When I arrived at UNC and Chapel Hill, a Bostonian feeling very much out of place, my first meal was at “The Rat,” a famous restaurant recommended by a stranger. My waiter for that first meal was Davis Blackwell, who became a friend for my adult life and one of the faces that made visiting Chapel Hill so important to so many.
Davis passed away last Wednesday, and long after Chapel Hill lost the Rathskeller the town lost one of its greatest ambassadors who did more than deliver “gamblers” and rare roast beef sandwiches to hungry patrons. He was always friendly and welcoming to the mostly white clientele while working in a restaurant that had almost all black employees.
This was less than 10 years removed from passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Act of 1965 that ended outward segregation in what was still a small Southern town with divided loyalties and ideologies. In one of the true ironies I remember, The Rat and Davis Blackwell were where you went to feel safe and NOT at odds with anybody.
The fourth full-time employee at The Rat, Davis made dozens — no hundreds — of friends during his 46 years there. Many alumni, and some athletes, will tell you their decisions to attend Carolina had to do with how comfortable Davis Blackwell made them feel on campus and recruiting visits. He was genuine; he loved Chapel Hill and being able to hold a job that took care of his family for decades.
As The Rat became as much a destination for old grads returning and new visitors, I saw Davis less through the years. But every time I did, he greeted me with the same warm smile and a question about how I was doing. He remained there until the day the restaurant in Amber Alley closed for good.
Of all the great people I have met and friends I have made in my four-plus decades here, I will never forget the first one, Davis Blackwell, Ambassador. His funeral is Sunday at 2 pm at Mill Hill Baptist Church in Roxboro.
Flowers can be sent to Cunningham and Nelson Funeral Home at 87 Brookland Church Rd, Roxboro, NC 27573