She has produced a Grammy-nominated album, performed with the likes of Josephine Baker and — as an educator for nearly 50 years — has helped countless students realize their dreams. But Philadelphia–bred entertainer LaDeva Davis still manages to out-achieve herself.
Davis was featured in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History (NMAH).
“It [finally] began to sink in when I went to see it at the opening ceremony and people were oohing and aahing at me, asking me for autographs, and saying, ‘That’s you on the wall,’” Davis recalled of that day in May 2012. “One little [elderly] lady said ‘I watched your show all the time.’”
Davis first learned she would be a part of the exhibit in January 2012. That was when the Smithsonian informed her of its interest in featuring her in its “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” exhibit, which includes the stories of famous TV cooks, most notably Julia Childs.
Davis was chosen for her performance on a two-season WHYY cooking show, “What’s Cooking,” which focused on low-budget, high-nutrition meals. Davis made such an impression in the 1975 pilot season that by 1976, PBS picked it up to run in nearly 100 locations.
“We wanted to acknowledge the other early TV chefs, the people who came after Julia [Childs] and who brought their own personality, their own talents [and] their own food traditions to a large audience,” said Paula Johnson, NMAH curator, Division of Work & Industry.
“LaDeva Davis’ name emerged through research conducted by a member of the curatorial team and the more we learned about Ms. Davis and her show, we knew we wanted to bring that story to the public,” Johnson said. “We thought people would recognize some of the other early TV chefs like Joyce Chen or Graham Kerr, but they might not be aware of Ms. Davis’ work for PBS on WHYY in Philadelphia.”
Davis noted that upon discussing the research with one of the Smithsonian curators she learned that she was the “first African-American woman to have her own nationally syndicated public TV cooking show on PBS.”
While a PBS spokesperson was unable to confirm that accomplishment, no one doubts Davis’ place in history.
However, she confesses that she never looked at the history of the moment until she started getting certain responses from the audience.
“I didn’t even look at it in that vein. I was just having a very good time. It was fun. It was something to do,” said Davis. “[But] I got letters … maybe that was the epiphany. Because it wasn’t just the white audience that was responding to me, it was Black women responding, ‘I wish my kitchen [looked] like yours,’ [and] ‘You go girl,’ and all of a sudden I [realized] I’m relating to my people.”
And now, with her image featured on a Smithsonian wall, she is inspiring a younger set. More than 100 of her students have seen the exhibit.
“I was shocked,” said Brianna Schulke, a student of Davis’ at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. “It was amazing to see [my] teacher doing other stuff in the world and being looked up to by other people. It makes me look at her like a role model, how she influences others and how I can too.”
The “Food” exhibit is scheduled for display until 2017.