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Interview with Charlotte M. Watkins

Watkins, Charlotte M.
Pratt, Liz
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming obstacles
Charlotte Watkins talks about how she met her husband and the de-segregation of the PTA.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Liz Pratt interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
CW (Charlotte Watkins): I'm Charlotte Watkins. I was born in 1921, in a little town called Coffeyville, Kansas, and I never heard of the Civil War, I don't think they even taught us about the Civil War [laughs] at school.
LP (Liz Pratt): Oh, // really? //
CW: // I // really don't believe it, I don't remember it, it, it passed over my head. I went to school with black children. And, uh, even though I did go to school with black children there, I, I have to admit there was separation because they had, uh, the black students had their own Dunbar Club, their own dances and-.
LP: Hmm.
CW: -And but we were in class together and we considered one another friends. And we had, uh, separate churches and my mother used to take me to the one of the black member's churches and I would recite, as, as we used to call, recite a piece-.
LP: // [Laugh] //
CW: // -Uh, // as entertainment, and I look back now at it and think and I am kind of embarrassed about it to think the very idea that she // would take me-. //
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: -To speak a piece-.
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: // -Some // poem, but anyway that's what she did. And, um, my father, uh, went to school with three black students and they were all friends and I still have the picture of the, um, graduating class and they were small pictures and they were placed in the shape of CHS, Coffeyville High School-.
LP: // Ohh. //
CW: // -And the // three black students were the periods between-.
LP: Oh, // my. //
CW: // -[Laugh] // Between the letters and I still have that and I think, oh my. And I know when, when, uh, Wendell Wilkie ran for the presidency, I was away in college and my dad insisted that I had to come home so that I could, could see him and meet him because he had been my father's teacher in high school // in Coffeyville. //
LP: // Oh, really? //
CW: And so I did come home and they had a, a banquet at the only hotel in town. And, uh, they would not let, there was, uh, only one black man left out of that class that // still-. //
LP: // Uh-huh. //
CW: -Lived in Coffeyville. He had a ticket for the banquet and, uh, uh, they wouldn't let him in.
LP: Oh, // my goodness. //
CW: // So my father // and another man, uh, just picked him up under his arms, under his elbows, and carried him in and sat him in between the two of them for the banquet and nothing more was said. So that was sort of my background as far as, as, uh, black people were concerned ( ), I'm sorry to say, I never really gave it much, much of a thought about any separation, but there was, and I did have some black friends. But, uh, I went off to finish, uh, my nursing school and went to Saint Louis, and that's where I met Carlton.
LP: Oh, really?
CW: And the first time that we went out on a date, uh, we went on a bus and I sat down next to a, a black person, and Carlton looked so funny. And // so-. //
LP: // [Laugh] //
CW: -When we got off he said, "In North Carolina, you can't sit beside a black person on a bus." And I said, "Why in the world not?" He said, "Well, it's just the, it's just the custom." And so I said, "I don't see any reason for that, I went to school with black children and I'm-.
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: // -I'm going // to sit." So anyway that was the beginning of it.
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: // We, we, // we got married and the first, uh, uh, service that he had was at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in Saint Louis, and he came home one day and his eyes were so big and he had a big grin on his face. And he said, "I shook hands with a black doctor today."
LP: // Oh, my goodness. //
CW: // Now you have // to remember this was 1943 and he, // he was from-. //
LP: // Wow. //
CW: -Wilmington, North Carolina. And I said, "I think that's great. I think that's wonderful." // [Laughs] //
LP: // Now // who's from Wilmington, // Carlton was? //
CW: // Carlton // was from Wilmington, North Carolina.
CW: Right, so I had a chance to see a wonderful metamorphosis in that man.
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: // Uh, // during his services there at the, at City Hospital and at Barnes Hospital and, and at Homer G. Philips Hospital, he made a, a lot of, of black friends who were doctors, professional men who he had never had any opportunity, you know, to have any association with, and one of them, uh, was a pianist for, uh, for the King Cole trio.
LP: // Wow. //
CW: // And // uh, unfortunately, he was killed during the war. But anyway, we came to, uh, North Carolina for him to take his second residency in pediatrics and that was my first, and that was at Duke, and, and that was my first realization that they, uh, specified whether you were black, white or Indian.
LP: Oh, those were the // choices? //
CW: // Those // were the choices, black, white or Indian. They weren't, they didn't use black. They said Negro-.
LP: Right.
CW: -And, um, that was kind of a shock to me. And I worked in the, while he was a resident in pediatrics at Duke, I worked in the, uh, health department, and we had, I worked in the venereal disease clinic-.
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: // -And // -. [Laughter] -That was a real education for me, I'll tell you.
LP: // [Laugh] //
CW: // And, // uh, and of course we had black patients and also, uh, I went out once a week and interviewed the, uh, the blacks out at Camp Butner and, and that was an experience, too. So that was quite an education, we got on a bus out in Durham and, and decided we had to travel around to find out where we wanted to settle. And, uh, everywhere we went, the only thing as the pedia-, uh, as Carlton met these pediatricians, all the, they wanted was somebody to come in and take care of the black children. We came to Charlotte and the pediatricians said, "Come on, come on, everybody," you know, "We could use another pediatrician. Come on." So we did. Well, as it ended up, that's what they wanted too, really, but nobody had nerve enough to say it. And he had his, he was the first one, first doctor, not just pediatrician, but doctor to have, um, just one waiting room and-.
LP: // Oh, my goodness. //
CW: // -We had just one // waiting room. And it was a-, we, uh, couldn't find a place for an office, and, uh, we found an old apartment on the corner of Seventh and North Church, and there was a, and we couldn't find a place to live either. So we had one room in the back of, uh, of his office and, uh, a bathroom. No kitchen. And, uh, and his, his waiting room and examining rooms were there, for the first year.
LP: // Wow. //
CW: // And his, // but what they really wanted was a pediatrician who would take care of all the black children at Good Samaritan Hospital. And of course his first patient was a, [laugh] first patient, uh, was a, a black child, uh, on McDowell Street. The child had been, uh, having a convulsion for hours and no one would come out. And he went out. Of course he realized that this child was not going to make it. But he said he, uh, needed to get this child to the hospital so they could, uh, stop the convulsions. So, uh, the mother, he said, "I don't know where to go, I don't know where to take, take this child." And she said, "Look, if, if you'll take us I'll, I'll show you how to get there." So she showed him how to get to Good Samaritan Hospital, and so he got, uh, he took care of that child and the child lived for about 20 hours. He stopped the convulsions-.
LP: Hmm.
CW: -With medication, but the child had, um, meningitis and died. And the mother was so grateful, she was so grateful to him and-.
LP: // Wow. //
CW: // -And // she, um, referred him so many patients, so he had a, [laughs] black practice, and which he loved them, he really did, he loved them, and, um, and they all paid their bills, you know and they were so glad to get, to have somebody to take care of their children.
LP: // Hmm. //
CW: // And // so that was, that was our introduction to Charlotte [laughs]. And we, but we thought we were never going to make a living because, uh, he, he seemed to have more black children but, um, had the first desegregated, um, waiting room. ( ) and, uh, also that first year we adopted our first child. And we thought it would be, they told us a year, at least a year, 18 months. So we thought, "We'll have plenty of time to find, to find a place to live." Well, we came here in May and we applied in, in, uh, July and three weeks later we had a baby. And-.
LP: // Oh, my goodness. //
CW: // -And living // up there. They said, "We know you're not going to live there forever, but this child's sick and he needs a mother and daddy." So that's the way we adopted our first wonderful son. And it's just been wonderful ever since.
LP: How old was he when // you got him? //
CW: // He was three // weeks old-.
LP: Oh, my // gosh. //
CW: // -And // ill. So he needed help [laughs], and, [laugh], so anyway, uh, the, after that first year then we were finally able to, um, to buy a house, which is over across the creek from Park Road Shopping Center. All that's gone now because of // the flooding. //
LP: // Oh, Westfield? Yeah. //
CW: But that was the first housing development in North Carolina after World War II.
LP: It was?
CW: That's right, and there were, oh, five or six young doctors who started // there-. //
LP: // Ohh. //
CW: -And their first homes were there. So, let's see, the, uh, he went to Fort Bragg in 1950 and of course that was when Truman desegregated the Armed Services.
LP: Um-hmm.
CW: And, uh, uh, he and Reginald Hawkins used to ride back and forth to Charlotte. I don't know whether you knew Reginald Hawkins or not, but he was a very [laugh] controversial, uh, black dentist here in town. And, um, they were, um, both serving during the Korean War and, uh, so they used to ride back and forth and have long discussions. And, uh, when our, our first child started school in, uh, at Fort Bragg, and I, I became interested in PTA at that time, and, uh, when we moved back to Charlotte in 1950, it must have been in 1953, and, um, already had Lloyd in, in school, and I think the second, our second child was also in school at that time, and, um, really became active in PTA at that time. We had, um, a, a social worker, an older woman who was a social worker for the city, and she told me one time how that she needed to have someone to get, uh, shoes. Um, ( ), a place where teachers could send people, children to get shoes.
LP: Um-hmm.
CW: So I figured, well, there ought to be someplace and I found a place in downtown and it was a little hole in the wall in back of, of, it was Union National Bank then, one room and started collecting children's shoes and most of the children who came were black children. And, um, then the PTA Council asked me if I would be their health chairman, and I used to work with the county, we only had two systems, had a county and a city.
LP: Um-hmm.
CW: And I worked with uh, a wonderful woman who was a, um, a public health nurse and she was chair, health chairman for the county. And we worked together for several years and we put, instead of having separate meet-, uh, uh, meetings we would get the county and city people together and we'd you know, talk about some of the health issues for children. So when the county and city came together in 1960, um, [laugh], uh, apparently they were having a hard time finding somebody that had worked in the county and the city could agree on, but because I had worked in both the county and the city, they asked me to be the first president of the, uh, PTA council. And within a couple of years, uh, there were a group of us, Sa-, Sarah Stevenson and, uh, oh, gee, I wish I could remember the names of all these great people. Mattie Caldwell and, uh, uh, oh, jeez, the sweet one who was ahead of the NCCJ for so long, uh, it's terrible not to be able to remember names but anyway a group of us decided it was time to desegregate the PTA here in Charlotte, and, um, so, we did. We got, got the job done and, uh, Sarah Stevenson was really a leader in her community. And, do you know Sarah?
LP: I don't know her, I know of // her. //
CW: // Right, // well Sarah, she was really a leader in her community and so, uh, she was nominated to be president of the council, and I think it was 19, uh, 65. But anyway, there was a, there were some men who decided she wasn't going to be.
LP: // [Laugh] //
CW: // And // so at the annual meeting, uh, they, um, they nominated a man who happened to be a relative of somebody on school board.
LP: [Laugh]
CW: And, um, and, he lost but, uh, and a whole group of men walked out.
LP: // Oh, really? //
CW: // When Sarah won. //
LP: // Oh [laughs]. //
CW: // But // there were a group of us white women who were going to walk out if he won. [Laughter] But anyway, Sarah became the, the, uh, the president and that was the beginning of her, of all the work she has done in this community, you know, she was on the school // board-. //
LP: // Right. //
CW: -And she's just done so much and, uh, she's a fine woman. So, uh, I was, after that, a year, two years as president, that I was on the board, they asked me to be on the state board, and then two years later asked me to be vice president and I was vice president for a couple years, and then all during this time we had a group of, of women, older than I, who had been on the board for a long time. They had been working with the Nat-, the North Carolina Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers. They would meet and, uh, uh, discuss their problems in education and what they could do to help children and so on and so forth. And so, um, we decided it was time that we discontinue that-.
LP: Uh-huh.
CW: -And have a, just one, one state PTA. I still and look back and think that something was lost because of this. I used to be invited to their conventions and, their conventions were so wonderful, and they did a lot of, um, singing of spirituals and it was just wonderful. And, um, so that was lost-.
LP: Um-hmm.
CW: -When we all came together and I'm sorry it did. Um, but anyway, we did, we combined the two and the, my, uh, I was president of the State PTA during 1968, '69 and '70 and in 1969 was when we came together, we had our, our convention in the Hotel Charlotte. And one night the governor was sitting next to me and, and one of his, um, highway patrolmen came and whispered in his ear and he, um, the governor said, "Charlotte," um, "I don't want you to be upset, but they are picketing us outside," // ( ). //
LP: // Oh, my // goodness.
CW: [Laughs] So that didn't bother me. Um, but anyway we did, that night, we did, this nice, wonderful lady, who I've never heard from since and I tried to contact her, I don't know what's happened to her. She was president of the state, uh, Colored Congress and she and I had our pictures taken. She and I were shaking hands and our pictures were on the front page of the Observer and across the top there was a wide thing that said, "We will never bus."
LP: Oh, my goodness.
CW: And that was someone from the school board who made that, that statement so I thought that was kind of funny that that would happen.
LP: Wow.
CW: So anyway, um, during that time when I was president of state PTA I was on the National Board. And so, um, we started in 1968 when I went on the board, saying we've got to desegregate. There were still 14 states that had separate-.
LP: Un-huh.
CW: // Congresses. //
LP: // Wow. //
CW: And, // um-. //
LP: // Hang on // just one second. [Tape interruption]
CW: OK. So, in 1970, the two co-, national congresses came together and, um, we had some members of wonderful great ladies from the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers who came on the board at that time. Um, they were, um, had been past presidents and, and had at the same time at the state we had some wonderful people who came on our board, uh, at the state level and made a great contribution. And, especially I'm thinking of one gentleman from Winston Salem who I shall never forget who just, he just did everything in the world that he could to help me when I was, uh, state president. But anyway, after my term as, ih, on the board as a state president then I was, was, uh, elected, uh, vice president of, uh, uh, the southern states, which was North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.
LP: Wow.
CW: And, um, it was a regional vice presidency and at that time I, I wondered what I could do with this working with these three states to get them ready for desegregation because none of them were at the same point we // were here-. //
LP: // Hmm. //
CW: -In Charlotte. So with the help of a, uh, a, a man by the name of Gene Cosby with the state Department of Public Instruction, we wrote a, uh, a grant and applied for a grant from HEW for I think it was 64 thousand dollars.
LP: Which then was a huge // amount of money. //
CW: // It was a huge // amount. Well, the national PTA, they weren't sure that they wanted me to do that because they had never accepted na-, uh, any federal money // ever. //
LP: // Oh. //
CW: And so, it-, but we-, I convinced them that we needed to do it because this was something that was important and it had to be done, uh, as the national PTA, as a grant to the National PTA. So anyway I, worked on that and it seemed like forever before I could hear anything. In the meantime I had been, uh, appointed by President Nixon to serve on his cabinet committee on school desegregation.
LP: Wow.
CW: And that was a, that was a nice experience except for the fact that everything that he told me that they were going to do, they didn't do.
LP: Uh, // oh. //
CW: // And, // uh-.
LP: // [Laugh] //
CW: // -I was // very disappointed, and-.
LP: // Oh my-. //
CW: // -And I, // I felt, I felt like I had been, had not been told the truth. But I met these fascinating men on, on the, in his cabinet, uh, Mitchell and, uh, // a bunch of-. //
LP: // [Laugh] //
CW: -Them I, uh, really enjoyed meeting and some of them went to jail, // you know. //
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: And, but the most important person in that group was, uh, uh, oh my, I can't think of his name, he was Secretary of State. Oh my law, why can't I think of his name? Shultz, George Shultz.
LP: Yeah.
CW: And he was especially good to me, he really helped me a great deal. And, uh, so anyway, we were waiting around for that, uh, um, grant to come, and it didn't come and it didn't come and finally this man called me from Washington and he said, uh, "Oh, I called HEW," Health, // Education and Welfare-. //
LP: // Yeah, yeah. //
CW: -And, uh, and got in touch with this guy that we had sent the, gra-, the proposal to, and he said, "Well, I just decided I didn't think I wanted you to have it because you were, you were not interested in," um, "In having some of the men that I know who do a good job with this," uh, dise-, not desegregation, but, "With public relations." And I said, "Well, who was, who did, who did you want?" And he said, "Well, they were," so and so, and so and so, "From New York and New Jersey." And I said, "Look, we don't need anyone from up north coming down and telling us how to do this thing. We are going to do it on our own." I said, "I have two men myself, and they won't cost a thing to help me with this. I have a, a wonderful black man and a wonderful white man, and we are going to do it, the three of us are going to do it ourselves." And, uh, he said, "Well, I'm not really very interested in that." So, um, I was really disappointed and I thought how in the world, how am I going to get that money? And one night right after that, uh, Carlton read in the paper where Robert Brown, who had been, uh, President Nixon's associate, I've got his picture back there, you'll have to look at it-
LP: // Um-hmm. //
CW: // -He // introduced me to the president. I was in town at the McCrory YMCA giving a speech and he said, "Get your coat, Charlotte. We're on our way out to the, // to see-. //
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: -Robert Brown." So we waited until he finished giving his speech // and-. //
LP: // Oh, // to try to get the money?
CW: Yeah, and so I told him what had happened and he said, "Give me 48 hours." And in 48 hours, I had 64 thousand-.
LP: // Oh, my gosh. //
CW: // -Dollars, so, so we could // start. And, uh, so, uh, shortly after that, it wasn't very long, Carlton called me and he said, uh, "Where've you been?" and // I said-. //
LP: // [Laugh] //
CW: "Well, I've been to the store." And he said, "Well, the FBI's after you."
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: // And he said, // "I told them you ought to be home." And he said, "What's happened with the PTA? I knew that they didn't have much money but what's happened?" [Laughs] And I said, "I don't know, I have no idea." So he said, "Well, the agent is on his out way to your house." Well, when he got there he wanted a deposition and this man had disappeared, the one that was going to give me the money had disappeared. And apparently what he and his, uh, cohorts he wanted to work with me, they had been skimming money off the top and working in other communities where they were trying to desegregate, not in the South, but up in Ohio and around. So, anyway, later on I was called to Washington to testify after they finally found him, so that was exciting.
LP: // [Laughs] //
CW: // And-. //
LP: // Yeah. //
CW: // -Uh, // during this time too, I went to, uh, Washington, I don't know, two or three times and, and testified at different kinds of things. One funny time was with Edward Brooks who was senator then, a black man ( ) but anyhow I had, I had been called by him to testify or speak at one of his committee meetings and, uh, so he took me to lunch in the Senate dining room, // and-. //
LP: // Oh, wow. //
CW: -And boy, did I ever get the stares. The women, the wives, [laughs] turned around and, looking at me walking in with a black man, now that was in the 1970s.
LP: Wow.
CW: OK. Things have changed, haven't they?
LP: Thank goodness.
CW: Yes, thank goodness. But anyway, we did workshops, and all through the state, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky. And, uh, I never will forget the one in, in, uh, Alabama. We had it in, um, Birmingham and I flew into Birmingham, and the, the president of the state PTA met me at the airport and took me to their city club and, for lunch with the mayor. We had a nice lunch you know and, and so then after we finished the first course he said, um, "Now Mrs. Watkins, tell me what you are going to say to my people," because I was supposed to give the keynote speech that night, an open speech. And I said, "Oh, come." And he said, "No, I'm just getting over a heart attack, so I can't," uh, "I promised the doctor I wouldn't." So, uh, I said, "Well, then," gi-, "This will give me a chance to practice." [Laughter] So I said, "Well, this is what I am going to say," and I was telling him that, that what I wanted to say was, you know change comes and we have to be ready for change and, and how change takes place, and why it has to take place and, and, um, so then the next day of course, they got into their teachers and parents and the young people, um, high school students. They really got to work on it. And the thing that impressed me the most was the fact that, that, um, the white parents had no idea that the black parents wanted the same thing for their children.
LP: ( ) Interesting.
CW: It just hit me in the face. But anyway, back to that luncheon, and after I finished telling him what I was going to say, he said, OK, see, this was not long after all the dogs, and, the, uh, the fire, the, you know, using the fire hoses and everything, this was not long after that, and so but when I finished the mayor said, "Well, that's OK. It's time, it really is time," and then gave me the key to Birmingham, which is back here.
LP: Oh, // my goodness. //
CW: // And, so // I said to my hostess when we left, she hadn't opened her mouth the whole time, and I said, "What would have happened if he hadn't approved?" And she said, "I would now be taking you back out to the airport and we would be canceling the meeting."
LP: Oh my // goodness. //
CW: // So that // was interesting.
LP: Wow.
CW: But, uh, we did workshops all through those states and I think that they had, they were well received, and, and I think they did help those states do, to do what they had to do to desegregate. And I think a lot of people, their impressions of one another were changed and so that was good. And, um, it was an interesting time to be alive and I met so many, so many people. But in the meantime George Shultz came to Raleigh and asked me to meet him in Raleigh. And, uh, he was [laugh] very interested in all this that had taken place with the man from HEW you know and, uh, so I have been, uh, very interested in following him along through the years. And I became national membership chairman. They had asked me to be, uh, to start, I, I know that Mary Kratt wrote this up in, in her little book but, um, they wanted me to be ready to be president of the national PTA.
LP: Wow.
CW: But you go up steps.
LP: Um-hmm.
CW: So I was called and asked to be secretary was the first step, then first vice president and, um, and that was the year Carlton was on, he was on the school board.
LP: Right.
CW: And he had a massive heart attack // and, oh,-. //
LP: // Hmm. //
CW: -That's what did it. Um, all that he went through while he was on the school board.
LP: Now, what years was he uh, during what years was he on the school board?
CW: Well, let's see. I ran in 19-.