GREAT FALLS — “The more you read, the more you know. The more you know, the further you go.”
With those words career educators shaped the boy who grew up to be Fairfield County’s the Rev. Vandell Davis, pastor of Friendship A.M.E. Church in Jenkinsville. From his youth, Davis was driven by an innate desire to make his life circumstances better and to improve the lives of those around him.
“I knew where I came from, areas where people see life as being limited to be what someone else makes of you. Instead I had to look beyond and see what I could make myself,” he said.
In a large part, that perspective was imparted on him by his school teachers.
“Those teachers were on you. I knew education was crucial, both the little and the big stuff,” Davis said.
He realized then that he was called to help others as he was helped. One of 10 children, he grew up in a farming community in Mullins, picking tobacco and cotton.
“I had to go to work in the fields (sometimes rather than school) and I could not read,” he said. “Teachers and some well-meaning white folks slipped books and magazine to us in those days. At that time the libraries were segregated.”
Davis recalled fondly the Pee Dee Times and The Black News as well as Ebony and Jet magazines that he read regularly in his youth. In the 1950s he became hooked on books and reading whatever he could get his hands on.
“For a period of time, I read anything, but eventually I earned some money and could afford my own books,” he said.
Davis said that since books were off limits that made reading all the more appealing to him as a child and laments that now books must compete so much against video games, movies and social media.
“I found out over a period of time by reading that one of the greatest places a person could go was to the library,” Davis said. “You could sit there in a few hours and educate yourself.”
He said preachers and doctors also were mentors. In his late teens he began serving the A.M.E. church as at trustee, then a deacon and later as an elder. He was a minister in training prior to his being drafted for Vietnam. After serving in Vietnam for one year, and for two years total in the service, he considered the chaplaincy as a career and wound up studying in Barber-Scotia College in Concord, N.C.
He continued to be drawn toward social justice and helping people better themselves. Davis had studied sociology some in the military and also as his undergraduate degree using the G.I. Bill. His wife, Maude, became a teacher. They moved to Fairfield in 1973 when he married his wife who grew up in the area. Both later earned master’s degrees from USC.
Davis’ first job was overseeing the South Carolina Civilian Conservation Corps and the Junior CCC. At that job he helped over 3,000 youth from all across South Carolina at the residential facility hosted at Sesquicentennial State Park. In some cases these youth were raising themselves after the death of a single parent. His role was to ease them into a supportive environment and get them help in the social services programs that existed.
“I enjoyed working with young men and women to help improve the conditions for wayward young people, some of whom had been incarcerated,” he said.
After five years with that organization, he moved on to the S.C. Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism, where he worked until he retired. He entered the ministry full-time three years ago when he accepted the call to Friendship, a congregation of 17 in a poor part of Fairfield County.
True to his roots, at his current job he is focused on building people and the area up. Noting that some rural children have limited library access, he has lobbied for years at having the library and/or library hours expanded at McCrorey Liston. He also would love to see that library upgraded.
At Friendship, one ministry he’s starting is having a church library with a librarian for the community.
“The churches and schools worked together (when I was a boy) to educate children,” Davis said.
Churches tried, in his youth, to get a newspaper into each home. That background is helping shape this mission for literacy and furthered his interest in social justice. In 1973 he said the A.M.E. Church was at the forefront with civil rights and helped raise community awareness through church activity and involvement.
As he thought back on his early adulthood, he recalled Fairfield County during the years of public school integration, he remembered a positive situation in most Winnsboro homes early on because the schools already were primarily African American and that whites were attending private schools.
“It took a long time to get blacks to be able to attend the area private schools,” he said.
Part of that was due to demographics in the county, to children raised in single parent homes who could not afford private school tuition. He was proud to see that barrier become smaller as the years went by.
As he reflected on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he recalled how most of his dreams were educational.
Davis had a hand in the public education of Fairfield County children, including his own two children. Both of them are in their 20s and active in the church, though not vocationally. He served 10 years on the Fairfield County School Board.
“Everybody needs an education of some kind or another,” Davis said.
He continues to apply the lessons his teachers taught him by example when he was a boy.
These days if he is not at the church or performing pastoral duties, he likely is volunteering at the county library.