Goliath Davis III

By Nicole Slaughter Graham

 

Goliath “Go” Davis III fondly remembers traipsing through the dirt roads of Methodist Town in pursuit of mangoes. “Mango hunting” as he calls it, was the simple, joy-filled act of rounding up the ripe, sweet fruit when he was a young boy. 

 

“There were trees throughout the community and we would go out to gather them,” he said in an interview with USFSP’s Neighborhood News Bureau. “Sometimes, entrepreneurially, we would sell them to other people,” he continued with a smile. 

Born March 2, 1951, Davis was delivered by Roxanna Donaldson — the beloved community midwife — in Methodist Town, St. Petersburg, FL. Davis is the eldest of ten children and said growing up in this small, historic African American neighborhood was infused with a strong, unwavering sense of community.

“I was not just my mother and father’s child, he said. “I was everybody’s child, as were all of the other children.” 

 

His parents and community, he said, instilled in him three main principles that would become the undercurrent for how he lived his life: honestly, integrity, and hard work. It was easy to take on these characteristics, Davis said because they were modeled for him on a daily basis. 

 

“That was the way [my parents] lived their lives.”

Davis lived in Methodist Town during segregation, and even though the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, St. Petersburg did not adopt desegregation mandates until the early 1970s. 

There was a period of “voluntary integration” as Davis calls it

Goliath Davis III in 1970s. He was a recruiter for the St. Petersburg Police Department at the time. Photo courtesy of Goliath Davis III

when many of the African American students in St. Petersburg had the opportunity to choose to go to one of the white schools.

 

He and a couple of friends from Methodist Town chose to go to St. Petersburg High School rather than attending Gibbs High School — the only high school in Pinellas County for black students. 

 

“We as African Americans had to deal with white people all the time,” Davis said. “But I could always go home to Methodist Town.” Davis was not in any way immune to the dangers of being black in St. Petersburg at the time. He was well aware of the harsh realities of racism and the socioeconomic issues that plagued the city and the south at large. But Methodist Town provided a haven of insulation and reprieve. In Methodist Town, amongst his friends and family, Davis was safe and well-loved. 

 

It wasn’t until he went off to a small, liberal arts college that Davis was confronted with the realities of integration in the 1970s.

 

“I went to Rollins College. An affluent college,” he said. “I couldn’t retreat and run home,” he continued, citing living on campus with a roommate. “I had to deal with he and I occupying the same space.”

 

Still, Davis said, it was one of the best things that could have happened to him. He had a chance to study abroad, free range of the campus dining room. His floors were carpeted and his dorm kept clean by a maid. But more importantly, Davis said, attending Rollins College and being away from the safety of his family afforded him the opportunity to learn how to cope with adversity.

 

After graduating from Rollins College, Davis came back to St. Petersburg and continued his education, receiving a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of South Florida in 1977. He then traveled to Tallahassee and obtained his doctorate in criminology. 

 

When it came to choosing a career path, Davis said in an interview with Creative Loafing that he wanted to pursue something in line with social activism. After all, he told the local paper, “that was the era [he] was born into. 

 

A career as a police officer was not something he considered social activism. In fact, it was the furthest thing from his mind.

 

“I never wanted anything to do with law enforcement because of the memories I had in dealing with white officers,” he said. But a little persuasion from a couple of family friends changed his mind.

 

One of those family friends was Freddie Lee Crawford, one of St. Petersburg’s Courageous 12 — a group of 12 black police officers who refused to succumb to the inherent racism of the police force and sued the City of St. Petersburg to obtain equal rights so they could do their jobs effectively. 

 

“I wasn’t home from college a day and here he came knocking on my door. He was talking to me and encouraging me, ‘you have to go into law enforcement. You have to go into law enforcement.’”

 

In addition to Crawford, Davis' friend, Hank Ashwood, had just been recruited to the police department. Davis relented and agreed to go into law enforcement for a year to try it out.

 

That year’s trial turned into a 28-year career, the last four of which Davis spent as the department’s police chief. 

 

The police department, it turned out, was the perfect place to pursue his goal of social activism and equity for African Americans. He cites the Courageous 12 as one of his major inspirations.

 

“Once I got in [to the police department], there were things that needed to be done and things that needed to be corrected,” Davis said. 

The Courageous 12 and many of the other black police officers in the St. Petersburg Police Department had the ability and the know-how to become police chief as he did, Davis said.

 

“Because of race and the times that they found themselves in, they were not afforded those opportunities,” Davis said. “I’m standing on their shoulders. I felt like when I was there, it was incumbent upon me to carry that torch and to continue the fight for equity and fairness, not only for the people in the department but for the people in the community.”

 

In 2001, Davis was fired from the police department, a controversial decision made by Mayor Bill Foster. Just days before, Davis did not attend the funerals of three police officers killed on duty, a move that much of the public regarded as an act of disrespect. 

 

Davis, however, had not attended a police department funeral since 1980, and he did attend the wakes for all of the officers. 

 

In 2009, Rick Baker, the incoming St. Petersburg mayor saw the strides Davis had spent his life making in the pursuit of equity though and recruited Davis to be the city’s Deputy Mayor. 

 

As Deputy Mayor, Davis helped guide the revitalization efforts of Midtown, St. Petersburg’s largest historic African American neighborhood. 

 

Currently, he serves as a special advisor to the chancellor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. 

 

All of his achievements, he said, are a direct result of his upbringing.

 

“I am who I am, and I did what I did, because of Methodist Town.”