Every town has a few very interesting and eccentric characters. For any number of reasons, and often for reasons that are unknown to anyone but the people themselves, their appearance and or behavior is markedly different from the rest of us.
Local legends grow around these individuals, based on rumors and gossip, in an attempt to explain why this person is so different. Usually, the person is really not so different from the rest of us after all, and the reason behind the differences is something we'll never know for sure.
Unfortunately, these individuals are often the targets of derision and cruelty, but many are regarded with great affection by their communities as well. When they die, we realize that not only could we have been nicer to them while they were alive, but that we ourselves have missed out by not knowing them better. We notice too, that our town isn't the same; it's not as rich and interesting without their presence.
Today, I came across the obituary of 90 year old Martha Davis of Davenport, Iowa. She was a fixture of Davenport, and known by many in the region for her very slow driving, thick white pancake makeup, wigs and gloves. She was also known by some for her sweet, generous nature and love of conversation.
The obituary, posted online at the Quad City Times has drawn many comments from readers who knew her and knew of her. Many just wanted to know why this beautiful black woman wore white makeup and covered her skin. Had there been a disfiguring accident? A skin condition? Heartbreak? A desire to appear to be a white woman? - we'll never know, and perhaps, as many comments suggest, it's not even the point.
Many readers recalled stories of being frightened as children, of cruel pranks and regret. Many share stories of kindness, grace, conversation, and love for a woman who taught them not to judge a book by it's cover.
To read the obituary and comments, visit the Quad City Times (the photo also comes courtesy of the QC Times.)
For the story behind Mrs. Davis, reporter, Bill Wundram has been kind enough to allow me to use excerpts from his November 22 article 'The Woman in the White Face'.
She was known not by her name, but by her face. For 50 years she was “the powder puff lady,” or “the clown woman,” or more starkly, the woman who always wore a white face.She puzzled most everyone, but was a gentle friend to many. However and whatever, she was the Quad-Cities’ most unique personality.Now, Martha Davis of
is dead at 90. DavenportTrue to her wishes, she was laid to rest Saturday with her face in white makeup.She was an enigma. Martha was a black woman who chose to cover her face in heavy white makeup. It was so thick that it often looked like white pancake batter was spread over her face. She would not bare her hands. Always, even on the hottest summer days, she wore white gloves.She would shop at Walgreen’s or Aldi in white makeup, wearing one of her assortment of wigs — some flowing black, some curly, often an outrageous blonde. Often, her white cheeks were rouged in bright red. People stared, usually shocked, but Martha would shrug them off as if nothing about her was unusual.Even after talking to dozens of people, mostly relatives, the reason for Martha’s white makeup is not clear. The riddle was buried with her Saturday at Oakdale Cemetery, after services at Bethel AME Church, . DavenportFAMILY MEMBERS agree that they don’t know why she chose to look white. They say it was her secret. One says it began in the late 1950s. Of all the reasons, the most logical one comes from her niece, Darlene: “She always wanted to be an angel. Angels are white, and that’s what she wanted to be, an angel.”Martha’s sister, Lula Rose of , says, “She just liked to do it; that’s what she wanted.” Rock IslandThose who knew her said that despite eccentricities, she was a good neighbor, a kindly person who loved to talk endlessly on the phone. One remembers seeing her, about 1990, at the old Fun Shop in . She was buying makeup. DavenportHer niece, Darlene, says, “Aunt Martha always said, ‘Promise, put me away right.’ ”Darlene says she was put away right, in smooth white makeup and wearing a frosted blonde wig.