When Willie Davis, Jr. moved to East Oakland in 1981, he was a firefighter at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco. He says that that job, which he had for 25 years, required him to do “whatever it took to fix whatever was wrong with a ship.”
After retiring from the Navy in 1990, Davis wandered into his neighborhood rec center and noticed that the center’s pool table was broken. He fixed the pool table, and the park’s staff were so grateful that they referred him to their coworkers at the Feather River Camp in Plumas County, which at that time was run by the city of Oakland. Even though he was retired, Davis worked at the camp every summer for the next 14 years.
When the city stopped operating the camp in 2003, Davis was reassigned to Lincoln Square Park and Recreation Center in Chinatown, where he has worked as a recreation specialist ever since, for nearly 20 years now.
People that know him through his work at Lincoln Square Park say that he provides a calm and comforting presence, and has the ability to effectively address conflict and repair relationships. Davis also fixes basketball nets, teaches sports, and maintains a vegetable garden at the park. His official title is recreation specialist, but he pretty much does it all.
And this year, he is being recognized for being one of the beacons in Oakland Chinatown.
Davis is one of six people in the nation to receive this year’s “Black Heroes of Chinatown” award, now in its third year. The honor is given out by People Matter, a community-based organization in Chicago that provides community services, political education, advocacy, and leadership development aimed at empowering urban communities.
Karen Dea of Wa Sung says that her organization often holds community events at the Lincoln Square rec center, and Davis is instrumental in the success of their events. She says that he helps with outreach and is passionate about growing and protecting the park as a multi-generational, multi-cultural, community-centered safe haven.
“The award signifies who he is and what he represents,” Dea told Oakland Voices. “We were really overjoyed that someone else was noticing.”
“Willie has been a daily fixture at the Lincoln Rec Center,” adds Ener Chiu, co-founder of Friends of Lincoln Square Park. “He is a hero to me because he has helped make this park welcoming to everyone, and has taught generations of youth from different backgrounds and neighborhoods to play together, to work out problems in real-time, and to care for the space like it’s their home away from home.”
Lincoln Square is one of the busiest parks in Oakland. Davis shows up to work at 7:30 a.m. and makes his rounds looking for graffiti and picking up trash. Then he gets to work helping coordinate the park’s many programs.
Davis says that his favorite part of working at Lincoln Square is showing up every morning. After laughing, he adds, “All the kids, man. Working with seniors too. The teenagers, all the people I work with. I enjoy working with all of them.”
His favorite program though, is the marching band percussion class that he teaches as part of the after-school program.
Growing up as a child in Mississippi, Davis played with Black kids, white kids, and Chinese kids, he said. They went to different schools, but they hung out outside of school. “All we cared about was playing together and having fun,” he recalls about his childhood. “People are people.”
Davis said he feels right at home working at Lincoln Square in Chinatown and sees a connection between his upbringing and the people who utilize the public space. Every day, people from within Chinatown and those outside of Chinatown use the public park and center.
“A lot of the people (at Lincoln Square), they had some of the same hardships that we had,” Davis said.
People Matter flew Davis out to an award ceremony in Chicago in June. He enjoyed meeting and spending time with the other awardees. Despite that fun trip, Davis says that he hasn’t given too much thought to winning the award.
“It still hasn’t sunk in, how big a deal they’re making of it,” Davis said. “I was just doing my job.”