Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Travis, Dempsey J.(1920–) - Chronology, Education Follows Military Service, Enters Real Estate, Becomes a Writer

Real estate executive, writer

travis black school father

As a young man, Dempsey J. Travis focused his dreams on a career in music. But he also recognized his talent for organization and promotion. Eventually, he decided to go into real estate, establishing Travis Realty, Sivart Mortgage Corporation, Freeway Mortgage and Investment, and Dempsey J. Travis Securities. Black Enterprise listed Travis Realty among the Largest 100 Black Businesses in the United States. For seven years, Ebony included this self-made millionaire among the 100 Most Influential Black Americans. Interested in preserving history, Travis wrote a number of books about music, his Chicago hometown, and people he came to know.

Born February 15, 1920, Dempsey Jerome Travis credits his parents, Louis Travis and Mittie Strickland Travis, for their positive influence in shaping his life. His father worked at the Chicago stockyards and set an example of hard work. Neither parent liked debt, so they taught their son strong money values. But Travis notes in his autobiography, I Refuse to Learn to Fail , that they taught him something more important: “Both my mother and father taught me that internalizing negative and grossly inaccurate self-images about our Blackness ensures failure.” His parents also provided a role model for marriage. Travis chose Moselynne Hardwick of Cleveland, Tennessee, as his life’s mate. They married On September 17, 1949.

During Travis’s preschool years, the family became the first blacks to live in an otherwise all-white twenty-four-flat building. The white boys often taunted Travis. After one unpleasant encounter, his mother showed him a jacket made of the “best and most expensive” fabric, black velvet. She reassured her son, “You are my black velvet.” Travis later told John Seder and Berkeley Burrell, “My mother really deserves the credit for a great deal of what I have accomplished. She is the warmest, most outgoing kind of person—she just loves people.”

Travis attended private kindergarten and then Doolit-tle Elementary School. When the family moved in 1931, he attended Francis C. Willard Elementary. Disliking
school, he began skipping classes. Soon his mother found out and enrolled him in a different teacher’s classroom. Although not interested in education, young Travis entertained a couple of dreams for his future. He wanted to become a professional musician and he wanted to earn money. One morning, he announced, “I dreamed last night that I was going to be rich and Daddy wouldn’t have to get up before daylight to go to work anymore.”

Travis began earning money at age five. He asked Charles Murray, seller of Murray’s Pomade, if he needed a barber for his business. In the conversation that followed, Travis agreed to give out business cards for a wage of fifty cents. Excited about his mission, Travis ran across the street colliding with a Model T. Although he woke in a hospital with a broken left leg, he found the venture profitable. Mr. Murray brought him a fruit basket and gave him an extra dollar for his trouble. Later business ventures included selling for the Chicago Defender and the white-owned Chicago American newspapers.

For Christmas 1925, Louis Travis surprised the family with a player piano. Although Mr. Travis could not read music, his boogie-woogie blues inspired his four-year-old son to ask for lessons. Elmer Simpson charged fifty cents for a half-hour lesson, plus there was the fourteen-cents for streetcar fare. Before Travis’s sixth birthday, he performed “Violets Blue” in a recital at West Point Baptist Church. After that, his father always mentioned his son’s name alongside those of Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and other great musicians. Travis’s mother often took him to hear the black orchestras that came to town.

He and classmate Herbert Moore, who played clarinet, often practiced together. During Travis’s eleventh year, they performed a duet at school. Guitarist Jesse Miller soon joined them, and the group enjoyed playing such songs as “Lazy Bones” and “Sophisticated Lady.” Travis enjoyed performing and found that he also liked organizing music events. He finished elementary school in 1935, convinced he would become a professional musician.

Travis attended Wendell Phillips High School, the first school built for blacks within the Chicago black community. Bandleader Walter Dyett thought him too cocky to join his popular Booster Band. So at age fifteen, Travis formed his own band. Sometimes each performer earned as much as $2 a night. By the next year, he had become the youngest orchestra leader in the local musicians’ union.

When Travis needed discipline, his father punished him by not letting him work—a strategy that proved effective since Travis loved to work. In his autobiography, he said of his father, “The positive approach to work he instilled has guided me successfully through several changes in vocations.” Travis graduated from what had become known as Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable High School in May 1936 in a suit handed down from his uncle to his father to him. His classmates included future publisher John Johnson, singer Nat King Cole, and actor Redd Foxx.

Job prospects looked bleak. Travis’s father gave him streetcar fare and sent him job hunting. He also provided fifty cents for lunch money—with the instruction to spend it only if he found a job. Travis passed by the stockyard where his father worked, and he paid the Factory Employment Agency $10 to become a porter for Apex Box Company. During off-work hours, he formed a seven-member band and played at the West Side Dance Hall. Band members received $6 a night; as band leader, Travis received $10.

On September 9, 1942, the United States Army drafted Travis and sent him to Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. His sergeant asked him to put together an orchestra to play for U.S.O. dances on Friday and Saturday nights. But Travis soon found himself transferred to Camp Shenago in Pennsylvania, where life became tough. Black soldiers faced isolation, deprivation, and discrimination.

One evening outside the makeshift black theater—the base did not admit blacks to the main theater—he and his friend Kansas encountered a crowd of angry men. Whites had beaten a black man who tried to purchase beer at the white Post Exchange. Suddenly, white soldiers opened fire on the black soldiers. Kansas died, and Travis was shot. Doctors thought he might never walk again. After a series of surgeries, he walked with a limp, and eventually he walked normally again. Travis took a thirty-day leave to Chicago. When he returned to Camp Shenago, he noticed a new service center for blacks and learned that blacks could now attend the main theater.

Officers soon put Travis in charge of a troop going to Camp Lee, Virginia. They enrolled him in Quartermaster School for Noncommissioned Officers. Then new orders sent him to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Major Sloan needed a clerk. He handed Travis a typewriter instruction manual, assigned him a desk, and within a month, Travis typed fifty-five words a minute. Assigned to the black Post Exchange as clerk, Travis soon became assistant manager and then manager. Before long, he became the first black to manage an integrated PX in Maryland. When Travis won top prize for the best-operated Post Exchange, Major Sloan arranged to have a picture taken for the newspaper. But the picture never appeared, for fear of causing increased racial tension. Sloan wanted Travis to attend Officers Training School, but Travis wanted out.

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