Black History Month: honoring Judge John Paul Davis

Judge John Paul Davis

Feb. 10, Judge John Paul Davis, one of Jefferson County’s longest-running public servants, passed away at his home.

Although his death is a shock to many who served with him during his 40 years at the Jefferson County Courthouse, so many more are remembering the life of service and dedication he gave to the people of Jefferson County.

Born in Bay City, Texas, on Nov. 9, 1939, Davis thrived in his South End Community as the youngest of four children. In 1958, Davis graduated with honors from Hilliard High School and soon was off to college at Prairie View A&M University, where he studied history and graduated in 1963. From there, Davis would join the Army for two years in Vietnam before taking a job at Celanese Chemical Company of Bay City, where he worked and attended law school at the University of Houston College of Law using a NAACP Legal Defense Fund Scholarship. 

In 1972, Davis was the second African-American to graduate from the law school and, after moving to Beaumont in 1973, became the first black assistant criminal district attorney in the history of Jefferson County. A man of “firsts,” he would also become the first African-American to seek a countywide judgeship through the election process and first black judge and chief magistrate of the Beaumont Municipal Court. He also became the second African-American in Jefferson County history to hold a countywide elected office as a judge for County Court at Law No. 3, where he served the last 20 years until his death.

Although there were many who served with Davis in those early days, one long-time Jefferson County judge saw first hand the hard work and dedication it took from Davis to be a young, black prosecutor in Jefferson County.

“I was hired a year or so after John Paul was hired,” said Judge Bob Wortham, who currently presides over Jefferson County’s 58th District Court. “When I came aboard, John Paul was the senior prosecutor in the County Court at Law No. 2. He was the most senior of the two of us, because I was brand spankin’ new. He’s the one I worked with and that helped get me started. He was the first lawyer I really worked with at the beginning of my career.”

Wortham said what he’ll remember most about those early years was the sheer number of cases on the court’s monthly docket and the short time he and Davis had to prepare for each trial. Nonetheless, Wortham said the duo could try as many as four cases a week, a tall order for many of Jefferson County’s courts.

“You really had to get ready quick because there’s no way to be ready for 30 cases at one time,” Wortham said. “It really tested your trial skills because sometimes you’d only have a short period of time to talk to your witnesses and discover the facts of your case and then you’re in trial picking a jury. It was a real assembly line of trying cases. It was a lot of fun. It was enjoyable. It tested your ability to shoot from the hip.”

He said the strenuous work load of complex criminal cases forged a friendship that Wortham will cherish.

“John Paul, not only did I work with him every day, he was my friend,” Wortham said. “The first couple I ever had over for supper when I moved in to my little town house was John Paul and his wife. The first time I ever used our wedding china and crystal was when John Paul came over and we had dinner together. We go way back.”

Being a prosecutor in Jefferson County in the mid-70s wasn’t easy, but the two made a good team, Wortham said, adding it was Davis who helped Wortham shape his conscience as a prosecutor.

“The thing I remember the most was he wanted to make sure the right thing happened. If you’re a prosecutor, your job is to see that justice is done, not necessarily get a conviction,” Wortham said. “And he wanted to make sure the right thing was always done and that’s something he stressed on me. I think I learned that at an early age.”

Earlier this year, Davis published a book on American history, “Who Will Remember Us?” The fascinating piece of history provides readers an up-close and personal look at Bay City, Texas, during the segregation era.

According to Judge John Paul Davis’ obituary, he was was preceded in death by his parents Lemon and Opal Davis, and his brother James “Sonny” Lockett. Those who will miss his loving nature and words of wisdom include his wife Sharon Diane Dozier-Davis (affectionately known to him as “Apples”); his sister Joe Ann Davis of Bay City, and his brother Alphonse Revis Sr. of Houston; children Ruth Davis Young (and husband Eric) of Palacios, Paul Kevin Davis of Fort Worth, John Kelvin Davis (and wife Marcia) of Houston, Kimberly Nicole Davis of Los Angeles, Calif.; grandchildren Shatina Haynes, Dedtric Jones, Erica Collins, Tavia Young, Jamie Young, Jeremy Davis and Kevin Jazral Davis; Jordan and Maya Davis (and their mother Kimberly Ross Davis); nine great grandchildren, a host of nieces, nephews, other family and friends. Funeral services are Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, at 10 a.m. at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, 3920 W. Cardinal Drive, Beaumont, with the Rev. John R. Adolph officiating. A viewing is scheduled for noon – 5 p.m. Friday at Mercy Funeral Home and from 8 a.m. until service time on Saturday. Final resting place will be at Eastview Cemetery, 2401 Golden Ave., Bay City. Final arrangements are entrusted to Mercy Funeral Home of Beaumont.

Wortham said he has been asked by Davis’ family to speak at his funeral, an honor Wortham said he plans to oblige. After 40 years of friendship, Wortham said he’ll miss Davis and what he stood for.

“I’m going to miss him,” Wortham said. “The community is going to miss him.”