The question I’ve come to pose to myself is this: how do you even approach someone about a highly sensitive subject when their lives — and to a large extent their entire bloodline — have been riddled with hardship?
I’ve now become fascinated by the fate of New Orleans native and longtime Negro Leaguer Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport. Ducky’s playing career was certainly solid — he played in the blackball big time for about 15 years for teams like the Birmingham Black Barons, Chicago American Giants, Memphis Red Sox, Cleveland Buckeyes and Cincinnati Tigers — but he wasn’t a superstar by any means.
According to contemporary reports and fellow players, Ducky — who got that nickname because he seemed to walk with a waddle thanks to his stumpy legs — was a premier fielder in the out garden and a savvy hitter and baserunner. As contemporary and fellow New Orleanian Bob Bissant told reporter Ted Lewis in 1994:
“He was a little bitty guy, but he could hit the ball, and he could run a lot faster than anybody though. He could play just about any position, and he was a good football and basketball player, too, when we were kids.
“He could beat you just about every way but with the home run, and he probably hit a few of those, too.”
But Davenport, who also had a cup of coffee in the minors toward the end of his career circa 1950, wasn’t a Hall of Famer by any stretch of the imagination, and when he retired from the game, he kind of disappeared, possibly into the crowded, gritty streets of his hometown of NOLA.
The story is, unfortunately, a familiar one, for vintage ballplayers of all races — a hardscrabble career followed by a vanishing into the ether after stepping away from the sport. But while that’s depressing, what’s even more heartrending is that now, roughly three decades after he died, no one seems to even know where he’s buried.
And I don’t mean that his grave is unmarked in a known cemetery. I mean that it’s a complete mystery in which burial ground, if any, he ended up at all. The findagrave.com posting for him lists his burial as “unknown.”
What’s more, I can’t even seem to pin down in which year he died, let alone which month and day. Some online sources say he passed away in New Orleans in September 1985, but Lewis’ 1994 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune states he died in 1988. And unfortunately, there’s pretty much no one left — at least no fellow ballplayers — who knew him personally and could attest to what happened to him in death.
What’s worse, I couldn’t find any evidence that Ducky himself had any children and, therefore, that he has any directly descendants. Plus, assuming he did die in New Orleans — and all known evidence points to that likelihood — I can’t seem to find any sort of obituary about him at all … Not in the Times-Picayune for either 1985 or 1988, or in the Louisiana Weekly, the local African American newspaper, from 1985. (I do still need to check the paper’s 1988 issues, but that could turn into a needle-haystack proposition.)
I do have a few leads, however, albeit vague ones. The primary hint is that both his parents, Walter and Rody Davenport, were buried in Holt Cemetery, one of New Orleans’ biggest and most popular “potter’s fields,” where residents of little means were often interred. Holt has struggled over the decades to remain kept up and in decent condition, which is certainly not unusual for a pauper’s cemetery.
Holt Cemetery is now apparently owned and maintained by the city of New Orleans itself. But after speaking with a staffer at Holt, she said there’s no record of a Davenport being buried there in either 1985 or 1988. While she added that doesn’t complete negate the possibility that Ducky is buried there — she said the records they have were copied from earlier issues of the forms — it’s still unlikely.
So that leaves few avenues for investigation, a primary one being attempting to hunt down any sort of living relative of Ducky Davenport.
But that has proven problematic in its own right. Ducky, as stated, didn’t have any children of his own, but what about his siblings, Walter Alvin Davenport and Charley Davenport? If they had offspring, it would mean I might be able to locate nephews and/or nieces, or more likely given their age, grand nephews and nieces.
So let’s focus on Charley first. Well, actually, there’s not much there on which to focus. I couldn’t find out really anything about him — possible marriages or children, or even when he died. On that later count, the only clue I have is that in the 1953 obituary for his and Lloyd’s mother, Rody, he’s listed as “the late Charles … Davenport,” meaning he died before 1953. That’s all I got.
However, Ducky’s other brother, Walter Alvin Davenport, provides a little more promise. He died, according to the Times-Picayune, in December 1948 at the age of 42. Although the paper doesn’t provide anything in the way of a formal obituary — a situation that certainly wasn’t unusual for a mainstream Southern paper reporting the death of a black man in the 1940s — the single-line listing under “Deaths,” states that he died at Charity Hospital, an LSU-connected, now-closed facility that, in the first half of the 20th century, provide medical services to the poor an indigent.
That seems to indicate that Walter, like his (and Ducky’s and Charley’s) parents, was struggling financially, to put it mildly, which could mean that he was also interred at Holt Cemetery.
In addition to that, Walter Alvin Davenport did have children. Although right now it’s somewhat unclear to me who Walter’s wife was or with whom he had those children, and even which Davenports listed in various Census and other records in New Orleans were his kids, there’s one child who is clear — Alvin Davenport, who was born around 1930 to Walter and Beatrice Davenport.
But there’s a lack of clarity here as well. While I’m still collecting and sifting through information, Beatrice and Walter Jr. might have divorced; while they and Alvin are listed in the 1930 Census as living together on South Johnson Street, later records show Alvin living with Beatrice, who has a different last name — Steptoe, I believe, but right now I can’t locate that record in my files, although I know I’ve seen it. (I’m old.)
And the 1940 Census lists Walter now living with what appears to be another wife, Mary, on Willow Street. Mary seems to have had a previous husband who died, Mac McCree. Mary herself passed in October 1986, about 38 years after the death of her second husband, Walter Alvin Davenport.
But given the 1930 Census placing Alvin with Walter and Beatrice, and the 1940 listing including Walter in Beatrice’s household, it’s clear to me that, at least, Alvin is indeed Beatrice and Walter’s son.
Now, I’m still trying to string together when Alvin Davenport and Beatrice Davenport/Steptoe died, but I have indications that Beatrice and Walter had other children in addition to Alvin — namely, a 2013 obituary for an Edward “Red” Davenport that states he was the son of the late Walter and Beatrice Davenport and the brother of Delores White, Beverly Edwards, Carolyn Freeman and “the late Roy and Alvin Davenport.” Those are leads I intend to pursue soon, especially because Red’s obituary states that he was also buried in Holt Cemetery.
But for now, we’ll focus on Alvin Davenport. While, yet again, I can’t completely pinpoint when Alvin died, I did find a current home listing for what is in all likelihood his son, Alvin Davenport Jr.
And that, dear friends, finally brings us back to the very beginning of this post: how do I approach a couple that has endured tremendous hardship themselves and who don’t know me from Adam?
Because Alvin Jr. and his wife, the former Karen Mannery, have had not one, but two children die at tragically early ages. The first came in 1996, when their 15-year-old son, Rodney, died of cancer.
Then, in 2005, another son, Roy Hopkins Davenport, according to an obituary in the T-P, “died Tuesday of a gunshot wound at the corner of Broadway and Fig streets. He was 28.”In addition, Roy Hopkins was interred … in Holt Cemetery. Details of Roy’s death are unclear, because apparently the T-P didn’t cover it as a news story, so I’m not immediately sure if he was murdered or died of accidental causes. On top of the tragedy of Roy’s death, is even more tragic — and, unfortunately, not too surprising — that the city’s mainstream daily newspaper didn’t even bother to cover the violent death of a black man.
So how do I approach Alvin Jr. and Karen Davenport and ask them if they know where their great uncle, Negro Leaguer Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport, is buried? How do I approach them at all?
There’s also one more complication: I haven’t been able to find much of a phone number for the couple. But even if I could find one, how do I cold call them? Again, these poor people don’t know me from Adam.
I could just go to what’s listed as their home on Broadway Street, but — how do I put this as delicately as possibly — it’s in Gert Town, which is not the best part of town. Or at least a part of town where a mysterious white man knocking on a stranger’s door would raise some flags for the street’s largely working-class, African-American population. (Roy Hopkins Davenport’s death location is, actually, just a half-block away from his parents’ house.)
So that’s where things stand right now. In essence, I’m really not much closer to finding out where the great Ducky Davenport is buried — or, for that matter, even when he died. For all I know, he could have passed away in some other city than his hometown. Anything, at this point, is possible.
So if anyone out there knows anything about the fate of Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.