Army, where I stayed for about six or seven years. After the Army, I stayed out for awhile, but then I joined the National Guard, where I served for about ten years. I served in Vietnam and in Desert Storm," he said.
   Davis spent a total of 26 years in the military, achieving the ranks of Lance Corporal in the Marines and Captain in the Army. After leaving the military, he was hired as a housekeeper at the Veterans Administration hospital at Mountain Home in 1982. He was later promoted to Supervisor and Assistant Chief of Environmental Management Services.
   "I was hired as Assistant Chief of Environmental Management Services at the V.A. hospital in Philadelphia for about 5 years. Then I retired from the V.A. and returned home. I still served in the National Guard as CW02."
   Davis is currently under contract with the Elizabethton Rehabilitation Center as an instructor of Environmental Management Services. He is also an administrative assistant for Tim Watterson, pastor of Phillippi Baptist Church, where he is also a member of the men's chorus.
   Careful not to emphasize the difference between being an African-American from being a citizen elected to an important political office, Davis believes there are specific issues that effect African-Americans, but said his focus is more on the county as a whole.
   "I don't want to say African-American community because there are not just African-Americans that live in the district that I live in. There is a wide variety of ethnicity, but still there are a lot of things that need to be addressed, and I intend to do that working with the entire commission," he said.
   Bringing more and better industry into Carter County is an important goal for Davis, who said young people will continue to leave the area as long as there is no gainful employment to keep them here.
   "Anyone can stay here in Elizabethton and work at one of the fast food industries for five dollars an hour, but that's not good. We need to bring more industry, better industry, into our community and into our county," he said.
   A fundamental change in the way the community views liquor-by-the-drink needs to occur, according to Davis, who feels big business will never come to Elizabethton without liquor-by-the-drink.
   "Though I do not necessarily promote alcohol consumption, I do feel that, stronger educational opportunities and economic development are contingent upon a larger source of revenue," Davis said.
   The county's decision to hire a financial director is, according to Davis, a very wise decision because it will give the county executive freedom to work with commissioners more closely without having to worry about finances.
   Davis and his wife, Sandra, have been married for 24 years and reside at 621 Sugar Hollow Road in Elizabethton. Davis has three children -- Corey, 31, Darrell, 28, who currently serves in the U.S. Army, and Brandi, 21.
   Being the first African-American on the Carter County Commission, Davis hopes will serve as an inspiration for young people of all races, but especially fellow African-Americans.
   "I want it to give them an opportunity and a hope because, if I can do it with the limited education I have, they can do it as long as they continue to learn," Davis said.