Oral History Project
The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit
Oral History Project United States Courts
The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit
District of Columbia Circuit
Interviews conducted by James McKeown, Esquire
February 5, March 5, May 9, June 19, July 26, August 21 and September 19, 2019
Preface. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. i
Oral History Agreements
Robert Patterson Watkins, Esquire………………………………………………………………….. iii
James McKeown, Esquire……………………………………………………………………………….v
Oral History Transcripts of Interviews
February 5, 2019 ……………………………………………………………………………………………1
March 5, 2019 ……………………………………………………………………………………………..27
May 9, 2019 ………………………………………………………………………………………………..47
June 19, 2019 ………………………………………………………………………………………………71
July 26, 2019……………………………………………………………………………………………….91
August 21, 2019…………………………………………………………………………………………116
September 19, 2019 ……………………………………………………………………………………129
Index …………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. A-1
Table of Cases and Statutes …………………………………………………………………………………B-1
Biographical Sketches
Robert Patterson Watkins, Esquire………………………………………………………………C-1
James McKeown, Esquire……………………………………………………………………….. D-1
The following pages record interviews conducted on the dates indicated. The interviews were
recorded digitally or on cassette tape, and the interviewee and the interviewer have been afforded
an opportunity to review and edit the transcript.
The contents hereof and all literary rights pertaining hereto are governed by, and are subject to,
the Oral History Agreements included herewith.
© 2020 Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.
All rights reserved.
The goal of the Oral History Project of the Historical Society of the District of Columbia
Circuit is to preserve the recollections of the judges of the Courts of the District of Columbia
Circuit and lawyers, court staff, and others who played important roles in the history of the
Circuit. The Project began in 1991. Oral history interviews are conducted by volunteer
attorneys who are trained by the Society. Before donating the oral history to the Society, both
the subject of the history and the interviewer have had an opportunity to review and edit the
Indexed transcripts of the oral histories and related documents are available in the
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N.W., Washington, D.C., the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, and the library of
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With the permission of the person being interviewed, oral histories are also available on
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interviews, as well as electronic versions of the transcripts, are in the custody of the Society.

Oral History of Robert P. Watkins, Esq.
Schedule A
Tape recordings, digital recordings, transcripts, computer diskettes, and DVDs resulting
from seven interviews of Robert Watkins, Esq., on the following dates:
Interview No. and Date Number of files Pages of Transcript
February 5, 2019 1 1-26
March 5, 2019 1 27-46
May 9, 2019 1 47-70
June 19, 2019 1 71-90
July 26, 2019 1 91-115
August 21, 2019 1 116-128
September 19, 2019 1 129-143
The transcripts of the seven interviews are contained on one DVD.

Oral History of Robert P. Watkins, Esq.
Schedule A
Tape recordings, digital recordings, transcripts, computer diskettes, and DVDs resulting
from seven interviews of Robert Watkins, Esq., on the following dates:
Interview No. and Date Number of files Pages of Transcript
February 5, 2019 1 1-26
March 5, 2019 1 27-46
May 9, 2019 1 47-70
June 19, 2019 1 71-90
July 26, 2019 1 91-115
August 21, 2019 1 116-128
September 19, 2019 1 129-143
The transcripts of the seven interviews are contained on one DVD.
Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
First Interview
February 5, 2019
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is James McKeown, and the
interviewee is Robert Patterson Watkins III. The interview took place at the law offices of
Williams & Connolly on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. This is the first interview.
MR. McKEOWN: Mr. Watkins, good afternoon.
MR. WATKINS: Good afternoon, Mr. McKeown.
MR. McKEOWN: We don’t know one another, so I would like you to start by telling me
about Robert Watkins before he was a lawyer. I’d like you to take me
back to your earliest times and tell me where you were born, where you
grew up, and all the things that followed being born and starting to grow
MR. WATKINS: I was born on July 6, 1937, in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Boston City
Hospital. I went to the Ruggles Street Nursery School. It was run by
caring people who were training at Tufts University. I recall that with
great affection. I don’t remember the names of the teachers, but it was a
great experience.
MR. McKEOWN: When did you start nursery school?
MR. WATKINS: I was either four or five. I can’t recall exactly when it was, but I do recall
the experience. I went there for about a year, and then I started primary
school at the Louisa May Alcott School in Boston’s South End. I lived in
the Lennox Street Housing Project, which was a good place for me to
grow up. I never knew that housing projects had such a bad reputation.
My parents had many friends there, and there were many children my age.
We lived there during the war from 1940 to 1953 or 1954. It was terrific.
My mother was intent on choosing good schools for me. She enrolled me
in the Louisa May Alcott School in the South End of Boston, though we
lived in Roxbury another, section of Boston. I started kindergarten the
Alcott. Boston, although not legally segregated there were certain schools
that African Americans went to and other schools for Caucasians. The
Alcott was completely integrated. There were African Americans, Greeks,
Italians, and others. It was a co-ed school from kindergarten to third
MR. McKEOWN: Was it a public school?
MR. WATKINS: It was a public school. We had great teachers. There were some African
American teachers, but most of the teachers were Caucasian. I made some
good friends in that school. As a matter of fact, one of the friends I made
in kindergarten; his name was Arthur Collias. He was a Greek boy that
lived not as close to the school as I did. We just hit it off and we had a
great relationship. We stayed in touch. He died last year. I don’t know
how other schools operated, but the Alcott was a great place for me to
begin school. I liked getting up and going to school.
MR. McKEOWN: Was it a school that started in kindergarten and went through the eighth
MR. WATKINS: No. It was kindergarten through third grade. Then, for third grade, I
attended the integrated Dwight School (which was closer to my home than
the Alcott) in the South End. So the sequence of attendance was Louisa
May Alcott through third grade, the Dwight School for the fourth grade;
and the fifth and sixth grades at the Sherwin School where all students
were African American. My mother would have preferred that I continue
at the Dwight School. However, she received a letter from the Boston
School Board, sometime after I left the fourth grade, saying that I would
be transferred to Sherwin. My mother tried unsuccessfully to have me
finish the fifth and sixth grades at the Dwight School; however, the School
Board said that Sherwin is your local school. She was disappointed
because it did not have the resources of the integrated schools. Most of
the boys that went to the Sherwin School I knew because many of them
lived in the same housing project I did; I knew the others because they had
gone to nursery school with me. So that was an easy transition for me
insofar as the boys were concerned.
MR. McKEOWN: Was Arthur Collias a part of this?
MR. WATKINS: Arthur was not. Arthur went to the Dwight School, where he went
through to the end, but there’s more to that story. After the sixth grade, I
transferred to the Latin School. But let me tell you about the AfricanAmerican Sherwin School. The school was in a building that was hundred
years old (i.e., built in the 1840s). It was in the middle of a black
neighborhood, and the teachers were generally white. I didn’t have any
black teachers at that school. I learned what I was supposed to learn there
and did reasonably well.
MR. McKEOWN: What were the class sizes at the Sherwin School?
MR. WATKINS: There were about 30 students per class. So the class size was not a
problem. The school was not great, but it was well disciplined. I
remember, the fifth grade homeroom teacher left the room sometimes, and
when she came back, the boys were raising hell. As punishment, she had
the entire class write, “Quiet” for the rest of the day until each class
member had written the word 500 times.
MR. McKEOWN: This was all taking place, the Alcott, Dwight and Sherwin Schools; these
would be during the World War II years?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, then I left the Sherwin School in 1949.
MR. McKEOWN: Were there any effects that you felt as a child such as rationing, or did
your mother sort of filter that out of your life?
MR. WATKINS: No. I didn’t know enough to feel I was deprived in any way. The schools
provided milk and cookies. World War II did not affect me as far as I can
MR. McKEOWN: Were most of the teachers that you had in those days women?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, all teachers were women at the Alcott, Dwight, and Sherwin Schools.
My time at the Sherwin School was interesting, but in the sixth grade
there, I told my mother that I wanted to go to the Boston Latin School.
One had to have honor roll grades or pass an exam to be admitted. Well,
when I said I wanted to go, my mother went to the school and talked to my
sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Strachan. I’ll never forget it. My mother said
Robert wants to go to Latin School and he wants his report card to register
at Latin. The teacher attempted to discourage my mother and me from
going to the Latin School which had a college prep curriculum. Mrs.
Strachan said that my family would not have the money for me to go to
college after Latin School. My mother was outraged. She told the teacher
that was not her business; she demanded and received the report card. I
took the report card and registered at Latin. Ronnie McMullen, one of the
other fellows in my sixth grade class who lived in the housing project with
me, also registered at the Latin School.
MR. McKEOWN: Is this a public school?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. It was very rigorous. Boston Latin School’s high academic
standards are illustrated by what happened. When I started there, my
seventh grade homeroom class had about 25 students; before the end of
the year, it was reduced by six or seven boys who went back to their local
neighborhood schools because they didn’t meet the academic standards of
the Latin School.
MR. McKEOWN: You had said that the Alcott School was just over the border, I believe,
from where you were living in Roxbury. Where were the Dwight and
Sherwin Schools?
MR. WATKINS: I thought that lived in the South End because the South End was where the
Alcott School was. I learned that the side of the street I lived on was in
Roxbury. Since I lived on the Roxbury side of the street, I could not
attend schools in the South End.
MR. McKEOWN: The Dwight and Sherwin Schools, where were those located?
MR. WATKINS: The Dwight and Alcott Schools were in the South End. The Sherwin
School was in Roxbury.
MR. McKEOWN: Were you walking to school in those days?
MR. WATKINS: I walked and my parents didn’t take me. They said it’s time to go to
school, so I’d get my lunch and go. All the schools I attended were within
walking distance from my house.
MR. McKEOWN: Can you tell me a little bit about your folks? Did your mother refer to you
as Robert?
MR. WATKINS: My family called me Bobby. My teachers referred to me as Robert. My
dad’s name was Robert Patterson Watkins. My grandfather’s name was
Robert Patterson Watkins. When all of my aunts and uncles would say or
talk about Bobby they’d be referring to my father or my grandfather, so I
became Baby Bobby. It got to a certain point where I wasn’t Baby
anymore, so I became Bobby, and that’s what my family called me and the
people in the neighborhood did the same. At school, I was Robert, and
that was fine with me.
MR. McKEOWN: Your mom’s name was?
MR. WATKINS: Kate Marian Watkins. Originally she lived in South Carolina and
sometime in the 1920s, she came to Boston and was involved with a tennis
club, and one of her friends introduced my father to her, and they
ultimately got married.
MR. McKEOWN: You mentioned a sister. Do you have other siblings?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, I have two sisters. They were born in 1942, and they’re twins. Jane
and Janet are their names. One of my sisters, Jane, still lives in Boston.
She lives in a place called Dorchester. My other sister, Janet, has lived
many places. When she lived in Boston, she met and married a gentleman
from the country of Liberia called Marbu Dennis. He went to school in
England initially, and then attended Boston University. She moved with
him to Liberia and lived there for twenty years until the 1980s.
Liberia was founded in the early 19th century. It was populated
initially by freed African slaves from New York who wanted to go back to
the continent of Africa; they began to resettle in Liberia in 1820. The
immigration of freed slaves was largely the work of the American
Colonization Society; a United States (U.S.) organization was founded in
1816 to return them to Africa. The expedition was partially funded in
1819 by the U.S. Congress; they appropriated $100,000 to be used to
return displaced Africans illegally brought to the U.S., after the abolition
of the slave trade in 1808, to Africa.
In April 1980, there was a bloody coup in Liberia, staged by the
Liberian military under the leadership of Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe;
my sister and her husband was there at that time. It occurred because the
society in Liberia had very rigid class distinctions between the indigenous
people, and the people who were Americans, Americo-Liberians they
were called, who were at the top of the social structure. Janet’s husband
was an Americo-Liberian who ran his father’s rubber plantation. Both had
significant jobs and positions in the Liberian government. One of Marbu’s
sisters was the equivalent of the Federal Reserve Chairman at that time, in
the mid-1980s.
My mother was very concerned about my sister. The indigenous
people decided to take over the government. They took a number of
Americo-Liberians onto the beach and just shot them. She sent telegrams
trying to get Janet to come back to the United States (U.S.). She stayed in
Liberia for about two more years; Marbu was arrested and imprisoned.
Janet said people didn’t normally ever come out of prison. She returned to
the U.S. and collected the money that she needed from Americo-Liberians
living here to get her husband out of prison. She returned to Liberia with
to secure his release.
Marbu didn’t want to stay in Liberia, but, if he’d left, those in
power would have confiscated his family property. He stayed for a while
to run the family rubber plantation and left for England, while Janet
returned to the U.S. They would meet periodically, but their marriage
couldn’t withstand the distance between them. In the end, Janet stayed in
the States; Marbu resided between Liberia and England. He came to the
U.S. for a while. Marbu is my second son, Matthew’s, godfather. During
those visits, Matthew was just beginning to learn how to play baseball; he
wanted to see his godson play. He was a cricketer. He went to as many of
Matthew’s games as he could while he visited with us. I don’t know
what’s become of him. He was a good guy, and I’m sorry the marriage to
my sister didn’t work out.
MR. McKEOWN: It seems from your lineage, from what you’ve just described, that your
family goes back a way. You go back to a grandfather named Robert
Patterson Watkins. Have you traced your family history all the way back?
MR. WATKINS: No. I haven’t done it. My sister Jane was more interested in that than I
was; I’ve never really been interested in tracing our family history. I think
that now that I’m older, and I have some time, I’d like to do that. One of
my cousins, who is my age, is undertaking this project.
MR. McKEOWN: With your Harvard connection, this fellow up there who does a television
show may be able to help.
MR. WATKINS: I don’t know. It’s possible.
MR. McKEOWN: Was your dad off doing work stuff during World War II?
MR. WATKINS: He was a dental technician. That means he made false teeth for dentists;
he was part of a group that made false teeth.
MR. McKEOWN: In the Army?
MR. WATKINS: No. He was not in the military. He was diabetic, a serious diabetic. He
had to take insulin every day. I never knew when he might have a diabetic
attack. I remember that he had them a couple of times. He was exempt
from the Army. Then, when the Army needed dental technicians, they
offered him a position as a warrant officer. After some consideration, he
decided he wasn’t going into the Army and did not accept the warrant
officer position, so he remained a civilian.
MR. McKEOWN: Where did he get his dental technician training?
MR. WATKINS: I don’t know. I believe that there was a German man, Hans Tashner, who
had come to this country before the war and had set up a business of
providing dentists with false teeth for their patients. The Germans were
much more advanced in this area than the Americans were; my father
started working for him and learned the trade. He left Tashner and began
working for a man called Bill Bowser. He worked with him for a while,
and then subsequently became a dental technician for other Boston dental
MR. McKEOWN: You started off living in a housing project, which, these days, does not
always connote something positive. You mentioned, I think, one of your
friends, Ronnie McMullen, was from there. I take it he was from an Irish
descendant family?
MR. WATKINS: He was not. He is African American whose mother was from Delaware;
she was a friend of my mother’s. We were the first people who moved
into this housing project in Roxbury.
MR. McKEOWN: Where were you before this?
MR. WATKINS: We lived in an apartment building called the Arena Chambers. I have
very little recollection of Arena Chambers. The recollection of my
childhood really begins with the Lennox Street Housing Project.
MR. McKEOWN: How big of a complex was it?
MR. WATKINS: It was probably four blocks or five blocks, but all of the buildings were
only three stories tall. It had a wading pool. There were grassy plots of
land between the buildings. There were wing sets, jungle gyms, and lots
of things for kids to do. I remember that the lawns were regularly mowed.
During the war, mothers and fathers went out in the complex and were
allowed to dig the lawns up, plant vegetables, and create gardens.
MR. McKEOWN: They called them victory gardens, didn’t they?
MR. WATKINS: I don’t know what they called them, but I can remember my mother going
out and pulling up all kinds of vegetables from these gardens. It was a
great place for us to grow up.
MR. McKEOWN: But it wasn’t just an African American housing project?
MR. WATKINS: Yes it was. Only African Americans lived there.
MR. McKEOWN: How long did your family live there?
MR. WATKINS: I would have to say it was from about 1941, because my sisters were born
in 1942. I can remember them coming home from the hospital, and it was
to the housing project. So we lived there from 1941 until about 1953 or
1954. Then we moved to a house in Roxbury.
MR. McKEOWN: Is the project still there?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, it is still there.
MR. McKEOWN: Now does it have all the problems that we associate with the projects these
MR. WATKINS: I don’t know. I have not been in or through the housing project since we
moved away. My life just wasn’t involved in that.
MR. McKEOWN: What does your sister Jane who still lives in the Boston area do?
MR. WATKINS: She lives in Dorchester, one of the sections of Boston. She bought a house
and had two children. She worked in the Navy Yard during her entire
career in government; Jane retired when she reached 62; she had been
working there from the day she graduated from high school.
MR. McKEOWN: As a child growing up, how did you spend your weekends?
MR. WATKINS: I played in the projects and was in the Boy Scouts. After I was about ten,
I spent some time learning to play tennis. My parents separated when I
was about ten years old. My father lived somewhere else in Boston, and I
continued to live in the housing project with my mother and sisters. My
dad was a tennis player, and I liked to go out with him when he was
playing. As a result, I learned to play tennis, and when I was in high
school, I was reasonably good, and I was able to go to some tennis
tournaments. I went to tennis tournaments in Bridgeport, New York and
in New Jersey. Before the United States Tennis Association (USTA)
allowed blacks in, there was its African American counterpart, the
American Tennis Association (ATA). I played in tournaments in Durham,
North Carolina and in Daytona Beach, Florida at Bethune Cookman
College, where they held the ATA tournament — a national black tennis
tournament. That’s one of the things I did after I got to 7th grade.
One of my father’s brothers, John Watkins, played every sport
there was. In fact, he organized the Five Star Club. It was basically the
Watkins family men [many of whom were stevedores] and their friends.
They [uncles, cousins, and friends] competed in Settlement House leagues
around Boston, and they would take me along with them when they
competed, and I would sit and watch. They taught me how to play
basketball and put me on their team when I was about 12 years old. They
played in South Boston, Dorchester, and wherever. They also formed a
football and softball team, but I wasn’t involved in that. I had many
uncles who thought I was special because I was the only Watkins boy of
my generation; there were no boys after my father’s siblings. My paternal
grandfather, Grandpa Watkins, had five girls and then started having boys
– five of them. My father was the eldest of the Watkins boys. When my
aunts got married and had children, some were girls, but, most were boys.
They said I needed something to do, so they taught me how to score
basketball games; they didn’t have an official scorer, so, I became the
scorer. They generally played on Saturday. That was a lot of fun. So
that’s where I spent my weekends.
MR. McKEOWN: Was Sunday church-going day?
MR. WATKINS: It was for me. My parents were not big church-goers, but I liked the
church that was up the street from our house. It’s the Church of St.
Augustine and St. Martin. It was within walking distance from my house.
When I was in the 4th or 5th grade, some of my friends and other people
from the neighborhood went to that church and I started going with them;
it became my church and I was quite active in it. I became an acolyte at
age 15.
MR. McKEOWN: What does an acolyte do?
MR. WATKINS: He serves the priests during Masses. In the Catholic Church, they’re
called altar boys, but acolyte is the proper term. The Episcopalian church
is quite like an Anglo-Catholic church in Britain.
MR. McKEOWN: I take it that you must have been a very serious student.
MR. WATKINS: I wouldn’t say very serious.
MR. McKEOWN: A very good student.
MR. WATKINS: Yes I was. When I was at the Alcott, Dwight and Sherwin Schools, I
didn’t want to fail anything, so I did the work. When I went to the Latin
School, I knew I had to do the work, and I did it. I was in the top 15% of
my class at the Latin School from the 7th through 12th grade. I was elected
secretary of my class. Because of that, it was easier for me to get into
college than for a lot of people.
My father and mother had a friend, Bill Harrison, who had been to
Latin School and who had gone to Harvard and apparently did very well
because he also spent a couple years at Cambridge University in England.
He was someone that everybody in the black community knew; he was a
real intellectual. There was really no place for him to operate in the black
community in the 1940s and 1950s as an intellectual. He couldn’t teach.
They just didn’t hire people with his kind of credentials. He was a good
guy, and I always knew when he visited our community, my mother and
father would be very interested to hear what he was going to say about
what was going on in the community and in the world. When I went to
Latin School, he came by the house to congratulate me for being admitted
to the school; he said that the Latin School was a very good school and the
fact that I was attending classes there was great. It was a big deal. So I
learned about the Latin School from Bill. I knew about Harvard because I
played tennis with my dad; you could go to the Harvard courts in the
summer time and rent a court and play.
Latin School admitted almost a third of the class to Harvard.
That’s sixty or so boys from one class going to Harvard. The school was
founded in 1635, and Harvard was founded in 1636. In 1955, I was
admitted to Harvard; we had 60 admits from the Latin School to Harvard
that year. My classmates and I who went to Harvard, say Harvard was
founded for the boys in the Latin School to have somewhere to go. Of
those 60, I think 52 or 53 matriculated to Harvard. Those who didn’t go to
Harvard went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). We had
more Latin School people at Harvard in my class than any other public
school. If you went to Latin School and you graduated you usually did
reasonably well.
MR. McKEOWN: What did you find to be the most difficult or challenging part at the Boston
Latin School, whether it was academically or socially or whatever it might
MR. WATKINS: My parents were not academics. They didn’t have jobs that required you
sitting down and write papers and things like that. The most challenging
aspect for me was doing all of the homework at the Latin School. I just
didn’t understand how important it was not just to get through, but how
important it was to be in the top 10% of the class, to be the best you could
be. So, I look back now and say I did well, but I could have done a lot
MR. McKEOWN: You were still living in the projects at that time?
MR. WATKINS: I was living in the projects when I went to the Latin School, and that was
1949. I was there until the early 1953 or 1954.
MR. McKEOWN: What about the physical problems of apartment living?
MR. WATKINS: The first apartment that my family lived in had two bedrooms, so there
was one for me, and one for my parents, and a kitchen, a bathroom, etc.
When my sisters came along, we moved to a three-bedroom apartment;
there was a room for me, one for my two sisters, and one for my parents. I
never thought I was deprived or felt any less because I lived in a project.
MR. McKEOWN: At some point, did you become sensitive that there was a separation of the
MR. WATKINS: Yes, I always knew there was separation. In Boston, it didn’t affect me in
the same way it affected people in the South. I could go to the hospitals, I
could go to the schools, and I could use the library. I could also ride the
streetcar anywhere I wanted to go. I didn’t think about segregation until I
went to play tennis in the South. I went by myself. My father told me,
“Now son, when you get on the train, everything will be fine until you get
to Baltimore. The conductor will come through the train and tell you that
you have to move to another car.” Black folks had to go to a separate car
back then. He said to me, “There’s been an Interstate Commerce
Commission (ICC) court decision that says railroads in the interstate
commerce can’t segregate trains anymore, so, when the conductor comes
through and tells you to move to another car, you must not move.”
MR. McKEOWN: You were how old then?
MR. WATKINS: I was 15 or 16. He talked to me in a way that I knew this was serious.
When he said he didn’t want me to make that move, I knew that I should
not when the conductor came through and told me to move to a car for
blacks. When to conductor approached me and told me to move, I said I
was not moving. He looked at me and said “You’re a wise guy.” I said, “I
just don’t have to move, and I’m not going to move.” I knew my father
was going to ask me what happened in Baltimore when I returned to
Boston. I couldn’t lie to him. I was proud that I could say to him, “No
Dad, I didn’t move.” I stayed in the car. He asked how I felt, and I said,
well, I was concerned to some extent, but I knew I had my seat and I was
going to stay in it. I got off in the Carolinas to get something to eat, and
found a segregated eating facility, so I bought some food and something to
drink. I couldn’t eat in the restaurant so I ate on the platform. I got back
on the train and I was concerned because I left the seat; I thought the
conductor might take my seat and then I’d have to go to the black car. I
found my seat was still available. I kept the seat until I arrived in Daytona
Beach, Florida. That was the first time I experienced racial segregation.
My mother was very militant. She was as militant as you can be in
Boston. I can remember after the Second World War, her going to Dudley
Street, the downtown of our neighborhood where the stores hired no black
clerks and she was down there in a demonstration. She was carrying a
sign down advocating “Don’t Eat Where You Can’t Shop,” or “Don’t
Shop Where You Can’t Work.” My father was from Boston, and that was
not something that he did. He felt that we did not have to do that in the
city. That was his approach. But my mother said if we’re going to spend
our money in those stores, there ought to be some black clerks in them.
That was when I first became aware of racial division in Boston. If
you lived in our neighborhood all the time and didn’t go to school in other
places, you could live your life without really being aware that you were
being segregated. For instance, there was a housing project in South
Boston which was very Irish where no black families lived so you didn’t
ever have to have any contact with them unless you played basketball. I
played basketball and we’d go to South Boston and play ball there; the
Irish boys would call you derogatory names during or after the games. I
knew then that I might have to fight to get out of the neighborhood after
those games.
MR. McKEOWN: Were these racially charged fights?
MR. WATKINS: Oh yes. When I was in the 7th grade at Latin School, in my class named
McAlister called me a nigger, so I climbed over two desks to get to him. I
hit him twice — in the mouth and nose.
One of the rules at the Latin School was, “No fighting.” If a
student was caught fighting he was expelled immediately without a
hearing. Even if my actions were justified I would have been expelled.
Well, my homeroom teacher, T.A. Donnelly, heard about what I had done
and why I did it. He said to me, “You know the rules and I will not report
this to the headmaster, but, this is your last chance. If you fight again, you
will be expelled. You will have to go back to your local neighborhood
school.” So I became aware of the racial tension at the Latin School and
how my actions had almost caused me to be thrown out of school.
MR. McKEOWN: Were you being bused to Boston Latin School at that time?
MR. WATKINS: No, there was no busing at that time. I walked every day to Latin School.
When I got to the upper grades, I sometimes took public transportation.
All students could buy car checks for five cents apiece, which, you gave to
the conductor on the train or the subway; that gave you a ride. So, if I had
a car check, I could ride to Latin School. But it took more time for me to
take public transportation because you had to change several times to get a
train that ultimately took you to Latin School. If the weather was good,
which it was most of the time, I could walk, and I did.
MR. McKEOWN: Were you always with the same homeroom?
MR. WATKINS: No. I met a whole new set of students every year.
MR. McKEOWN: Do you still have any lasting friends or acquaintances that you keep in
contact with from those days?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I am still in contact with my Latin School classmates. Latin School
friendships are stronger than my college friendships. I went to my 60th
class reunion at the Latin School for the Class of 1955 and reconnected
with old classmates. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years. The draw for the
reunion was that we all had positive experiences at the Latin School; I
think matriculation from the Latin School ultimately helped us into good
There are some people that I still see. When we graduated from
Latin School, everybody went off to college. We had a chance to go, and
everybody that I knew went. There were a couple guys who went to
college, then went into the military or the military academy. If you’re in
the military professionally, you had to circulate through Washington, DC
at some stage in your career. I learned after I had been living in DC for
three or four years that there were guys from Latin School that were also
in town. One of them called and said, “I heard you’re living in
Washington, DC; so, do I.” We get together about once a year with four
or five people that were from Latin School. We go someplace — a
ballgame or somebody will have a party at his house or what have you.
Latin school ties are stronger than my ties to college.
Another classmate at the reunion came up to me and said I’m so
and so. He said, “You don’t remember me. I was a nerd.” I said, “What
do you mean? I remember everybody. I was the class secretary.” I knew
his name, but I had never had any interaction with him. I asked him what
he did after Latin School. He said he went to MIT and decided he didn’t
like chemistry, and didn’t know what he was going to do next. He went
to California. This was the inception of the computer. My classmate said,
“I founded a computer company.” I said, “That’s great. What do you do
now?” He said, “I sold the company.” I asked, “To whom?” He said it
was to Apple or Microsoft for a lot of money. After he sold it, he said,
“Well, I’d never been out of Boston until I went to California, so I think
it’s time for me to go to Europe. I learned back then that if I went to
Europe, I could buy a Mercedes through this particular company and you
could drive the car around Europe and they’d ship it back to the States for
you, so that’s what I did.” He wasn’t married and didn’t have a girlfriend.
He drove a car around Europe for six months, and I guess decided he
needed to go back. He thought that the company was a pretty good
business so he bought it. I asked, “What’s happened to the company
now?” He said, “I still own it, but I don’t run it. Someone else does that
for me.”
MR. McKEOWN: When you made the decision that it was the Latin School that you wanted
to go to, putting yourself back then, were you saying to yourself that you
knew you wanted to go to college as well?
MR. WATKINS: I didn’t think about that. I really wasn’t thinking about going to college. I
knew the Latin School was the best place in town. It was a place that boys
I knew went to and liked. They were smart and interesting people. So I
wanted to go there. I think my mother had been surreptitiously telling me
how wonderful Latin School was, and I said to her one time, “Oh, mother,
it was great that you sent me to Latin School.” She said, “Wait, son, I
didn’t send you to Latin School.” I can remember you came up to me and
said, “I want to go to the Latin School.” “I went out and got your report
card and sent you over to the there to register, and that’s how it started.”
MR. McKEOWN: You had no ambitions beyond that, like I want to be a fighter pilot or
MR. WATKINS: I just didn’t know what I wanted to be. I thought I might like to be a
dental technician like my father.
MR. McKEOWN: Not a professional tennis player?
MR. WATKINS: No, but I liked to play tennis.
MR. McKEOWN: Tell me about the socializing during those years. Did the school arrange
socials with area girls’ schools?
MR. WATKINS: No. In my class, there were ten African American boys; we generally
came from the same neighborhood. We might not have gone to the same
elementary school, but we knew each other or we knew of each other.
Since I played sports and they played sports, I would know them socially.
There was a lunchroom at the Latin School when I was a sophomore
where I could go to ask what was happening over the weekend. It was
usually one of the boys from our school or one of the girls from Girls
Latin School who was having the party. The schools did nothing to set
them up. We also knew the African American girls from our
neighborhood because we would ride the subway with them, and they’d
know who were having parties and we would go with them.
MR. McKEOWN: We’re more sensitive today to the concept of diversity. Did you feel that
you were integrated into the school as part of the school fabric?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, I was just another boy at the Latin School. I did what the boys at the
Latin School did. I did not feel that I was treated differently.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you feel like you were part of the whole student body? When you sat
down to eat lunch, were you eating with other African Americans?
MR. WATKINS: No, all African Americans did not eat together. There just weren’t that
many of us boys; we ate at different times. But you just never thought of
that. I just ate with the boys who you knew from playing sports or from
my class.
MR. McKEOWN: What were the most challenging courses for you that you took at the Latin
School, where you had to put in some extra effort?
MR. WATKINS: In my sophomore year, I took Latin, English, and German. So from my
sophomore through my senior years, I was taking three languages and
math. It was hard because you had to put in the time on every subject.
You couldn’t go to class and absorb things. I had to do the work at home.
Teachers, called Masters, would call on members of the class every day.
He would say, “Mr. Watkins, I want you to get up and translate the next
forty lines of Cicero.” I would get up and do the best that I could. I just
didn’t want to be looked on as one of the dummies in the class. It was as
important for me to make sure that my colleagues in the class think I was
as smart as they were. I also did the work because it was interesting. At
that stage in my life, it was important that I not look like a fool in front of
my classmates.
MR. McKEOWN: Were there class clowns that just knew that they weren’t going to make it?
MR. WATKINS: No. After the 7
th and 8th grades, many boys were weeded out. If you had
good grades you had the option to go to a normal high school or stay at the
Latin School; most stayed. The attrition rate got lower as you went from
grade to grade.
MR. McKEOWN: At what point in the process did you suddenly say to yourself now I have
to think about whether I want to go to college. When did that start to
occur to you?
MR. WATKINS: I was sure after Class IV (9th grade) that I was I going to go to college.
The question was which college I would attend. It was quite stupid for me
because my parents didn’t have any money to finance college. In my
junior year, I took the SATs I applied to the colleges that I thought I had a
chance of being admitted. I knew people at various colleges that I thought
were interesting, and I applied to those colleges.
MR. McKEOWN: Do you recall which ones?
MR. WATKINS: I applied to Yale, to Williams, and to Harvard. My guidance counselor
called me in one day and said, “I think you can get into all of them, but
you don’t want to go to Williams.” I asked what he meant. He said there
are a lot of New York boys at Williams, it’s very New York-oriented, and
I don’t think that would be a good place for you.” I was upset because he
was telling me what he thought I should do. I applied and wanted to go to
Yale because I knew a great guy there from Lynn, Massachusetts. He was
a track star, a basketball player, and a very good student; I thought he was
an admirable person, so I applied to Yale. I went to New Haven and spent
the weekend with him and learned so much about Yale. At some point,
the guidance counselor asked me why Yale as opposed to Harvard. I told
him that I did not want to live at home when I was in college. That was
my main reason. He said, “You’ll get a scholarship at Harvard if you
commit to go there, and I’ll tell Yale you’re not coming. I went home and
said to my mother, “He tells me that he can get me a scholarship at
Harvard, and he doesn’t think Williams is the place for me. My mother
said, “Well, how can you not go to Harvard? You’ll be there with men
who will become world leaders.” She didn’t say I had to go to Harvard,
but for her, it was an easy choice. So that’s where I went.
MR. McKEOWN: Would your family have been able to afford Yale?
MR. WATKINS: Not unless Yale gave me a scholarship.
MR. McKEOWN: So you said the magic words, “I’m going to Harvard.”
MR. WATKINS: That’s right.
MR. McKEOWN: When you graduated from Boston Latin School were you accorded any
special honors?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, I was elected as secretary of the class, to the National Society, and
also received the Allen Hiram Whitman Award which was an award for
keeping the class together.
MR. McKEOWN: Has the school moved its physical location?
MR. WATKINS: No. Its physical location is the same, but the school acquired the
Simmons College athletic field next door and added school buildings
MR. McKEOWN: Interesting. Why don’t we call it a day, and we’ll pick up next time with
Harvard and start to get into some of your professional areas. I want to
thank you very much for today, Mr. Watkins.
Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
Second Interview
March 5, 2019
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is James McKeown, and the
interviewee is Robert Patterson Watkins III. The interview took place at the law offices of
Williams & Connolly on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. This is the second interview.
MR. McKEOWN: Good afternoon, Mr. Watkins. Welcome back; and thank you for coming
MR. WATKINS: Good afternoon, Mr. McKeown. Thank you for doing this.
MR. McKEOWN: We left off last time pretty much at the end of your Boston Latin High
School career, and now I’d like to go into the next phases of your life,
starting with your entrance into Harvard College, and just take me on a
tour of what you were thinking, what you can remember what it was like
that first semester, first year, at Harvard College and what you were
thinking about in terms of what the future had in store for you.
MR. WATKINS: I was a scholarship student. I only knew that I did not have to pay as much
as others. My guidance counselor and my mother said I ought to apply to
Harvard. So I applied. Harvard was a subway ride from home. It seemed
like a nice enough place. I had no sense of how important a university it
was and is. It was college, it was the next step. If I got into Harvard, and
they gave me enough financial aid I would go there. Financial aid
required my parents pay a portion of my fees. It also required you have a
job at college. There were some quite unattractive jobs like cleaning
dormitory rooms.
MR. McKEOWN: The College provided the employment for you?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. The jobs were to give students employment. I knew I didn’t want to
clean other students’ rooms. I took a job in the freshman dining hall.
I had to wear a white coat. I stood against the wall in a white coat with a
bowl and towel in my hand. Then I would clean the tables where students
had eaten. I didn’t like that. I thought it was demeaning.
I also helped load the machines that washed dining trays. I finally
figured out a way to get out of dining hall work. The Harvard Crimson
had a printing press exactly like one I had run on my summer job. The job
required that I get up about 5:00 am to run the printing press. It took me
three or four hours every morning, but it was a job that I had most of the
first semester.
I had other jobs during my first semester but I realized that I was
missing things that were going on around the university that I ought to be
involved in, so I stopped those jobs and had no work for the rest of the
semester. As I look back on it, I wish I had just spent the time studying
and being involved more in the activities at the College.
MR. McKEOWN: You were a subway student? You commuted?
MR. WATKINS: No. I lived in the dormitories with the rest of students.
My scholarship required that my parents pay a small amount for
my expenses. I didn’t think about it at that time, but now I realize it was
hard for them. I had two sisters, my parents were not well off, and my
mother worked only occasionally. In retrospect, if I had to do it all over
again, I wouldn’t have worked at all. I’d have gone without so I could
spend more time on academics and be less of a burden on my family.
MR. McKEOWN: You said that you didn’t know that much about Harvard’s ranking as a
MR. WATKINS: I knew about Harvard, but I didn’t know how it compared with other
universities. I thought Harvard was a good place, but Yale was also a
good place as were Chicago and Michigan.
MR. McKEOWN: What about your teachers or professors at Boston Latin School? Didn’t
they talk up Harvard?
MR. WATKINS: No, not specifically. Latin School was unusual. It sent more people to
Harvard than any public secondary school. A good number of students in
my Latin School class lived in the Boston area so they could travel back
and forth as day students.
MR. McKEOWN: Prior to going to Harvard, did you spend any or much time visiting
Cambridge itself?
MR. WATKINS: I had friends who lived in Cambridge. My father’s family had friends that
were Cantabrigians. One of my sister’s godmothers lived in Cambridge,
not too far from Harvard. I was a tennis player, and during the
summertime, I wanted to play on good courts; Harvard had good courts
for a fee, and I played there. I was quite naïve. For me, it was just the
college across the river.
MR. McKEOWN: Too close.
MR. WATKINS: It was close; it didn’t have any magic for me at that time.
MR. McKEOWN: What was the magic that Williams seemed to hold for you?
MR. WATKINS: There was a great guy who had graduated from Latin School the year
before me. He eventually was one of the stars on the Williams tennis
team. I considered myself a good tennis player, so I thought I could make
the team at Williams. It’s a good school, it’s small, it’s far enough away,
but it’s close enough to Boston. It’s not California or Michigan. I also
met a couple others from Williams who seemed like good and interesting
MR. McKEOWN: Had you visited the campus?
MR. McKEOWN: You were never actually there?
MR. WATKINS: I didn’t go to look at Williams. I went down to New Haven and spent
time with people that I knew at Yale. They were friends of people I did
know who called their friends in New Haven and asked them to take care
of me. One of the guys was captain of the varsity basketball team and a
high jumper on the varsity track team. So, I went down there and spent a
MR. McKEOWN: Do you want to share his name?
MR. WATKINS: Sure. It’s Eddie Robinson. He graduated from Yale and Tufts Medical
School and practiced medicine on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
There were two other fellows, Ellsworth Morgan and Paul Knott who were
from Pittsburgh.
MR. McKEOWN: This was all in the period when college visits were not formalized the way
they are today.
MR. WATKINS: I don’t know. I visited Yale because that was my top choice. I had played
tennis in New Haven. I wanted to see what Yale was like.
MR. McKEOWN: Then you bit the bullet and you went to Harvard.
MR. McKEOWN: Tell me about your entering class. What was the entering class like?
What size?
MR. WATKINS: There were 1,500 freshmen. There were many prep schoolboys, and boys
from all over the country. Harvard wanted to have students not only from
the East Coast, but from Texas and Nebraska, etc. So, it was a relatively
diverse class in that in had not only prep school boys, it had public school
boys as well. At the time I don’t think “diversity” meant African
Americans. I believe that of the fifteen African Americans in my class,
ten or eleven graduated.
There was another fellow in my Harvard class, from the Latin
School, John Martin who went through Latin School with me, so I knew
him. Another African American, Wally Davis, was from Cambridge. I
didn’t socialize much with them. There were boys from Washington that I
knew about, and two or three boys from New York who I knew about, but
they weren’t very friendly. We would see each other, and we’d chat for a
while, but, I did not spend much time with them.
My college roommates were Caucasian. My freshman roommate
was from Yellow Springs, Ohio. His name was David Champney. I got to
know other freshmen. There were two fellows, James and Gordon Smith;
they became my roommates for my second, third, and fourth years. Then
there was Dave Robbins from California. He was a bright, bright, bright
student. He worked hard and did extraordinarily well; he won a
fellowship to Cambridge or Oxford, I’m not sure which. They were my
roommates, but I haven’t kept in touch with them. Jim Smith is an
obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) near Chicago; Gordon Smith runs a
research company in New Jersey. John Martin and Wally Davis were in
ROTC, so they earned commissions as U.S. Army officers, and they went
off to spend two years in the Army.
MR. McKEOWN: Let me clarify for the record, Mr. Watkins. You entered Harvard in 1959.
Is that right?
MR. WATKINS: No. I entered in 1955. I was the Class of 1959.
MR. McKEOWN: Those fellows had ROTC scholarships?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. They had ROTC scholarships.
MR. McKEOWN: Was it much of an adjustment for you to go from high school to boarding
at college, even though you were a subway ride away from home?
MR. WATKINS: I never had to experience the subway ride going back and forth to
Cambridge. My mother, father, and sisters took me over there with my
bags. They said goodbye, we will see you later. I went home a couple of
weekends during my freshman year. My mother said, “How come you are
home? We’re paying so you can live over there. There’s nothing for you
to do here.” I replied, “Okay, mother, I got the message.” So, from that
point on, I only went home at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the summers.
MR. McKEOWN: Was there a bit of homesickness on your part?
MR. WATKINS: No. I had been very fortunate in my youth, when I was growing up, my
mother thought it was important for me to get out of the city of Boston at
some time, so I went to summer camps around New England from the
time I was five years old until I was in my teens. I went to Camp
Wonderland and a Boy’s Club camp for a couple of years. I went to a
newsboy’s camp in Maine for a couple of years I went to Brantwood
Camp which was run by the Episcopal diocese of Massachusetts. When I
was 12, I went to Boy Scout camp for a couple of years. So, being away
from home was not a problem for me after I had those experiences.
MR. McKEOWN: I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but at your time at Harvard,
were you always living on campus?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. When I was there, Harvard had all freshmen living on campus were
housed in the Harvard Yard. Then in the second, third, and fourth year,
students were assigned, or live in, various houses on the river. The house
system is set up so that it resembles a small college within a university. I
was in Eliot House.
MR. McKEOWN: When you say the river, you mean the Charles River?
MR. McKEOWN: The day you walked into matriculate, to start signing up for classes, what
was your game plan?
MR. WATKINS: I didn’t know much. I didn’t have much of a game plan. My parents
dropped me off and that was it. I didn’t have anybody to tell me what to
do or what classes to take. There was a system in place that was supposed
to help new students. It didn’t help me much. In the middle of your
freshman year, I filled out a study card to pick the classes I wanted to take
for the next three years. I didn’t know anything about that. They assigned
a graduate student to help you in these selections. So, I filled out my
study card as best I could. I went to see my assigned graduate student.
He said you must take certain required freshman courses, but thereafter
you should take classes based on what you might do in the future. I said
that I think I might like to be a dentist. That was it. Once I learned about
Harvard, I knew that there were certain professors that you wanted to have
classes with; there were certain professors you wanted to avoid. The card
that I filled out in my freshman year didn’t bear any relationship to the
classes I subsequently took.
MR. McKEOWN: What were the classes you took the first year?
MR. WATKINS: Students had to take General Education, which is a writing course, and a
language course. I took German. You had to take a humanities course,
and a social science course. It was recommended you take these courses
in the first year because it was a smattering of what else was available in
the next three years.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you find during that first year that in terms of the competitive level
that it was that much harder or equal or even less challenging than it was
at the Latin School?
MR. WATKINS: It was much harder, but I didn’t realize that at the time, I assumed that
Harvard would not have admitted me if I couldn’t do the work, so I’d do
the work. I didn’t feel competitive at all. When a professor gave an
assignment, I’d do it the best I could and that is all. Because I didn’t have
a family who had been to college and knew how important it was to learn
about things you did not already know. But that I was good enough to get
through, and I did reasonably well. I got a couple of C’s in my freshman
year. Those were my worst grades. I got more A’s in my senior year than
I had in my freshman year, so I did well but just not great. If I had it to do
over again, I would work harder to get better grades. There were social
organizations called Clubs that were not open to people like me.
MR. McKEOWN: People like you because of color?
MR. WATKINS: Right. This was also because of one’s finances. I couldn’t spend any
time or money for joining clubs, so I didn’t bother with them. However,
some of the students at Harvard, African Americans, belonged to national
black fraternities, with chapters in Boston.
I took a geology exam, and the professor would put the corrected
exams in a pile on the table outside the classroom for the students to pick
up. When I picked up my exam, an African American upperclassman
standing there said, “Watkins, is that your exam?” And I said that it was.
It was a C-minus. He said that’s not good. You can do better than that.
You ought to do better. I thought it presumptuous of him to say that to
me. He was a member of a black fraternity called Omega Psi Phi. He
invited me to a fraternity social event; and then asked me to become a
member. I accepted and became an Omega; the chapter included black
men from Boston University, Tufts, and Boston College. There were
monthly meetings and social events. That was what my social life
MR. McKEOWN: You must have found the social life very difficult, it would seem to me,
between classes and working.
MR. WATKINS: It was, but in my second year, I found a job that fit with what I needed. I
made enough money to help me buy the things that I wanted, and I could
arrange my own schedule. It was in the Harvard Information Office.
MR. McKEOWN: What were you doing?
MR. WATKINS: When people called Harvard information, asking for a student’s telephone
number I would give them the number from the files that the information
office kept. The office had files on all the campus events for the
undergraduates. It was a good job because I learned what was happening
at the college. I made friends with other students who worked in the
office with me. I’d see them three or four times a week, maybe sometimes
on the weekend.
I remember Bob Fisher from Minneapolis who worked in the
office with me. He asked me what my dad did, and I told him. So, I asked
him what his dad did. He said he owns Fisher Peanuts Company. Then I
asked why he was working. He said, “My father worked in college and
said I would not have a good experience if I did not work while in
college.” Fisher was one of the larger nut companies in the country.
MR. McKEOWN: This job was in your second year of school?
MR. WATKINS: My second, third, and fourth.
MR. McKEOWN: By the second year, were your thoughts starting to congeal about where
your studies were taking you?
MR. WATKINS: I didn’t know where my studies were taking me. I thought I might like
politics, so I took courses in government. But I did not know how I was
going to use those studies. One of the great professors at Harvard was
Stanley Hoffman. He taught a class on international organizations; he
spoke beautifully. He was French from Alsace Loraine; he also spoke
German, and he lectured in English. On spring breaks, he would return to
a university in his country. I loved going to his class, so I took the other
class he taught on the European community. It was just great to go to his
MR. McKEOWN: What kind of student were you in terms of you a front-of-the-room student
raising your hands or back of the room?
MR. WATKINS: I was not a back-of-the-room student. If I had a question, I asked it. I did
all the reading. I almost never went to class without doing the reading. It
was a little different at Latin School. At Latin School, you received
assignments each day to complete. The next day, you’d be quizzed on the
segment you were assigned. At Harvard, I was given a syllabus at the
beginning of the year and a list of books that I had to read. I had to figure
out how to coordinate them with the professor’s lectures. Graduate
students taught some classes in groups of 20 called sections. A professor
would give the lecture. The section leader would tell the sections what to
read and then challenge the students in the sections by asking them
questions. There were times when I did not know what books to read, so I
read books that I liked.
MR. McKEOWN: You were taking four or five courses the first year?
MR. WATKINS: I took four courses each year.
MR. McKEOWN: Did I hear you mention that you took a course with Galbraith? Kenneth
MR. WATKINS: Yes. He taught a course, it was called Economics I [Ec I], freshman
economics. He would lecture once a week, and then I would go to the Ec I
section. You’d have sections because the course that Galbraith lectured
covered certain topics. I would read about those topics and then would go
to a section meeting of 20 students. The section leader would ask
questions, make comments, explain the lecture, and give you an
opportunity to ask questions.
MR. McKEOWN: In subsequent courses as they became more advanced, did you ever have a
feeling in your time at Harvard that I’m just not getting this? This is
maybe a little bit beyond me?
MR. WATKINS: Never! If I got through the Latin School, I can get through this. I knew I
must do the work. I never missed a lecture or a section meeting.
Sometimes I did not do the reading before the section meeting. My view
was that I must go to class and if I took copious notes, I would succeed. I
learned later that many students would read additional material and meet
often with their professors; unfortunately, I did not. After my freshman
year, I knew that I could do the work to get reasonably good grades. But I
wasn’t chasing A’s, but I should have been.
MR. McKEOWN: But you made it through. What about the third and fourth years at
Harvard. What were those like as you maybe saw the light at the end of
the tunnel?
MR. WATKINS: I wanted to get through in four years and graduate. I had no one to tell
me, “Watkins, when you get to college, you must do certain things such as
you do not just take courses; you take professors. You learn something
from the professors, by just knowing them. You must go to professor’s
office hours, so you get to know them, and they get to know you. That’s
part of your college experience.” I treated Harvard like Latin School. I
was given assignments, I did my work, and I got through. I did all right,
but I could have done much better.
MR. McKEOWN: I’m going to ask you about two courses. What was the worst course you
ever took at Harvard, and what was the best course you ever took at
MR. WATKINS: The best and most interesting course I took at Harvard, was one of my
freshman humanities courses where we were given a variety of readings,
Moby Dick, The Divine Comedy, and many other classics of western
literature. I’d never read them before; they were terrific. After I read the
material, I went to the section to discuss Moby Dick or Divine Comedy or
Paradise Lost. Those discussions were eye-opening. I knew that Moby
Dick was a story of a crazy man with a peg leg chasing a white whale, but
I learned at that time there was more to it. I learned why Moby Dick was
probably the most important American novel of the 19th century. That was
my best course.
My worst course was Basic Accounting. I thought I had to know
something about accounting. I didn’t do well in the course. It was dull,
uninteresting, and the professor was boring.
MR. McKEOWN: So now you’re in your last year at Harvard. What are you thinking?
MR. WATKINS: I was thinking what I was going to do next year. I thought about law
school, but I was not sure that I would get in with my grades and my
LSAT scores were low. I thought I needed some time to figure out what I
was going to do. I wanted to work be in government.
MR. McKEOWN: Sorry to interrupt, why were you thinking along the lines of government?
MR. WATKINS: I took a course about how cities developed and what was good and bad
about them. I thought that I might like to be doing something in city
government. I didn’t know what, and I didn’t have a skill that I could
market so I talked to a couple of people who worked for the city of
Boston. They didn’t give me any ideas that I could follow up on. I took
the Civil Service Exam because that’s what you do if you want to get in
the government. I did well enough. I was offered a job in New York at
the Social Security Administration. I liked New York. I’d been there
several times and thought it was a vibrant place. But I didn’t have any
clear idea what I wanted to do. I worked for the Social Security
Administration in Manhattan. It was a good place to work.
MR. McKEOWN: This was 1959?
MR. WATKINS: 1959 and 1960. I graduated from college in June of 1959, and I was in
New York the first week in July after telling my mother I thought Boston
was not a good place for me to stay.
MR. WATKINS: I saw men that looked like me, black men, who had done well
academically; some had gone to Latin School, gone to Harvard, and they
were still in Boston just making it. They were not using their talents.
Some were lawyers but were not looked on as lawyers that did important
things. They did divorce work, criminal work, but it was low-level stuff.
There was one man who had graduated to Latin School and Harvard. He
had ultimately become a judge, but he was a judge in one of the low-level
courts. It was not very prestigious. A few of my parents’ friends knew a
couple of people who went to Harvard and lived in Boston. One owned a
chair factory. It was a little, tiny operation. He only earned enough to
support his family. Another of my father’s friends went to Latin School,
Harvard, and to Cambridge (England) in the 1930’s; he only wrote a token
column in the local black newspaper once he returned to Boston.
Boston was a place that I could go to school, ride the subway, and
attend Harvard, but I didn’t see that would allow someone who looked like
me to succeed.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you have that sense of different-ness during your time at Harvard?
Did you have a sense that it was going to be different for you when you
were finished there?
MR. WATKINS: Harvard, nor its students, discriminated against me. There was no
discrimination against me. But I think Harvard at that time did not
understand how hard it was for a young black man who came out of
Roxbury, Massachusetts, and whose parents were not wealthy and didn’t
have middle-class jobs, what it took for me to attend to Harvard and
succeed thereafter. Among my classmates, was the son of a real estate
developer. Another classmate’s family owned huge swaths of Boston real
estate which they had owned from the 18th century. He went back into the
family’s real estate business.
I didn’t feel that Harvard or my classmates were doing things to
hurt me. There were no black professors when I was there. There were
one or two Black graduate students who were section leaders.
MR. McKEOWN: What we would call teaching assistants?
MR. WATKINS: Right. I don’t know where they were going to go after their Harvard
teaching. I didn’t see any path for them to become professors at Harvard
or to the University of Chicago or other prestigious institutions. I could
have gone to Boston University (BU) and be in the same situation I was in
when I graduated from Harvard. The fact that you have a Harvard degree
is important. That is very important. It’s a great credential to have, and it
opens doors. But at the time, it didn’t open any doors for me to begin a
career. The thought that I had at that time was even if I went to Harvard,
what was available to me afterwards was a job, not a career. One ought to
start planning for a career in college. Everyone desires to improve when
they’re developing. One of my Caucasian classmates, a white guy, wanted
to become a writer; he was going to go to New York and write the great
American novel. His father, a stockbroker who ran a brokerage house told
him, “You’re going to stay here in Boston, and you’re going to work in
this business. If you want to write, you can do it at night, and you must
work in the brokerage house for five years.” At the end of five years, if
you still think you want to go off and write, you can do that. But I’m not
going to finance your being in New York trying to be a writer.” My
classmate became a very successful stockbroker, and he did write a book
about what my parents didn’t tell me. Boston was just not a place I saw
black men having successful careers.
MR. McKEOWN: So you found a different environment in New York City?
MR. WATKINS: Well, I saw black folks in New York, some who had mid-level
government jobs, and some who were successful politicians. There were
numerous doctors and lawyers. But they were in far greater numbers in
New York than in Boston. The New York market may have been
different, but I thought I had a chance in that city. I thought I had a
greater chance to succeed there than in Boston.
MR. McKEOWN: Where did you live in New York?
MR. WATKINS: I first lived in Brooklyn, but I worked in Manhattan at the Social Security
Office at 52nd and Broadway; it was in the middle of everything that was
happening there.
MR. McKEOWN: Where in Brooklyn?
MR. WATKINS: I lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn with family
friends. My mother had called a friend of hers saying that I was coming to
New York and he needed a place to live, can you help him? Her friend
said that I could live with her family. I lived with them for about three
months. Until I met some frat brothers from my fraternity and I moved in
with them for about a year-and-a-half.
MR. McKEOWN: Also in Brooklyn?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. Those years were good for me because I realized that there was
something more that I should and could be doing with my life, and it
wasn’t working at the Social Security Administration; I knew I could do
much more.
MR. McKEOWN: What were you doing at the Administration?
MR. WATKINS: I was a claims representative. I was the first contact for retirees to apply
for Social Security benefits. I guided them in filling out papers and began
processing their claims.
I met people, I made a bit of money, and I felt good about what I
was doing. I was supporting myself, and I was not a drain on my parents,
and I was in New York. That was all good.
I was drafted in October 1960 and told to report to the U.S. Army
in November. I went to Fort Dix for basic training, and then was at Fort
Belvoir for about a year-and-a-half at Dewitt Army Hospital. I ran the
admissions and dispositions office. I spent a great deal of off duty time in
the hospital library; almost no one used it. It received publisher copies of
books before they were available in book stores. For about the six
months, I read most of the books on the New York Times best-seller list.
MR. McKEOWN: This was while you were on the clock?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I went in at 7:00 am and my day ended at 3:00 pm. I’d take the
books out while I was on the clock and would read.
MR. McKEOWN: If I understood you, Mr. Watkins, you had said before you were drafted,
you had settled on going to law school.
MR. WATKINS: I thought about it. I hadn’t settled in it. After my time in Brooklyn, and
my experience in the Army, I decided to go to law school.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you ever think about Officer Candidate School when you went into
the Army.
MR. WATKINS: Yes. After I graduated from college, I took and passed the written exam
for Navy Officer candidate school. But I did not pass the physical exam
because my eyes were so bad.
MR. McKEOWN: But you spent two years in the Army.
MR. WATKINS: Almost. I spent one year and nine months and five days after college.
MR. McKEOWN: And all of it at Fort Dix and Fort Belvoir?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. While I was at Ft. Belvoir, I applied and was admitted to Columbia
Law School. But I didn’t have any money. I went back to the Social
Security Administration in New York and worked there for two months
and earned enough money to cover my first semester of law school. I took
out a bank loan to finance some of my law school expenses. At times, I
had to supplement my income by taking part time jobs to cover my living
expenses. In my second year, I had to take a job at the Post Office
working nights.
MR. McKEOWN: Mr. Watkins, I think we’ll call this session, and we’ll start with maybe
Columbia next time and get into that. It’s been wonderful listening to this.
Thank you so much.
MR. WATKINS: You’re welcome.
Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
Third Interview
May 9, 2019
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is James McKeown, and the
interviewee is Robert Patterson Watkins III. The interview took place at the law offices of
Williams & Connolly on Thursday, May 9, 2019. This is the third interview.
MR. McKEOWN: Mr. Watkins, when we last met, we left you at the doorsteps of Columbia
Law School, so maybe that’s the appropriate place to start today. I don’t
know if it’s a coincidence, but you brought along what looks to be a
treasure trove of photos from that period. Why don’t you just tell me what
you want to tell me about the photos.
MR. WATKINS: At Columbia, I was one of two African-American students in a class of
about 300. My freshman year was uneventful, but my second year, I
joined a group called Law Students Civil Rights Council. In 1963 in
several events occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, the most important of
which was the bombing of a black church in which three young black girls
were killed.
MR. McKEOWN: This was the Baptist church in Birmingham?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. Law students met at Columbia and decided there was something we
ought to be able to do, and we contacted other law students at Harvard and
Yale. We had a meeting in the spring of 1964. Several other young
lawyers or would-be lawyers decided they would go south. We went to
Mississippi at that time because there were only two black lawyers in all
of Mississippi.
MR. McKEOWN: This was your last year of law school?
MR. WATKINS: No. It was after my second year of law school. We could help Black
lawyers in Mississippi by doing research and whatever they wanted us to
do when there was a need for lawyers. I’m looking at a picture of these
people who drove together from Columbia to Jackson, Mississippi.
[Talking about the pictures:] This is Mike Starr, Bill Robinson, Dan
Shapiro, and this is me. This was the summer of 1964. This is the
courthouse in Canton, Mississippi. These people were involved, these are
other summer students, from various colleges who decided to go south to
help with voter registration. We were there when people got in trouble, by
assisting them.
MR. McKEOWN: Can you identify some of the folks?
MR. WATKINS: I can identify them. This was a woman named Nancy Cooper and a
colleague called Richard from Massachusetts (MA). I can’t recall
Richard’s last name.
MR. McKEOWN: Was there a leader of this particular group?
MR. WATKINS: It was called the Congress of Federated Organizations, (COFO). It was a
combination of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
and other groups that were active in the South. They all served under
COFO. Many college students were in Jackson and various other cities in
Mississippi. Some went to Alabama, and I have a friend who was in
Charlotte, North Carolina. The project was called the “Freedom
Summer.” It was widely covered by newspapers, radio and television.
Television cameras covered almost everything that the students did;
pictures went back to the rest of the country and people would explain
why they were there and the kinds of things that happened. The coverage
highlighted and exposed how difficult life was for black folks, not just
difficulty in terms of voting and being on the street, how blacks were
treated by white folks. It was a revelation to me because I grew up in
Boston and I had never really had been in the South for any substantial
amount of time.
MR. McKEOWN: You had had the train story.
MR. WATKINS: I had been to the South in a much protected kind of situation. I went south
to play in a junior tennis tournament. I was with a group of men and
women, some of whom had lived in the South, some were still living
there. They knew places blacks could go and what blacks could and could
not do. But this was the first time I was there alone and in a hostile area
where I was going to have interaction with folks who were less than happy
to have me there. [Looking at the pictures:] This is George Raymond.
He was the head of COFO in Canton which consisted of volunteers who
were helping in voter registration, and others who were teaching at
freedom schools. Volunteers interacted young kids who wanted to know
about voting and what they could do. This was a time when several civil
rights organizations worked together.
MR. McKEOWN: How many people would you estimate were volunteers like you down
there at that time?
MR. WATKINS: I estimate that there were a couple hundred. Many more students spread
throughout southern states.
MR. McKEOWN: How long were you down there?
MR. WATKINS: I was in Mississippi (MS) from mid-June to the end of August. It was
interesting going to Canton, MS, I arrived in Jackson, MS and was sent off
to Canton, on about the 12th or 13th of June. When I arrived in Jackson, I
was told that I was to replace the people who have had gone to Meridian,
MS to investigate a church bombing. These were the students killed in
Meridian. In late August, their bodies were found in shallow graves.
Their names were James Cheney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew
Goodman. I was in Canton as one of the replacements for them. I was
terrified in that situation. For the first week, I didn’t eat very much. I lost
ten pounds in seven days.
MR. McKEOWN: What were the living accommodations?
MR. WATKINS: We stayed in Black folks’ homes. This picture is in the back yard of the
people I stayed with. We arrived in Jackson. I was told I was going to
Canton, and I said how am I getting there? They said you’re going to take
the bus by yourself and do not to sit on the back of the bus. The Freedom
Riders had been successful in changing the policy of Blacks only in the
backs of buses. One of the leaders of the group took me to the bus station
and watched me get on the bus and watched where I sat. I did not go to
the back of the bus. I sat as in the front of the bus behind the driver. I
arrived in Canton, and had been told to connect with Charlie Robinson.
I did not know who he was, what he looked like, or whether he was
black or white. When I got off of the bus, a black man waved at me. He
asked if I was Bob Watkins. I replied that I was. He said, “I’m Charlie
Robinson.” He was a mechanic in Canton. He had a wife and a son about
5 or 6 years old. He said I was to stay with his family. When I arrived at
his house, there were three other students from various groups staying
there. Richard from Massachusetts; Nancy Cooper; and Nancy Wright. I
mentioned Richard and Nancy Cooper earlier in this interview. There was
one extra bedroom, so the men slept on a pull-out bed in the front room,
and the women slept in the extra bedroom. We’d get up in the morning,
and fix breakfast, and go off to a central gathering place called the
Freedom House to get assignments for the day.
I met a young white man, Mike Peori who had just graduated from
Harvard. He was an economics major, a Phi Beta Kappa. He would be
attending MIT the next year. When I asked why he was in Mississippi, he
said, “I had to do the right thing.”
Richard, the other man stayed at the Robinson’s with me. This is
Nancy Wright from New York. When I put these pictures together, I
remembered their names. I haven’t seen them or talked to them at all.
This is Sharon from California. I don’t know remember who the others
were. This is Alvin, Charlie Robinson’s son who lived in the house with
us. He was quite mischievous.
MR. McKEOWN: Did he give you a hard time?
MR. WATKINS: No. He just wanted to be involved in everything, and he wanted to show
how much he knew and what was going on. About half-way through the
summer, Charlie’s wife Marian and Alvin went to Texas; me, Richard, and
the other two women were left in the house with Charlie. I guess that was
an unusual circumstance in MS. There were two white women, one white
man, and two black men staying in the house.
One night, two white men drove by the house and fired shots that
went through the house. Charlie would not report it to the police because
nothing would be done. Charlie said that we would defend ourselves; and
he went to a hiding place under his house and returned with three long
rifles. The next night the white men came again and when shots were
fired at the house, we shot back. I’m glad we didn’t kill anybody.
MR. McKEOWN: I was going to ask you if there were any feelings of intimidation. Gunfire
certainly qualifies. Was that gunfire the first you had heard in your life?
MR. WATKINS: No. If you recall, I was in the Army and learned how to use a weapon, but
never had anybody shoot at or injure me. The experience at Charlie’s
home was my first. I knew these things went on in Mississippi. When
Charlie said we’re going to shoot back, I felt much better because we had
the weapons, and we would not be sitting ducks.
MR. McKEOWN: Was this a predominantly African-American neighborhood?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I didn’t see any white folks in the neighborhood other than the
volunteers living with the Robinson’s.
Look at these pictures. That’s Charlie Robinson in the kitchen.
That’s Nancy Cooper; she liked to be in pictures. These were neighbors of
the Robinson’s. They came to visit and told us if we needed something,
we could call on them if Mr. Robertson was not available.
The Freedom House was about a quarter mile from the
Robertson’s; we’d pass by a Black restaurant on the way to it. We ate
there whenever we didn’t eat at the Robertson’s.
Mike Starr was a Georgetown law student and a would-be film
maker. He called me in 1996. He knew I took pictures while we were in
Mississippi in1960’s; he wanted my pictures and what I could tell him
about them. He wanted to make a film about the summer of 1964. So I
sent the pictures to him and he returned them. My wife said that I should
use them to make create an album.
MR. McKEOWN: What were your actual duties down there?
MR. WATKINS: To help the black lawyers when anybody got into trouble, In one situation
a young man, 13 or 14, who worked in a sawmill was late getting to work
one morning. The owner said you’re late and he slapped the young man;
the young man slapped him back or hit him with a board, and then he ran
away. He was arrested by the sheriff and put in jail. I was not admitted to
the Mississippi bar and couldn’t represent him. I called Carsie Hall, one
of the lawyers in Jackson. The next day, I appeared in court with Mr.
Hall. The judge knew Mr. Hall who had appeared before him recently.
He said, “Judge, how are you doing today?” They talked about fishing
and hunting. Before they finally, reached the case the judge said, “Carsie,
what’s going on up here?” He replied, “You have one of my folks in the
jail, a young boy. The judge said he smacked Mr. So-and-So with a board,
is that right?” Hall replied, “After Mr. So-and-So hit him.” The judge
said, “I don’t know what I can do about this case.” Hall said, “The kid is
not going anyplace, he lives here, and there’s no risk of flight. He’ll be
around if the case goes to trial.” So after some back and forth, the judge,
set a $500 bond. He said, “This is Mr. Watkins and he’s down from New
York.” The judge said, “Oh, we have one of these New York lawyers
down here.”
MR. McKEOWN: Was that your only appearance in court?
MR. WATKINS: That was the only appearance I had in court. Whenever there was an
event students were planning that they thought might cause some trouble
they would tell ask me, “Can we do it?” I would tell them there may be
some problems. What if we get arrested? You can’t resist, but, and you
can’t fight the sheriff or his deputies. If anyone is arrested you must get
that information out to me, and I will talk to the lawyers in Jackson to find
out how to handle the problem.
I went back to the Freedom House and after being in the
courthouse with Mr. Hall to see what we could do to help the young man
that was released on a $500 bond. We’d get the money back if he
appeared in court, but if he doesn’t appear they will keep the money and
go after him. Everybody looked for a way to come up with $500 because
they didn’t want to have the kid in jail over the weekend. We gathered at
a country store where we ate and met people. The store had huge barrels
of pickles, barrels of rice and candy, and other comestibles. It was owned
by a Black shrewd businessman named George Washington. He had a
nice home and lived well.
MR. McKEOWN: He was an African-American?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. We told him about the bond, and he said, “Oh, you need $500 to get
this kid out?” He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out some bills–
one, two, three, four, and five $100 dollar bills and handed them to me. I
told him, “I said, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get this back.” He said, “I
know that.” This is my community. People have been doing things for
me for all my life, and if I get the money back, good. If I don’t get the
money back, well, that’s probably how things happen.” He was a
“godfather,” in the best sense of the word, for the community. Members
of the community talked to him and he gave them advice. He was a
respected person. This man didn’t bat an eye and just laid out $500. So
we went down to the courthouse, paid the bond and got the kid out.
MR. McKEOWN: What about your own interactions outside the legal sphere, your
interactions with the white community?
MR. WATKINS: It was relatively limited. Here’s what happened. There were lawyers
from the Justice Department in that area because they were investigating
what happened to Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney. They would call the
Freedom House, ask to come to speak to someone, and ask about things
that were happening. I would have conversations with them on a regular
basis. If we had a problem, I could call and go see them, and they would
tell us what we could and couldn’t do. They were all white. Those were
the only white people the volunteers could depend on.
We didn’t interact with the sheriff, and if we had any legal
problems that might cause us to have to deal with the sheriff, we’d call the
Justice Department and say this is what happened, what can we do, what
should we do.
It’s important for me in this story because those lawyers that I met
in Mississippi asked me what I was going to do after law school. I said I
did not know. They said I should come to work for the Civil Rights
Division in the Justice Department. I said I haven’t passed the bar yet, and
was told don’t worry about that.
So after spending almost two months in Mississippi, I went back to
New York to finish my third year at law school. A Justice Department
lawyer I met in Canton, MS called me and said that I ought to send in my
resume, to be interviewed by the head of the division, so I did. When I
came to Washington, I was interviewed by a supervisor in the Civil Rights
Division. I had a great interview and was hired.
MR. McKEOWN: Before we leave Columbia completely, I wanted to ask you, and maybe
this tie in with what you were saying, but at the end of that summer, were
you the same Robert Watkins that you were before?
MR. WATKINS: I was not the same Robert Watkins. I think that 1964 summer was pivotal
in my life. I came back from that and I felt good about my experience
because I had an opportunity to use whatever limited knowledge I had to
help folks who looked like me in dire situations. It made me feel very
My mother was from South Carolina, and she only went back once
for a funeral, and I went with her. I was about five years old. I don’t have
any recollection of it. She related many stories about the South that made
me afraid to go there.
It changed me, and I felt good about helping people. I felt that
Black folks in the South needed help because they didn’t know how to
assert themselves or how exercise the civil rights they should have had and
were blocked from using. They passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The first elections were in November of that year. I was assigned to
Tuskegee County, Alabama which is where Tuskegee University is
located. My job was to monitor all voting in the county and to make sure
that all registered persons could vote. I told the registrar who I was and
why I was there; citizens, both white and black, came in to vote without
incident. I did that all over the county. I met up with the Assistant
Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. We worked together in
that county. This was after law school.
I felt good about being in Alabama helping Blacks exercise their
voting rights. My father had taken me to register on my 21st birthday. He
didn’t say go to the courthouse to register. He took me to the courthouse
in Boston to see that I registered to vote. I cast my first vote before I went
into the Army at age 21.
MR. McKEOWN: Let me stop you there because that’s interesting to me. Many of the
people I know, and I asked you about your Columbia experience, you
started off with this seminal moment, it seems for you, was the South in
1964. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who reminisce about their first year
of law school. It seemed to have made a mark on you that it didn’t make
on a lot of other people–1L, I think they called it.
MR. WATKINS: I was thrown into a situation was very daunting. I had no relatives who
had gone to law school or knew people who were lawyers. I had to learn a
new language. The professor and student talked about things that I, the
student, had to look up in a legal dictionary but, in some cases, I did not
understand the material or understand what they were talking about. It was
a demanding kind of existence. A professor would call upon a student,
ask them to stand up in front of their peers, describe what a certain case
was about, and what its important aspects were. I was accustomed to
having teachers tell me to stand up and recite because that’s what they did
at Latin School. So I wasn’t afraid to do that.
MR. McKEOWN: You were familiar with the Socratic method?
MR. WATKINS: I was familiar with the process. I didn’t know it was called the Socratic
method. There was so much material to cover, and professors could ask
you about anything. The worst thing I could do was say I don’t know or
I’m unprepared. That was not something I was not willing to do, so I
worked hard trying to understand the assigned cases.
MR. McKEOWN: Do you think there are any particular professors that made a mark on you
that you felt justified your law school experience?
MR. WATKINS: I took a course from a professor named Louis Lusky who had been a U.S.
Supreme Court clerk and had been involved with some famous cases. I
did well in Professor Lusky’s class. Lusky called me in to his office my
third year and asked what I was going to do after I graduate. I said I
wasn’t sure, I’d been interviewing for jobs. He asked if I’d considered
clerking, and I said I don’t have any connections to get a clerkship. He
said, “I have a friend who’s coming to town in a couple of weeks that I’d
like you to meet. He’s a judge in Chicago.” He gave me the date for the
meeting. I was preparing for the bar exam, and I forgot the date that the
judge was coming and missed meeting and. I was very embarrassed and
apologized profusely to Professor Lusky.
MR. McKEOWN: Was it a District Court clerkship?
MR. WATKINS: I now know that if I had gone to that meeting with the Chicago judge, I
would have clerked for him in Chicago because Lusky had set it up.
MR. McKEOWN: Which bar were you studying for?
MR. WATKINS: New York.
MR. McKEOWN: My last question before we leave Columbia is the three years you were
there, was there some particular area of law that you really loved?
MR. WATKINS: I took a criminal law course with Professor Monrad Paulsen. Do you
know him?
MR. McKEOWN: I know the name.
MR. WATKINS: I said, I was you’re going to take the criminal law course because all the
lawyers I knew in Boston were always been representing people charged
with crime. So I took that course and I did quite well. I also took a tax
course. I was not really interested in tax, but I said it’s one of the things
lawyers ought to know about. It was a basic tax course for people who
may have to deal with tax matters. I thought I had to learn the basic
I wasn’t planning on being a legal scholar, but I took a couple of
courses I thought I should to know something about. If you’re going to be
a man of the world and you’re going to be educated, you just have to know
something about accounting, how it works, and how important it is. I was
able to get through the course. I knew generally what accountants did, but
I didn’t know any accountants.
MR. McKEOWN: Do you think your mom and dad were proud of you graduating from
Columbia and Harvard?
MR. WATKINS: I think they were also happy that I graduated from Latin School. They
were happy that I graduated from Harvard. Harvard is a big deal in
Boston. The question that my mother always asked, “What are you going
to do with that Harvard education?” I said I don’t know exactly what I’m
going to do, but there are some things I’m not going to do.” She said,
“What’s that?” I said, “I’m not going to work in a post office. It’s a waste
of my time. I’m going to get this education and do something more with
it.” She said, “If you have a family, you have to support your family.” I
think she was unhappy with my answer. I didn’t say that I would do
anything that I had to do. I thought, I have all this education, and I’m
supposed to do something with it. And that was confirmed after my
experience in the Army. I was exposed to people who had relatively little
education, some were farm boys and factory workers; others because their
families had maids and never made a bed or had to earn money for
themselves. But I realized that I was given a terrific gift in having had the
education that I had, and I had to use it someplace.
I thought about college as an obstacle. My parents didn’t go to college,
and I didn’t have any real role models, people that I had known.
MR. McKEOWN: You had a friend who went into the Army before going to Harvard. His
father was a doctor wasn’t he?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. His father was a doctor but he was more than that. His father
probably looked back on his college experience and knew his son was not
ready for Harvard College. He knew his son did not understand what
college could do for him and what he should be focusing on, learning,
and/or what would make him a more sophisticated/ knowledgeable person.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you take advantage of office hours of the professors?
MR. WATKINS: Not as much as I should have. I told my sons when they were in college,
should know the professors and the professors should know them. I told
them that they should spend at least one hour a week with a professor
during office hours. They did it sometimes, but not often enough. I know
that my youngest son, Matthew, who ultimately went to architectural
school, did get to know one of his professors.
I told my older son, you don’t take the courses; you take the
professors, because you’ll learn a lot from them. The courses are just a
vehicle for you to expose yourself to a certain subject, but you’ll be
exposed to the professor who is more important to know and for the
professor to know you. If you go to his office hours he will know you and
you will write better exams.
MR. McKEOWN: We’ll finish up at Columbia, and while we’re still on the record, I want to
encourage you or your wife to at least give a thought to a graduation photo
of you with your mother and father. I would very much like to make that
part of your history. Let your wife make whatever determination she feels
appropriate, but I certainly think that one is truly apt for this purpose.
So you graduated. Soon after you graduated, you took the bar.
MR. WATKINS: I took it after I graduated. I was coming to Washington, so I took the bar
in Washington.
MR. McKEOWN: You took the bar in Washington for New York?
MR. WATKINS: No. I took the bar in Washington because I was going to be here, so I
thought I should take the Washington bar.
MR. McKEOWN: You were coming down to interview with the Justice Department?
MR. WATKINS: I interviewed for the Justice Department in the spring of 1965, and when I
had the interview, I was sure that I would get the job. They gave me the
job before I took the bar exam. They said to take the bar when I could.
My duties at the Justice Department kept me going out of town quite
often. I was going to Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina on a
regular basis, so I couldn’t take the bar review courses the way everybody
else did. Since I had studied for the New York bar, I thought I could take
the D.C. bar without studying. But I didn’t pass. So I told Justice I
haven’t passed the bar, and I’m going to take the next month and a half off
because I have to study for it. “Oh you’ll do all right this time. Don’t
worry about it.” I’m not going to do that. So I took the time off during
which I studied and passed.
MR. McKEOWN: Where does Cambridge fit into all of this? You were in Cambridge,
England, a different Cambridge.
MR. WATKINS: Here’s what happened. I spent a year-and-a-half at the Civil Rights
Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC. The general
counsel for the Federal Maritime Commission said he’s looking for an
assistant and he wanted me to work for him. I thought why not. He said
you have to learn the rules of the commission and the way we handle the
issues that come up. I spent a month learning the commission rules to
understand them. Then I went to see him and said and I was familiar with
the commission rules, is there something that you want me to do. He
offered me a job in the Office of Hearing Counsel’s Office. I wrote briefs
and filed cases that were presented before the Federal Maritime
Commission. After a hearing in front of an administrative judge, the
commission gave its ruling. These were trials, in a manner of speaking,
because I prepared and cross-examined witnesses and you argued to the
court. This was my first exposure to gaining some trial experience.
Afterwards, he told me, “I’m leaving to be general counsel of a bank in
San Francisco.” So now I didn’t have a mentor to look out for me. I was
put in the Office of Hearing Counsel.
The Maritime Commission regulates shipping companies that carry
goods between countries. If these companies meet the rules of the
Maritime Commission, they are exempt from antitrust laws.
MR. McKEOWN: They weren’t conspiring?
MR. WATKINS: They are exempt from antitrust laws. So the cases often involve antitrust
type issues. For example, when a company is shipping peas from Panama
to the U.S., the prices are the same as their competitor’s. It was
interesting, but it’s not interesting for people not in the industry.
MR. McKEOWN: It was a quantum leap from protecting civil rights.
MR. WATKINS: I recognized that in Washington I had to have an angel if you’re going to
be successful. Being the assistant to the General Counsel of the U.S.
Maritime Commission could have been a great job if my mentor stayed at
the Commission. But when he left, I started to look for another job.
One of my friends was clerking for Judge William B. Bryant. He
told me that Judge Bryant was looking for a clerk. He said he wondered if
I’d be interested. So I went to see the judge. He asked what my salary
demands were, and I said I didn’t want to make less than I made at the
Maritime Commission. So he offered me the clerkship. The next year was
a pivotal moment in my career because I learned things from him by being
exposed to him. I learned things that I wouldn’t have learned anyplace
else. It was important to have a knowledgeable friend who has your
interests at heart. Judge Bryant was that friend.
He was a gentleman who had, as a practitioner, some very
important cases in the District of Columbia (D.C.). He received those
cases because he did great work when he was in the U.S. Attorney’s
Office; he then received big civil cases. There was an African-American
who had a big estate and the judges in D.C. thought an African-American
should represent this estate, so, they appointed him. The estate of a very
successful minister called Daddy Grace; he was kind of a showman. He
lived Washington, D.C. During the Depression, you could go to Daddy
Grace’s church. You could get fed and you didn’t have to be Black. He
had kitchens and things like that and he was a very shrewd businessman.
When he died, he didn’t have an executor or a will. Judges in the court
had to find a representative to handle his estate, so, they called Bill Bryant
who was at that time a practitioner. He had been an Assistant U.S.
Attorney. They trusted him, and they liked him, and they asked him to do
it. They appointed him and he handled the case over a period of three or
four years to settle everything; he made a pile of money that he didn’t
think he was ever going to make as a Black practitioner in DC.
MR. McKEOWN: It was your first real exposure to trial work?
MR. WATKINS: Right. Well at the Maritime Commission, I did administrative agency
hearing work, but it did not involve the court room trials. I had a great
experience by seeing what goes on in trials, how things should be done, or
how they should not be done. I learned who was a good lawyer and why
and who was not a good lawyer and why. I had not decided what I was
going to do after the clerkship. I was offered a job running a program at
Harvard where law students would take cases from indigent people who
were charged with crimes in the Cambridge area. The law school wanted
the students to be exposed to what is now called pro bono work. I
accepted the job to run the program. I hadn’t move to Cambridge yet, I
was just meeting people. I did that for about a month-and-a-half before the
students arrived to begin the fall semester. I decided that I didn’t want to
be in Boston/Cambridge area. It was not a place where lawyers who look
like me had any chance to be successful.
MR. McKEOWN: That’s why you left New York in the first place, right?
MR. WATKINS: Right. I wanted to be in New York, so after being hired and told what my
duties were going to be, I said I really don’t want to be in Boston. I came
back and I told Judge Bryant. He asked what I was going to do. I heard
that clerks had applied to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. If you clerked for a
judge in that courthouse there was a good chance of being hired. David
Bres was U.S. Attorney at that time. I went to meet him. He asked why I
didn’t apply sooner. I told him that I thought I was going to take a job in
Massachusetts but I didn’t like Massachusetts. He said, “That’s
interesting, let me think about it.” I didn’t know what was going to
happen. He hired me.
MR. McKEOWN: When you were working first for the Civil Rights Division and then for
Federal Maritime Commission and then Judge Bryant, where were you
living here in Washington?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I lived with friends of my parents. They said I could stay there until
I found a place. That was great because I was never there. I was traveling
often in the South. It got to a point where I said I can’t continue living
with these family friends, so I rented an apartment in Southwest
Washington at a place called Capitol Park. It was great location.
MR. McKEOWN: Where was the Maritime Commission located?
MR. WATKINS: It was in a building between 14th and 15th Street near New York Avenue.
It was an older building.
MR. McKEOWN: I think that’s where there used to be a movie theater and is now the
Museum of Women in the Arts.
MR. WATKINS: The Commission is in that area, but it’s on 14th Street.
MR. McKEOWN: There was some mobility in your career early on. Was your mom still
asking you the same questions?
MR. WATKINS: No. She was pleased. When I became an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I didn’t
give up my apartment in Southwest. I had a place to live, and if I came
back to Washington and worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. My
apartment was great because I could walk to the courthouse.
I met my wife I think when I was working for the Maritime
Commission. I thought I was going to be doing things that related to the
criminal law. So if I came and worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I
would be trying felonies in the U.S. District Court. I would have a lot of
trial work if I were there. That was what I expected to do, and I could
leave the U.S. Attorney’s Office and go to some law firm saying that I
tried so and so many cases in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the U.S.
District Court. I didn’t realize there are many lawyers that did not want to
go to court. If they did not have the experience of arguing before a judge
or jury, they avoided actually trying cases.
I thought that trial experience would be a saleable commodity. I
decided that if I was going to do criminal law, I should have some
academic background, more than I got in law school, so I applied to
Columbia for Ford Foundation money that allowed for Columbia students
to study criminology. I said this would be good, and maybe I’ll do
something internationally. I granted a fellowship, we got married, closed
our apartments, and went off to Cambridge, England. I spent a year there
studying criminology with Rabinowitz, the criminologist who was the
person most responsible for the British Isles eliminating the death penalty.
MR. McKEOWN: During this fellowship, you were doing what?
MR. WATKINS: Academic criminology.
MR. McKEOWN: Were you a teaching assistant?
MR. WATKINS: I didn’t teach. It was like a graduate school. I wrote papers. I had lots of
course work on the history of how people different jurisdictions deal with
crimes; how some activities were decided to be criminal and what the
basis for making certain acts that were criminal was. How they do it in
Britain, in England, in Holland, and in Africa. So I had intense exposure
to the area. Then I had to write a paper, and I took an exam. I did well
and I was awarded a diploma. It’s not called a master’s, but that’s what its
equivalent to. My wife was studying development economics and she was
invited to stay and work on her PhD. I was invited to stay to see if I could
get a PhD, however, there was not an established PhD in criminology; I
thought it was a little iffy. I didn’t know what I was going to do with
degree PhD unless I was going to be a teacher, and I wasn’t sure I wanted
to do that. So we both decided we wanted to return to the States.
MR. McKEOWN: Before we leave Cambridge, what was the paper that you wrote? What
was your thesis?
MR. WATKINS: It compared the advantages and the disadvantages of crime commissions.
MR. McKEOWN: Wasn’t it Charles Percey who was head of the Kerner Commission?
MR. WATKINS: It was Kerner who headed the Commission. What came out of that
commission was that there were two worlds in Chicago. The two worlds
that did not interact with each other and the worlds were growing further
apart. That had to be changed to have a better community. It was quite
well received. I studied a similar commission that was formed in New
York in the 1920s. It was called the Wickersham Commission after the
man can’t remember who chaired. I did a report on that commission and
compared it with the Kerner Commission and drew some conclusions on
how the criminal justice system could be improved and how Kerner’s
commission was set up to improve criminal justice in Chicago and how
that commission worked and how the New York Commission worked.
MR. McKEOWN: Have you revisited that paper?
MR. WATKINS: No I have not. I wrote the U.S. Attorney and said I’ll be coming back to
Washington. He sent me a short note saying come in and see me. I went
to see him and he said that he would be glad to have me back. So I was
sworn in as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for a second time.
MR. McKEOWN: Thank you Mr. Watkins very much.
MR. WATKINS: Thank you.
Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
Fourth Interview
June 19, 2019
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is James McKeown, and the
interviewee is Robert Patterson Watkins III. The interview took place at the law offices of
Williams & Connolly on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. This is the fourth interview.
MR. McKEOWN: Good afternoon, Mr. Watkins.
MR. WATKINS: Good afternoon.
MR. McKEOWN: When we left off the last time, you were recalling your days at Cambridge
and the work that you did there. I didn’t know if there was anything, in
the ensuing weeks since we met in May, that came back to you about
Cambridge or you wanted to share with us on the record at this point?
MR. WATKINS: I don’t think so.
MR. McKEOWN: So when you came back from Cambridge, you came back to the U.S.
Attorney’s Office. Is that correct?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. When I was nearing the end of my academic work in Cambridge, I
wrote to the then-U.S. Attorney, Thomas Flannery, saying that I was
returning to Washington in June and I’d like to see him because I wanted
to resume my work at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He interviewed me and
offered me the position. I was sworn in July of 1969. So I was an
Assistant U.S. Attorney again.
I was assigned to the General Sessions Court, which at the time,
had jurisdiction over all non-felony crimes in the District of Columbia
(DC). Then, all felonies were tried in the U.S. District Court. The court is
now called Superior Court. At that time, the General Sessions Court tried
everything that was not a federal matter. They tried the minor federal
crimes, simple assault, shoplifting, liquor violations, and things of that
MR. McKEOWN: This is on the criminal side of court?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. The civil side of General Sessions was not terribly active. It didn’t
have lots of cases because you could get to the jurisdiction very easily if
you had a civil case and you wanted it tried in the federal court. If a lot of
the big cases would be tried in a state court, civil cases would be tried in
the federal court. The federal court had most of the heavy litigation. In
1972, the Congress passed a bill that made General Sessions a part of the
regular state court system. Everything was tried in trial court. It didn’t
have an intermediate court, a Court of Appeals. It heard the civil and
criminal matters that were tried in the Superior Court, and the Superior
Court had jurisdiction. That was very broad. All the big cases that only
involved the DC entities or persons were now tried in the General Sessions
I was one of the first Assistants to be transferred to what became
the Superior Court, and I tried criminal cases mostly. Then they asked me
to be the supervisor of the Superior Court; I guess it was the
Misdemeanors Section, but it was more than Misdemeanors. It was some
of the heavy crimes as well. So I was not happy about that because I
wasn’t trying cases, but I was making sure that the cases got tried and
everything ran on time and so forth. So that’s what I was doing.
MR. McKEOWN: When you came back from Cambridge, do I recall correctly that you met
your wife, or your future wife, at Cambridge?
MR. WATKINS: No. I got married in 1969 while I was still in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
We went to Cambridge in the fall of 1969, and I came back to the U.S.
Attorney’s Office in 1970. So I’m back in the U.S. Attorney’s Office after
a little bit of time, I was trying misdemeanor cases and other kinds of less
important cases, but, not many felonies. Then I was trying felonies as
well. Then, they asked me after a very short time, to head the General
Sessions section of the Misdemeanor Trial Section. So I became an
administrator to make sure that things went well.
MR. McKEOWN: When you came back after Cambridge, what trial experience had you had
before then?
MR. WATKINS: I tried one or two cases in General Sessions, but I hadn’t had a lot of
practice. My practice was when I was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office when
I first came to the Appellate Section. I wrote briefs and argued cases in
the Court of Appeals, and that was where a lot of my time spent in the
U.S. Attorney’s Office in what some people called, “Big Court.”
MR. McKEOWN: This was all pre-Cambridge, right?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. That was pre-Cambridge.
MR. McKEOWN: What kinds of cases were you arguing? I assume this was to the U.S.
Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (D.C.)?
MR. WATKINS: Right. They were generally criminal cases. I had one or two civil cases,
and that was because the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office that
was federal had people who took cases from the trial court to the
Appellate Court; they argued their own appeals in the criminal cases.
After a case was tried and if it was appealed, it was sent to the Appellate
section where I wrote briefs and argued cases in the Court of Appeals.
MR. McKEOWN: During that appellate portion of your career, were there any cases that
really stood out as being important or big, or I guess maybe they were all
big to you at that time?
MR. WATKINS: They were all big to me at that time, but, there was one case that I had that
involved a man who was convicted of, I’m not sure it was murder, but it
was a pretty serious crime and his attorney filed a motion with the District
Court to have his sentence reduced. He had been a model prisoner, and
the District Court said no. It went to the Court of Appeals, and the Court
of Appeals listened to his plea. I didn’t think it was great, given what he
had done, but he had people from the jail and people from his community
that said this guy has been rehabilitated; I was defending the government
saying he should stay in jail. The Court of Appeals overturned the case. I
was crushed because it was my case; I wanted to succeed in it. That’s
what the Court of Appeals does.
MR. McKEOWN: Was your immediate supervisor at that time in the Appellate Section
Thomas Flannery?
MR. WATKINS: No. At the time I was in the Appellate Section, Dave Bres was the U.S.
Attorney. He hired me originally. I think the administration changed,
afterwards, so, Flannery became the U.S. Attorney. He was U.S. Attorney
when I left to go to Cambridge, and when I came back, he re-hired me.
MR. McKEOWN: How many other attorneys were working in that section when you were
there, pre-Cambridge? Do you recall?
MR. WATKINS: There must have been twenty. That’s only a guess because I didn’t have a
handle on the administrative things that were going on at the time.
MR. McKEOWN: Were the cases pretty much you handled from the beginning to end by
yourself or was there a team of attorneys that you’d work with?
MR. WATKINS: If somebody was new in the Appellate Section, they would be handed a
record and said this is the appeal and this is the appellate claims being
made, you write it. So I’d write a brief, and somebody would review it
and say what about this or what about this, so you’d rewrite it and then
you’d argue it. And that’s how it worked. When you up for your first
couple of arguments, some of the lawyers in the office would conduct a
moot court which would be set up just like a court; they’d ask questions
and you had to answer them.
MR. McKEOWN: Was there anything during that time when you were first getting into this
process that stands out as a harsh or wish you hadn’t gone through this or I
wish I had done this differently?
MR. WATKINS: It’s interesting, during my time in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, people came
to get trial experience; it was hard to get trial experience in firms or
agencies, so the U.S. Attorney’s Office was a desirable place. As a matter
of fact, they had a requirement that when you came when I was there, you
had to commit to staying for three years. If you didn’t stay for three years,
and if you were going to someplace else, the U.S. Attorney would not give
you a good recommendation. That’s what I was told; I don’t really know
if things happened that way or not.
MR. McKEOWN: Any personalities that stand out in your mind from that period of time or
do you have any stories you’d like to share?
MR. WATKINS: Not really. Frank Nebeker was the head of the Appellate Section, and he
was a very clever and good lawyer. He would review your briefs and
point out weaknesses or strengths; he was a good supervisor. There were
other people in the office that are lawyers now who were my
contemporaries, who have retired or near retirement. We enjoyed each
other’s company. We all got married around the same time. Our group had
great camaraderie.
MR. McKEOWN: What I’m hearing, though, is that the daily working relationship was more
of a vertical one. You worked on your own and reported up?
MR. McKEOWN: Wasn’t there much collaboration with your contemporaries at that point?
MR. WATKINS: If I had an issue that I knew somebody else had worked on, I would go
and ask them, but if I was given a brief, I didn’t collaborating with
anyone. I sat down and worked on it myself. That’s what everybody else
did unless it was an unusual case where people wanted some help; they’d
run the drafts by other people in the office who’d say what do you
thought, and give you their opinions. You’d go back and rewrite the brief
or not rewrite it and file the brief. That’s the way it went.
One of the things that was interesting there were times when the
Court of Appeals ruled against us, and, in a couple of cases that I was
involved in, the issue was whether we should ask for a rehearing or ask to
go beyond that. It was difficult to get something through the Supreme
Court because we knew they weren’t taking many deals for criminal cases
in the District of Columbia. You had to get permission from one of the
Assistant Attorney Generals if you wanted to proceed with a rehearing or
file a cert petition. I had one or two that I thought about rehearing or
filing a cert petition. The fellow who was the second in command in the
Appellate Section said, “The Assistant Attorney Generals won’t approve
your request, so, you moved on.
MR. McKEOWN: Lots of lawyers had those moments, but when you were arguing before the
panels, were there any moments you wished you could relive where you
might have had something like brain freeze.
MR. WATKINS: Leventhal was the judge on the Court of Appeals, and in the office, you
would prepare for what you thought were the sort of questions they’d ask
you, but, Leventhal was always able to ask a question that nobody thought
would be asked, or nobody had reviewed the problem in a way that the
judge had. There were two cases I argued in front of him. Fortunately,
they were slam-dunks for me; he didn’t ask me any questions that I hadn’t
thought about or hadn’t prepared an answer for. I learned that when you
go to the Court of Appeals, you had to know the judges and read their
opinions from the past to get a feel for what they were going to do. There
were times when some cases where noteworthy. People in the Appellate
Section would go to listen to the arguments in the Court of Appeals and
watch how the judges performed.
MR. McKEOWN: When you came back after Cambridge, was it your preference to go into
trial work as opposed to the appellate work, or was that a choice made for
MR. WATKINS: I think I may have misled you. I was doing appellate work before I went
to Cambridge. I came back, and I didn’t do much appellate work at that
point. I went to General Sessions until it became the Superior Court and
until I became the supervisor for the Misdemeanor Section of Superior
MR. McKEOWN: Your role pre-Cambridge at Justice was in the Appellate Section.
MR. WATKINS: Exactly.
MR. McKEOWN: And when you came back, you did very little of that. You did trial work?
MR. WATKINS: What happened was that assistants were almost always put in the General
Sessions Trial Division, and they would give you a file and say, go up and
try this case–a marijuana case, a shoplifting case, assault on a police
officer, things like that, and you get a lot of trial work. I came into the
office at a time when they were short on Appellate lawyers, so instead of
going to the trial division, I went to the Appellate Division. So when I
came back, I wanted to go to the trial division because I wanted to be able
to stand up in court and do that. It was amazing how much you learn
when you actually have to stand up and cross-examine a witness who
doesn’t give you the answers that you want and you have to get
information out of the witness for that particular situation. So that’s what
I wanted to do. After the change in jurisdiction, the Superior Court had
jurisdiction over Felonies as well as Misdemeanors, and so I figured I’d do
my time in the Misdemeanors Section and I’d go try some Felonies, which
were big bank robberies, murders, and those kinds of things. That’s what
you wanted to get out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office; you want to get trial
MR. McKEOWN: At what point in your training, or your life, did all of a sudden, and I’m
going to use the word epiphany, this longing for trial work became
important to you?
MR. WATKINS: I told you about Mississippi.
MR. McKEOWN: Yes, you did. I believe when you told us about your Mississippi
experience, you were involved in going to court, not as a lawyer, but you
were accompanied.
MR. WATKINS: During that time, I met lawyers in the trial division of the Civil Rights
Division at the Justice Department, and they were people who tried cases.
They told me I ought to come down and work in their office.
I went there and conducted many investigations, but I was the
second or third chair at trials. When matters went to court, I was not
standing up and naming witnesses. I did not argue motions. It became
clear to me that I’d have to spend five years before I’d get a case that I
would try on my own. So I decided to leave the Justice Department’s
Civil Rights Division.
MR. McKEOWN: This is probably a question we’re going to have to heavily edit because
I’m not sure I’m going to express it the way I want to. Looking at your
resume, when you worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, forgetting about
the Maritime Commission, it strikes me from the last session that your
experience in Mississippi was the most impactful in your life.
MR. WATKINS: It was very impactful on my career.
MR. McKEOWN: So as I look at this, I said to myself, you would probably become the
Morris Dees of your generation, particularly regarding Dees’ civil rights
legal practice from 1969 to 2001. He was a young lawyer from Alabama
going out almost on his own to prosecute civil rights cases in light of what
you had seen and experienced. Dees was one of the principal architects of
a strategy that used civil lawsuits to secure a court judgment for monetary
damages against an organization for a wrongful act.
MR. WATKINS: One of the lawyers who went to Mississippi with me went to the Legal
Defense Fund and did some great legal work there. He argued cases in the
Supreme Court. He was given much responsibility very fast. He had
worked for the Legal Defense Fund while he was in law school. When he
graduated from law school, this is where he went. I decided that if I
wanted to go to work for the Legal Defense Fund, I would be coming in at
the bottom, and I’d be doing what I was doing at the Justice Department.
There was a hierarchy when you go into any organization. I was not going
to be handling large matters until I handled the smaller matters. So I
didn’t apply to the Legal Defense Fund.
MR. McKEOWN: I don’t want to get too far side-tracked, but, when you came back, based
on my review of your resume, you’ve also been involved in an amazing
number of organizations over the years. Was there more of an AfricanAmerican or Black awareness in your life when you came back to
Washington and started to think maybe more about these issues?
MR. WATKINS: Yes and I was kind of a rarity. When I was in the Civil Rights Division,
there was one other Black attorney from Columbia Law School. He was
in the Appellate Section of the division. There were four Black attorneys
driving up and down the roads in Alabama and Mississippi except me. I
knew I was doing something worthwhile, but I wasn’t getting experience
to make me a better lawyer. I thought being a real lawyer was being able
to file cases, write motions, and try cases. I wasn’t getting that at the
Justice Department. I interviewed at the Public Defender Service, and
they were interested in me.
MR. McKEOWN: I’ve been told, and maybe you can correct me, that the Public Defender
Service is one of the hardest places to get into for young lawyers.
MR. WATKINS: Now it is. But when I was applying, there were few Black lawyers there.
When the Public Defender Service asked me to come back, I said I was
going to take another job.
MR. McKEOWN: Washington, D.C. was not that far away from being a segregated city
during the period of time we’re talking about was it.
MR. WATKINS: It sure wasn’t. I was in the Army in 1961 was accompanying a white
soldier in D.C.; we were both wearing our Army uniforms. We had travel
vouchers that the Army gave us to eat in restaurants while we were
traveling. We were passing through D.C. and went into a restaurant on
Pennsylvania Avenue in NW to get a bite to eat. It wasn’t a fancy
restaurant; it was a cafeteria. I walked in and sat down at a table and a
restaurant manager came over to me and said, “We don’t serve colored.” I
said. “What do you mean, I’m in the U.S. Army and I have valid papers
that allow me to eat anywhere.” I was going to argue with him. Then, the
white soldier with me said, “Forget it, we’ll go someplace else.” So we left
the restaurant. I was offended and upset. I realized later there was
nothing I could have done about it. Remember, this was 1961. Things
have changed since then.
I knew Columbia Law School trained me as though I would go to
work for a corporate firm in New York. I also knew that certainly wasn’t
going to happen for me so I had to do something that gave me an edge by
having qualities others lacked. If, as an African-American, I could say
that I tried twenty cases in the federal District Court in Washington, I
would have a big advantage because not many of my classmates would be
able to say that. The U.S. Attorney’s Office was to be my way of getting
some experience that I could sell in the legal world.
MR. McKEOWN: Before we jump to Williams & Connolly, I want to go back to something
at the Justice Department. You mentioned, I think, in the Civil Rights
Division, there was only one other African-American lawyer.
MR. WATKINS: Yes. There was one other Black lawyer in that division.
MR. McKEOWN: When you came back post-Cambridge, had that changed very much?
MR. WATKINS: You have to make a distinction between the main Justice Department on
Pennsylvania Avenue and the U.S. Attorney’s Office at the courthouse. In
the Civil Rights Division of Justice, I knew of Frank White, a Black
attorney because he was a classmate of mine. The Justice Department was
beginning to change when I was about to leave the Civil Rights Division.
There was a need for more Black lawyers to go to the South to investigate
civil rights violations.
In the U.S. Attorney’s Office, there were two Black attorneys in
the Appellate Section when I was there. In the Misdemeanor Section,
Luke Moore had been the U.S. Marshal in the District of Columbia.
Harold Titus, who became the U.S. Attorney after Dave Bres left, asked
Luke to come into the office to run the General Sessions branch of the
office. He was head of the branch when I came back from England and I
was one of his subordinates. I had initial contact with the new lawyers and
assigned cases to them.
Luke led the team that accompanied the Little Rock Nine kids to
school when they were desegregating in Arkansas. I think he did that in
Louisiana too when a little girl called Ruby Bridges was going to school.
She was in first grade. He and others did important work because their job
was to make sure our young people didn’t get hurt. He was highly
regarded in the Marshal Service.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you ever have a sense that you were being treated differently because
of your race in your Justice or U.S. Attorney’s days?
MR. WATKINS: Not specifically, but, the problem for Blacks was getting an interview. I
was interviewed because I had clerked for a federal judge. I was one of
about seven or eight Black attorneys in the office.
MR. McKEOWN: That kind of brings us to your days supervising 30 or 40 people and not
particularly being thrilled about it.
MR. WATKINS: It was interesting, but, it wasn’t forwarding my career I thought.
MR. McKEOWN: What did you start thinking about at that time?
MR. WATKINS: I hadn’t figured out what I was going to do after the U.S. Attorney’s
office. Here’s what happened. Bill McDaniels from Williams &
Connolly had a case in the Superior Court involving a druggist who was to
be charged with selling large amounts of prescription drugs. The
prescriptions were obviously false but he dispensed the drugs anyway. He
came to my office and said, “Look, the druggist will give up his license
and plead guilty to a misdemeanor.” I don’t remember what the exact
terms were, but McDaniels sat there and talked with me for about an hour
and 45 minutes because he didn’t wanted me to prosecute the druggist as a
felony offense because he’d go to jail. There was no question about that.
MR. McKEOWN: How old was he, the druggist?
MR. WATKINS: He was over 80.
MR. McKEOWN: Can you talk a little more about when Mr. McDaniels came in to ask to
plead for a lesser charge against his client. Was that your sole call?
MR. WATKINS: No. It wasn’t. Here’s the way it worked. Defense attorneys would talk to
the trial attorneys and say this case shouldn’t go to trial for some reason or
another. The trial attorney would say he could not make that decision.
The defense attorney would ask to speak to me. I would listen to his
argument and make a decision based on it. Sometimes I said this case is
going to trial. That was part of my job as a supervisor. It was an
important part, but I didn’t spend every day on such matters. I left those
decisions to the trial attorneys for the most part.
MR. WATKINS: I listened to McDaniels, and I said, “You talk Boston.” After listening to
Bill, I asked him if he was from Boston; he was. We talked about Boston,
where I had lived and where he had lived. He said that if I ever decided to
leave the U.S. Attorney’s Office, give him a call and we’ll have lunch.
MR. WATKINS: About six months later, my wife and I were at a cocktail party, when
McDaniels came over and said, “Hi, Bob, How are you?” I introduced him
to my wife. Later, she asked me who he was, and I said it’s Bill
McDaniels from Williams & Connolly. He told me that when I decided to
leave the U.S. Attorney’s Office, to come over and talk to him. I really
thought he was offering to advise me about how I might further my career.
My wife asked me if I’d gone to see him, and I said no. I hadn’t decided
to leave yet. She said, “He’s telling you there may be a place for you at
Williams & Connolly.” So I called him shortly thereafter and he invited
me to lunch. We met and he showed me around the Williams & Connolly
office; he wanted me to meet Joseph Califano. He took me into Joe
Califano’s office and says, “This is Bob Watkins, he’s an Assistant U.S.
Attorney.” Califano said, “Bill tells me you’re a supervisor in that office.”
He asked me what I was doing there. I told him, and he said that’s great,
did I like it? I said it was very interesting. He said, “Okay, well good
talking to you.” I also spoke with Paul Connolly for a short time.
Afterwards, McDaniels took me to Duke Zeibert’s for lunch.
MR. WATKINS: At lunch, some other people from the firm came by and we sat around the
table, had lunch, and made small talk.
MR. McKEOWN: Was this when the firm was on Connecticut Avenue?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. After lunch, I went back to my office. I didn’t meet Williams
because he was out of town trying a case. About a week later, I received a
call from Joe Califano’s secretary. “Mr. Califano would like to speak to
you.” She said, “We would like to offer you a position as an associate in
the firm. What are your salary demands?” I was absolutely floored. I’d
never thought about salary demands. What do you want to make? I said
I’m earning $25,000 a year.
MR. McKEOWN: This was 1972?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I said I don’t want to make any less than I’m making here. He said
we can do that. When can you start? I told him that I’d like to go away in
September because I promised my wife a vacation. He said, “Okay, when
will you be back?” I said the first of October. He said okay; let’s shoot
for an October 1 starting date. I was floored.
Then Williams’ secretary called me. She asked, “Would you like
tickets to the Redskins games?” I’d never been to a game and was not a
Redskins fan. I knew I shouldn’t say no. But because having Redskins
tickets was a big deal in Washington, I said I’d like two.
I returned from vacation in late September. I started at the firm on
October 1, 1972.
MR. McKEOWN: I knew the way hiring was done in law firms; you come in as classes. But
you were sort of a one off.
MR. WATKINS: Yes. At that time, there were only 20 lawyers at Williams & Connolly and
I was the 21st. Now there are over 300 lawyers at the firm.
MR. McKEOWN: I would’ve thought it was larger than that.
MR. WATKINS: It’s interesting that there’s only one office. Williams was not only smart,
he was wise. He said, “As long as there are planes, we can service clients
anywhere. We’re going to stay here in Washington and only in
Washington. We’re not going to have any satellite offices.” He said that,
“I’ve seen law firms have trouble because they have offices in different
cities. It causes fights about who is running the firm or how the pie is
split.” He said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, and as long as I am alive,
we’re going to have only one office.”
MR. McKEOWN: That sounds very prescient, Mr. Watkins, because we’re talking about the
early 1970s, you weren’t really talking about the mega firms that we’ve
had since then.
MR. WATKINS: That’s right. I think Williams was really quite shrewd. I had some law
school friends who were partners at Wald, Harkrader & Ross. That firm
had offices in Washington, Brussels Paris, and New York; the firm
cratered. Many people were very unhappy about its demise.
MR. McKEOWN: That’s not an unusual story, by the way, the cratering of multi-office
firms. It has only become, my understanding is, more common. You said
there were 21 lawyers at the time?
MR. WATKINS: I was the 21st
MR. McKEOWN: How many were partners and how many were associates?
MR. WATKINS: There were no partners. It was Williams and his associates. For a long
time, it had been the Law Offices of Edward Bennett Williams. When I
was first there, I went in at the end of the year and Williams said, “You
had a good year, here’s your bonus.” I wanted him to say what I did
wrong, what did I do right. He said, “You’re on track.” After Ed got sick
with cancer, an Executive Committee was formed. It consisted of Ed, and
the lawyers who had worked with him for a long time (e. g., Ray Bergan,
Jerry Collins, Paul Connolly, and Joe Califano). The Committee took over
much of the firm’s administrative matters.
MR. McKEOWN: Even before you joined the firm, was there much anguish in making your
decision about leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office?
MR. WATKINS: Absolutely not. The firm had a stellar reputation.
MR. McKEOWN: Tell me more about Mr. McDaniels.
MR. WATKINS: He was somebody I felt I could go to talk to if I had any problems or if I
had any questions.
MR. McKEOWN: Was he your rabbi?
MR. WATKINS: No, but Bill was closer to my age. I could go to see him and say, “I’m
thinking about doing thus and so in a particular case, what do you think?”
Then, he’d ask whether I’d considered this or that strategy in preparation
of the case. He always had time for me.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you work on many cases with him over the years?
MR. WATKINS: I don’t think I did. I handled one matter on my own for McDaniels.
When I joined the firm, I was assigned to whoever needed help.
MR. McKEOWN: I knew Bob Weinberg very well. Tell me more about your encounters with
him before and while you were at Williams & Connolly.
MR. WATKINS: When I was in the Appellate Section, I saw him argue a couple of cases in
the Court of Appeals, and he was spectacular. The judges would ask him
a question and he’d start answering, and he’d go on and on and on, and he
always came up with a rationale that made sense to them. When I was in
the Superior Court, one of my jobs was to monitor the police so they had
fair line-ups. You needed so many African-Americans or so many white
men over 6-feet tall. I would advise the cops who were running the lineups. So I’d go to almost all line-ups. I’d say, “I don’t think that line-up is
going to pass muster.” The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that pictures of
the line-ups had to be taken. While I was supervising a line-up, Bob
Weinberg objected to one. I said, “Well, I don’t think this will pass
muster if the identification is challenged in court. Why don’t you just
reset the line-up? ” It was fair. Weinberg respected me as a fair prosecutor.
I believe that he was as positive about me when the law firm was
considering hiring me.
MR. McKEOWN: Why don’t we leave it there for the time being, and we’ll pick up on your
time at Williams & Connolly and things you’d like to talk about it some of
these cases.
Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
Fifth Interview
July 26, 2019
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is James McKeown, and the
interviewee is Robert Patterson Watkins III. The interview took place at the law offices of
Williams & Connolly on Friday, July 26, 2019. This is the fifth interview.
MR. McKEOWN: Good afternoon, Mr. Watkins.
MR. WATKINS: Good afternoon, Mr. McKeown.
MR. McKEOWN: When we last spoke, we left off with you at Williams & Connolly, which
you joined in 1972. Is this correct?
MR. WATKINS: That’s right.
MR. McKEOWN: And you became a partner in 1977 or thereabouts?
MR. WATKINS: That’s right.
MR. McKEOWN: Your career spanned government time with the Judiciary, and, the largest
part of it is private practice. I wonder if you could just sit back and tell me
in the course of that, who was the people that came across your
professional life and had special impact for you at Williams & Connolly.
MR. WATKINS: I can think of three people at Williams & Connolly. Bob Weinberg, David
Povich, and William (Bill) McDaniels had a significant impact on my
professional life.
I had a case with Bob Weinberg shortly after I was hired by the
firm. He helped review and edit my first draft of a motion to dismiss a
civil complaint. He returned the draft full of red marks. I rewrote the
motion based on his input and it was very much improved. Bob was
extremely helpful to me.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you get to work with him throughout your career at Williams &
MR. WATKINS: I had one or two cases with him, and we were reasonably successful. My
first case in court at the firm was defending a case in New Jersey. Edward
Bennett Williams was the main lawyer. Weinberg was the number two
man, and, I was the third man on the team. I carried the bags, wrote
motions, and sent them to Weinberg to comment on. He reviewed the
motions, made suggestions, and then forwarded them to Williams.
Weinberg was terrific. No one wrote better; no one could find
cases that Bob hadn’t located and read. He was a spectacular lawyer.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you have any experience like that before?
MR. WATKINS: I had had some experience, but not to that extent. My first job at the firm
was to look through two file cabinets full of documents, review, and
summarize the content. It took months and months to go through those
documents; they covered around a four to five year period.
MR. McKEOWN: Was Bob like an encyclopedia?
MR. WATKINS: That’s right. Williams used to say, “I like Weinberg. He can find points
on a ball.” Weinberg looked out for me; he was very kind.
The person I had the most contact with at the firm was David
Povich. He was about a year older than me, but he was at Williams &
Connolly a couple of years before me.
MR. McKEOWN: Any relation to the famous Maury Povich?
MR. WATKINS: He’s the son of famous Washington Post sports columnist, Shirley Povich.
Maury Povich, the television personality, is David’s younger brother. We
tried six or seven cases together. We were more successful than we should
have been in many of those cases. What I liked about Povich was that he
always had some fun preparing and trying cases. “If you’re serious all the
time, he’d say, you might miss something.” We had great times. Let me
tell you about one of the cases.
Before the lottery existed in the District of Columbia (D.C.), there
was an informal lottery called the numbers game. There were certain
people who were numbers backers and runners; Povich knew several of
these people. The first case I tried with David involved a numbers backer.
The police had seized much evidence from his house including hundreds
of small pieces of paper, about the size of a 3” by 5” card on which the
bets were written.
MR. McKEOWN: This was a criminal case?
MR. WATKINS: This was a criminal case in the Superior Court. We had a judge that badly
wanted the defendants convicted. It was clear in his rulings that he was not
happy with our clients. David had the main defendant, the numbers
backer; I had the co-defendant, the runner. They were both caught in
various situations.
MR. McKEOWN: I take it these were felony trials?
MR. WATKINS: It had to be a felony because these defendants were facing more than a
year in jail. The government presented its case, and they called an expert
to testify why these documents were numbers paraphernalia. After the
expert testified, Povich pulled out a book called Scarne on Gambling,
which was a couple of inches thick, and he says, “Mr. So and So, are you
familiar with Scarne on Gambling?” “Yes, I’m familiar with it.” “Let me
read you pages 4, 5, and 6. Does that comply with what you understand to
refer to the numbers game?” And he said, “Yes.” He said you know the
stock market is like that, isn’t it? People buy stock and hope they’re going
to go increase in value. That’s what people with money do. My clients
are not rich. The judge says, “Mr. Povich, that isn’t part of this case.” So
he goes on and he puts this expert through an intense cross-examination to
show that the numbers game was a poor man’s stock market. In closing,
David made the argument that the numbers game was comparable to a
poor man’s stock market. One could play them and might be successful.
The fact that a poor man doesn’t have lots of money like many others have
isn’t their fault, but they have to have a chance to get rich too. The judge
was livid.
MR. McKEOWN: This was being argued before a jury?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, this was being argued before a jury and the judge, an old white man
from Maryland, was angry about Povich’s argument. I am sure that he had
some racial animus too because our clients were African-Americans.
MR. McKEOWN: Was this in Washington, D.C.?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. This was in 1972 or 1973. We made our arguments to the jury,
Povich played his part; the numbers game was just a poor man’s stock
market. You shouldn’t convict the defendant. The judge calls him to the
bench and says, “You can’t do that, Mr. Povich.”
One thing happened right following the judge’s admonishment of
Povich, but, I’m not sure whether it was important. I was sitting at
counsel’s table; a watch that my wife had given me that had an alarm on it
went off during the prosecutor’s argument. He raised hell.
MR. McKEOWN: The judge?
MR. WATKINS: The judge and the prosecutor did. They swore that I set the alarm to go off
intentionally; I honestly had forgotten which day that I had actually set
my watch alarm to go off. I said, “I’m sorry, Your Honor, it won’t happen
again.” The jurors returned after a two hour recess with a not guilty
verdict. As we left the courthouse, Povich said, “We had a great time.
Don’t you think we had some fun in there?” I said, “I know you did, but if
I tried any of the stunts that you pulled in the courtroom, the judge would
have sent me straight to jail!”
MR. McKEOWN: Were you representing a backer?
MR. WATKINS: I was representing the runner and my arguments were straight forward.
The prosecutor didn’t have sufficient evidence to convict my defendant as
a numbers runner. The runner may have had slips of paper on him, but,
many other people keep slips of paper on them too. As a matter of fact,
the prosecutor might have had slips of paper in his own pocket. The judge
was so angry with me.
MR. McKEOWN: How much prep time did you expend on a criminal matter like this, since
this was one of your first cases at Williams & Connolly?
MR. WATKINS: We put in a lot of time in cases like this because they were difficult; we
knew we might have to argue a case in front of hostile judges. We knew
the police officers were after these defendants. They were after them
because they lived pretty well. They had nice houses and cars, but, and
they didn’t have regular jobs. They worked some of the time. Both
prosecutors knew about Povich. I personally knew one prosecutor from
our days working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors were very
upset; they were very angry that we were successful.
MR. McKEOWN: Was this one of your first cases where you were finally on the other side
of the courtroom?
MR. WATKINS: I think it was one of the first cases where I was on member of a defense
MR. McKEOWN: How did that make you feel in terms of the burden on you? When you’re
a prosecutor, I guess you might feel that you’re representing right side of
the law and the public. Did that enter your mind at all?
MR. WATKINS: It did not enter my mind at all. Prosecutors go before jurors and say, “I’m
so and so, and I represent the USA.” That’s part of their pitch to assure
the jury that he wasn’t going to do anything wrong. I represent the client,
and my job was to get an acquittal. I didn’t have any difficulty doing what
I had to do. I made sure I stayed within the rules. I made the arguments
that should have been made on the basis of the evidence, and I did
everything I could to discredit police officers. That’s the way it worked. I
didn’t feel any reticence about it. In fact, people in the U.S. Attorney’s
Office respected me more if I beat them. But if you beat them, they’d say
you cheated. Watkins did such and such. But they had a grudging
admiration for me.
MR. McKEOWN: The two defendants were tried together?
MR. WATKINS: They were tried together. My client had been arrested for possessing
numbers paraphernalia. The slips by themselves made a thin case, but
when the police went into the house of David’s client, they found all sorts
of things there.
MR. McKEOWN: I’ve heard the term jury nullification. Was your case subjected to this?
MR. WATKINS: I think the arguments we made were reasonable in the cases that we tried.
However, I don’t think it was jury nullification. I think what hurt the
prosecutor’s case was how obvious it was that the judge wanted to convict
the defendants. The judge did not give the impression of being an
impartial arbiter of the issues that were presented.
MR. McKEOWN: So the prosecutor in this case, it seems, did not have to be the bad guy. It
was the judge. Is that it?
MR. WATKINS: No. I think the prosecutor was doing what the police wanted him to do.
They wanted to get convictions of these defendants and they worked with
the police. He was doing what he was supposed to do; I was doing what I
was supposed to do.
When we went out after that case was over, we were in a cab
headed back to the office, I asked David, “Did you think that the judge
would punish you? He said, No, but, our clients would have!” We
laughed, had fun, and went out for drinks later.
MR. McKEOWN: How many days was this trial?
MR. WATKINS: This trial lasted a day-and-a-half. It was a felony case because the
jurisdiction was in the Superior Court.
MR. McKEOWN: When did you fully retire from Williams & Connolly?
MR. WATKINS: November 2016.
MR. McKEOWN: So it’s only been a couple years. Let’s go back a little bit.
MR. McKEOWN: The name Williams & Connolly is a marquee name. Was it as marquee
then as it is now?
MR. WATKINS: I didn’t know about the rest of the country, but I knew in Washington it
was a marquee name because when Williams tried cases, people crammed
the courtroom to see what he would do.
MR. McKEOWN: Wasn’t there a book about him called, The Man to See?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, there was.
[Mr. Watkins received a phone call at this point]
MR. McKEOWN: I find it funny, in a way, that your wife had better instincts about what Bob
Weinberg was alluding to when you ran into him at that cocktail party,
i.e., his invitation for you to meet him informally at Williams & Connolly,
to meet several partners at the firm, and others over at lunch at Duke
MR. WATKINS: That’s just the way it was.
MR. McKEOWN: Your knees weren’t at all kind of shaking when you entered the building?
MR. WATKINS: They were not shaking at all since I knew Bob Weinberg and Bill
McDaniel. There were other lawyers that I was assigned to help.
MR. McKEOWN: Were their big name attorneys at the firm even then?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, there were big name attorneys at the firm at the time.
When I told people in the U.S. Attorney’s Office that I was leaving
and I was going to Williams & Connolly, everyone that I talked to said it
would be a great job. How did you pull that off? How did you do that? It
was pulled off by Bill McDaniels and my wife. Bill must have said
something to Joe Califano. Many years after he had left the firm, I saw
him at a restaurant in town. So I went over and said hi to him. He said, “I
was glad to meet you when you were down there toiling in that U.S.
Attorney’s Office, and you’d never had done anything if it hadn’t been for
me. I pulled you out of that pit.” I said, “Thanks, Joe. I really appreciated
that [laughter].”
MR. McKEOWN: Maybe he counts as the fourth influential lawyer.
MR. WATKINS: When I say influential person, I mean people that I talked to and worked
with and to whom I could go to if I had a problem or an issue and I needed
some help with.
MR. McKEOWN: Did Williams ever play second chair to see some of these people in
MR. WATKINS: I never saw him play second chair to anyone. Let me be clear. When I
came to the firm it was Williams and his friends. It was his firm. He
made most of the crucial decisions about what was going on and how
things would be done, and everybody was happy with that because he was
a very generous man. Law firms often have power play or money
problems–how much so and so was getting paid or who could order
people around to do things. It was never like that. He made all the
decisions, but he exercised them in a way that nobody could complain.
Nobody felt that they weren’t treated fairly.
MR. McKEOWN: When you first joined, were there such things as billing expectations?
MR. WATKINS: It changed during my time here. When I came in each day, I had a book
that I wrote down the matters I was working on.
At some time, I don’t remember when it was exactly, but, we had
to document not only what you did and how much time you spent on each
case. I was expected to bill at least 45 hours a week.
MR. McKEOWN: What was the typical day like for you, e.g., when you came into the office,
when you left, and how many days of the week you were working?
MR. WATKINS: When I first came to the firm, I was in the office at 8:30 every morning, no
question about that, and I stayed until I got the work done, and often, that
was past 5:00 p.m. My kids were young at that time. I’d go home to see
my wife and children, and then I’d go back. I remember the Walter Jones
case especially because I knew I had never been around someone like
Williams. I knew I had to make sure that he was happy with my
performance. So I put in hours and hours and hours.
MR. McKEOWN: When you say you’d never been around a guy like Williams, was it his
reputation or was there something else you noticed?
MR. WATKINS: He not only worked hard, he was smart. He was very smart. He could
analyze a problem in a minute. You’d tell him the name of a case, and
he’d say, “Oh yeah, I remember that,” and he’d remember it down to the
details. He was a detail man.
There’s a story about him that I heard before I got here. There was
a case, the Spy Mike, e.g., microphone case, where one of the issues was
invading someone’s privacy when you took a mike and put it in the wall to
listen to what people were saying. The case was out of California.
Williams sent somebody to California to see exactly how the mike was
placed, to see the mike itself, and, to find out who placed it there. That
information turned out to be very relevant for the case. I believe that case
went to the Supreme Court. One of the things they asked Williams was
how do you know what was going on? Where was the mike placed? He
said the police put the mike through the wall from in the next room. There
was a hole that the mike was pushed through.
This was an example that showed that not only did Williams work
hard and was smart, but he knew what was important, and he was going to
make sure that if he said anything in court, he was would be able to back it
up. And that required lots of time.
His talent was better than his reputation. I believe that he trained
for the Walter Jones case because he knew it was going to be a long and
difficult, three-week trial. One has to be in great physical shape to be
ready for a long trial. So training and knowing the facts better than
anybody else is one of the ways that he was as successful as he was. And
he knew the law backwards and forwards.
MR. McKEOWN: And he liked smart people around him.
MR. WATKINS: He really did like to have smart people around him.
MR. McKEOWN: They just weren’t as smart as he was.
MR. WATKINS: That’s why he liked Weinberg. Weinberg would write a motion and he’d
say where did you get this, and he’d tell him.
MR. McKEOWN: I don’t want to dwell too much on Mr. Williams, but his trial work was
mostly criminal matters?
MR. WATKINS: No. He had many civil cases. It involved money. That’s what it was. It
wasn’t just criminal cases.
MR. McKEOWN: But the high-profile cases were the criminal cases, I take it.
MR. WATKINS: I think that may have been 50 but he had many civil cases.
There’s a case where a former chairman of Exxon or Esso or at
that time sued The Washington Post for libel, and the case was tried by
Irving Younger, and he lost. And then it went to the Court of Appeals,
and The Post said, Ed, we want you to be the advocate in the Court of
Appeals. He had just learned that he had cancer and wasn’t coming into
the office regularly, but every day, the people who were working on that
case would go out to his house to work with him on the case from 3:00 pm
until 8:00 pm telling him what the cases said, discussing the arguments
with him, and working on the case. He really worked hard.
MR. McKEOWN: You said in that particular case, the New Jersey case, that you were the
third person on the case. This is all in the pre-computer days, right?
MR. WATKINS: There were no computers. Here’s what happened. The firm had an
apartment in New York on 63rd Street. We stayed in the apartment, got up
in the morning, and all of us were driven to Newark, NJ where the case
was being tried. We rented an office in a building directly across the
street from the court house where we kept four file cabinets with all of the
documents. During the trial, Williams cross-examining someone, and he
said, “Watkins, get that document.” I said, “What document,” he said,
“The document you showed me about such-and-such.” I didn’t remember
that document. I left the courtroom and ran to the office where we kept
the files and fortunately, Williams gave me enough information so that I
could find it. I ran back to the courthouse and gave it to him before he
finished his cross-examination, and he used it in a very effective way.
MR. WATKINS: Herb Stern was then the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey who was supposed
to try Walter Jones because it was a big profile case argued at the court
house. Jonathan Goldstein, Stern’s assistant, showed up to try the case. I
heard that Stern did not want to lose because he said Williams was the best
lawyer that he had ever seen. Stern didn’t give out compliments easily
because he thought he was the best.
MR. McKEOWN: There’s a certain amount of ego at that level.
MR. WATKINS: That’s right. I didn’t really have a close relationship with Williams after
that case. But, he was very kind to me.
MR. McKEOWN: Sticking with that case for just a moment more, it sounds to me like the
pre-trial preparation was extremely intense as it is in many cases.
MR. WATKINS: Weinberg wrote a lot of the motions. He allowed me to write one motion,
and then ran it by Williams; it passed muster was filed. We lost the
motion, but won the trial.
MR. McKEOWN: I guess what I was asking was how did your private sector experiences
differ from your experience in government? Was that sort of a sea change
in the way you saw cases being prepared for trial?
MR. WATKINS: As one of my friends used to say, being an Assistant U.S. Attorney is like
shooting fish in a barrel. You have the FBI and the police departments
conduct all of the investigations and provide you with a report on
everything that you want and need. If you need anything else, you ask an
FBI agent to conduct an interview or obtain more documents for the case.
When I came to the firm, we didn’t hire investigators. While I was with
the firm, we conducted most of our own investigations and we also took
depositions. The individuals assigned to conduct the depositions were
thoroughly familiar with the cases. They knew the law and the facts. We
were very well prepared for our cases.
MR. McKEOWN: Was your case load larger while you were an Assistant U.S. Attorney than
your load at Williams?
MR. WATKINS: I only had a little bit of volume in my section while I was working at the
U.S. Attorney’s Office. I knew I had a police department and I had the
FBI gather any other information that I needed, so, I didn’t have to go out
and beat the bushes.
I never thought about my work in terms of case load in private practice or
the Federal government. When I had a case, I did the best I could.
MR. McKEOWN: When you started with Williams & Connolly, at least with regards to this
New Jersey case, you said something about being the third person. So
now you’re a partner five years later. During the course of that time,
could you describe a little bit about how you went from being the third
person on cases to the second person. What was that progression like?
MR. WATKINS: At that time, the firm was called Edward Bennett Williams and his friends.
The firm was not a place where attorneys were hired, placed in a
department, with a department head, and with an established hierarchy. I
was given a problem and told to conduct that which was necessary to
address the specific matter at hand. In hindsight, I believe that I
performed all that was expected and required of me. If I had any
questions, I would go back to whomever I was assigned to assist on a case
and obtain clarification from them. The response they would provide to
me was that I on the wrong track and they would advise me, or, to
proceed, I was doing it fine.
Becoming a partner was a mystery to me. I never thought about it.
I think Joe Califano was one of the people at Williams that said you had to
have a partnership. That’s my impression of what he meant; I honestly
can’t say that that’s the way it worked.
MR. McKEOWN: Did any of that have to do with the cancer Williams had?
MR. WATKINS: I don’t know.
MR. McKEOWN: One heard stories about big firm practices today where an attorney could
become almost an equity partner, and never took a deposition, tried a case
in court, and yet, they call themselves litigators. How was your
experience different?
MR. WATKINS: In some firms, lawyers file complaints, motions, and maybe argue them.
In our firm’s case, if I wrote a motion, I expected to argue it. I didn’t hand
it off to somebody and have them take the papers, and argue the motion. I
think that’s the way everything worked at Williams.
Let me give you an example. I was sitting in my office one day
and one of the attorneys in the firm called me and asked how much time
did I have? I asked them what they have in mind. He said, “I want you to
try a case. We’re having a potential client coming in to discuss
representing them.” I wanted to know who the potential client was. “It’s
CSX, the railroad company.” Well, they had already been sued by some
of their own employees.
MR. WATKINS: This was in the public records. The company had been sued by a group of
employees and their unions for not paying them appropriate wages. The
labor contract was negotiated provided that the employees were to be paid
in both Canadian and United States (U.S.) dollars; the union was
comprised of Canadian and U.S. members. At the time the contract was
negotiated, the Canadian dollar was worth more than the U.S. dollar.
After a few years, the U.S. dollar was worth more than the Canadian
dollar. The Canadian members said for the past five years, they had not
been properly paid; they thought they should have been paid in U.S.
versus Canadian dollars. The company sued in D.C.
The company had a Baltimore lawyer who had originally tried the
employee accident and rail crossing cases. I was told the case was ready
to be tried again in 60 days; discovery was to be cut off in 30 days. When
I received the files, I realized the case was not ready for trial, particularly
if discovery were to be closed in thirty days. I couldn’t try the case in
sixty days. I had to learn the case, take numerous depositions of the
people who negotiated the contract, and retain experts. The first motion I
filed was for an extension for the discovery time limits.
MR. McKEOWN: Were you a partner at this time?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I went to court and saw a judge who I had known when she was in
the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I said, “Your Honor, I was just assigned this
case yesterday. I know very little about it, and I need more discovery
time.” “You have thirty days, she said. It closes in a very short time.” I
said, “Your Honor, I need sixty days at least. I promise you I won’t ask
you for any more, but I need sixty days.” She said, “No. This case is
going to trial on such and such date, and I’m not going to give you any
more time for discovery.” I begged and pleaded for more time. The
plaintiff’s counsel didn’t object. Finally, she said, “I’ll grant you a thirtyday extension of discovery.”
I gathered my team together, and I told them we’ve got to
interview these people who were involved in the labor negotiations. We
have to find all the files that cited how these employees were paid, the
amount of money they were paid, and how it was paid–Canadian dollars
or U.S. dollars? Then we had to depose the Canadian employees because
they were saying we didn’t get paid enough. The fact was they got paid
more when they were being paid in U.S. dollars initially, but, when the
U.S. dollar fell below the Canadian dollar, they wanted to be paid in
Canadian dollars. They wanted to be paid in the currency that was
highest, and there was nothing in the labor contract that said anything
about being paid in one specific currency versus the other, only that they
be paid in dollars. At that time the Canadians were being paid in their
currency and U.S. employees were being paid in U.S. dollars–U.S.
employees were paid a bit less; Canadian employees were paid a bit more.
When the values of the Canadian and U.S. dollar changed, all employees
wanted to be paid in the more profitable currency.
We had several depositions to take. We had house counsel in
Florida where the company was based, and Williams wanted to know what
we were doing. I told him that I would confer by phone with him several
times a day. He’d call and he would ask me about specific things I was
doing and/or why something had not been done and I would tell him. He
was on me a lot.
I had a team of five people, some of whom were taking
depositions; some were interviewing employees. I called several experts,
many of whom rejected my requests to testify. I finally found someone
and I explained the essence of the case to them.
One day, in the midst of preparation, I received a call from one of
the company’s attorneys. He was General Counsel or the entire CSX. He
asked me. “Well, have you tried to settle the case?” I said, “Sir, I was told
not to try to settle this case and that is what me and my team plan to do.”
He said, “I want you to approach the counsel for the plaintiffs
about settling the case.” I said, “What’s my authority?” He said if it’s
under $10 million, we don’t even have to put it on the balance sheet. “I
said, are you saying that I have $10 million to settle this case?” He said,
“We would like to settle it for less, but, get back to me.” I had been
fighting with one of the plaintiff’s attorneys to make a settlement offer at
the time we were getting close to trial. I really didn’t want to approach
them about a settlement because it would convey a sign of weakness and
that I didn’t have confidence to win the case.
He said, “Yes, I’m going to leave it up to you, but if you try it, you
MUST win it; you had better win it.” I asked myself what I ought to do. I
had to sit down and plan with my team about how to approach the
opposing counsel and say we’ll consider settlement.
I called him and said, “Oh, by the way, had you discussed
settlement?” He said he had not. I said, “Well, do you want to talk about
it now?” I told him to call me if he wanted to talk about it at some point.
I guess that gave him a lot of confidence in his case. He said, “I think this
case is worth $20 million, but I’ll take $15 million.” I went back to the
company’s general counsel and told him they want $15 million. He said,
“Try it, and you better win it.” We kept on working. The house counsel
who was head of the CSX division that was involved in the case decided
he wanted to see what we were doing. He came up to monitor how we
were getting ready for the trial. We must have impressed him because he
went back and told the company’s general counsel that we were all
working like hell.
I met with the company employee who had negotiated the labor
agreement. The crucial question to him was did anybody ever raise the
issue of pay in Canadian dollars or U.S. dollars? He said nobody ever
raised that. I asked him whether he was sure and whether there was
anything about it in the contract? No, we just said dollars. That’s all we
meant. “I said, Well what did you mean?” He said they meant U.S.
dollars. To be totally honest with you, I wasn’t really sure what they
I didn’t go to Canada, but went to Detroit and deposed the
negotiator for the union who was the main plaintiff. I asked him about the
negotiations, and how he had arrived at a particular figure. He said he had
done thus and so. I wanted to know how many times he discussed
Canadian dollars. He said that wasn’t an issue raised during the
negotiations. I had the deposition and the testimony I wanted. We
presented our arguments in front of a judge who was very, very smart. His
name was Stefan Gray. We tried the case in Superior Court for about five
days and won it.
I had an interesting experience regarding this case. I wanted a
particular jury instruction that would have been very favorable to CSX. I
spoke to the individual who was handling instructions and asked them to
determine whether our team could present the instruction that was relevant
for the case. They came back to me and said the judge granted the
instruction. I was astonished and said, “Are you serious?” They said yes.
So we went to the court the day of the argument and the judge called us to
the bench and says, “I thought about the instruction you requested and
decided I’m not going to give it.” I pitched my argument to the judge to
no avail. He said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Watkins, I’m not going to give the
It was a class action with five subclasses. We won on all but one
subclass which included about 50 Canadian employees. The judgment for
that one subclass was less than $400,000. Paying that judgment was
below $10,000,000; CSX was happy to pay it.
The company owned a resort hotel at that time. The firm’s General
Counsel was so pleased that he gave me, and my team and our wives (or
husbands) a free weekend at the hotel.
MR. McKEOWN: I would like to focus a little bit now on about how you formed your teams.
Let’s explore it now. Did you have departments?
MR. WATKINS: No. We didn’t have departments; we had teams. There was a woman
called Nicole Seligman who was a Radcliffe and Harvard College
graduate; she was an attorney for CSX. She was editor of the Harvard
Crimson and a very talented lawyer.
MR. McKEOWN: She became famous during the Clinton impeachment. She was the one of
the lawyers for Clinton along with David Kendall.
MR. WATKINS: Right. She was the second person on the team for our case. The third
person on our team was Phil Deutsch who was a new attorney at the
company. He was great so I gave him as much work as I thought he could
MR. McKEOWN: I guess what I was really asking, though, was when you got a new case at
Williams, was the team in place or did you have to go out and form it?
MR. WATKINS: It was my responsibility to identify the people I needed and wanted.
Fortunately, an attorney Jack Vardaman at Williams & Connolly,
telephoned to talk to me about the case. He somehow knew the general
counsel at CSX. Jack was the person who asked me whether I was willing
to try the CSX case. I said I needed a team; I couldn’t try the case by
myself. He helped set the stage for me to select attorneys that I wanted to
work with from the company [because of his relationship with CSX’s
counsel]. I requested Nicole Seligman, Phil Deutsch, and a paralegal. I
was someone the company’s staff could say no to, but they couldn’t say no
to CSX’s general counsel/assistant general counsel; an attorney at the
company would ever say no to their counsel without providing them with
some sort of explanation. They might have said that they were working on
thus and so; a particular case was occupying all of their time; and/or they
could only afford to devote but a limited amount time to assist you with on
a case. I told Jack via CSX that I needed all of Nicole, Phil, and the
paralegal’s time on the case. Nicole Seligman was assigned to the case;
she was terrific.
MR. McKEOWN: She was impressive during the impeachment hearings.
MR. WATKINS: She’s a very shrewd person and a smart attorney.
MR. McKEOWN: She went up to New York eventually.
MR. WATKINS: That’s right. She went to New York to work for Sony; she later became
the firm’s general counsel.
MR. McKEOWN: Mr. Watkins, we’re going to call it a day. Thank you very much.
MR. WATKINS: I have all these things. I’m afraid I’ll forget them. Could you provide
another overview of one other case with me?
MR. McKEOWN: Absolutely.
MR. WATKINS: David Povich at Williams asked me to try another case with him. It
involved an Assistant U.S. Attorney who took bribes from undercover
D.C. cops posing as Mafia dons. The cops had a videotape of him taking
cash on two occasions. We spent months gathering the facts and
preparing a defense for the case. We put the client through rigorous
pretrial direct and cross-examination as we discovered more facts in the
We told the client, whose name was Don Robinson, not to talk to
anyone. This included his father who was coming down from Syracuse,
NY to visit his family. We told him that the only people he could speak to
were his attorneys and his wife, because, they were protected by attorneyclient privilege.
As David and I were driving back to our office after Robinson’s
testimony David said, “I told you I would get him to cry on the stand at
trial.” David knew that he could, and Robinson cried on the stand because
he was embarrassed that he had to testify that he’d had an affair with the
prostitute who introduced him to the undercover cops and was afraid of
what they might have done to his wife. The jury was sitting there and they
were absolutely fascinated by Robinson’s breakdown on the witness stand.
They believed his testimony; they didn’t believe the police about the chain
of events happened in the case. The jury went out to deliberate after
David’s closing arguments. They came back with a not guilty verdict.
We won the case after much investigation and preparation.
MR. McKEOWN: Did he leave the prosecutor’s office here in D.C.?
MR. WATKINS: He went back up to Buffalo, NY where he was from and taught school,
but, when the school board learned about the case in which he was
acquitted, they fired him. He eventually sold real estate and did
reasonably well.
MR. McKEOWN: That’s an interesting way to end this session.
MR. WATKINS: It’s one of the great stories.
Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
Sixth Interview
August 21, 2019
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is James McKeown, and the
interviewee is Robert Patterson Watkins III. The interview took place at the law offices of
Williams & Connolly on Wednesday, August 21, 2019. This is the sixth interview.
MR. McKEOWN: Good afternoon, Mr. Watkins.
MR. WATKINS: Good afternoon, Mr. McKeown.
MR. McKEOWN: We were talking last time about some of the cases that were part of your
life during your tenure at Williams & Connolly, and the case we stopped
at was the Robinson case that involved a sting operation. Before we move
on, I wanted to ask you a question about that case and the fact that there
was this famous gap that allowed I think the jury to reach a conclusion of
not guilty. Did you have a lot of experience in law enforcement prior to
that time?
MR. WATKINS: I had some. When I was a prosecutor and I dealt with policemen and FBI
agents, and when I was with the Justice Department. I put them on the
stand and prepared the policemen when I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney.
MR. McKEOWN: That was precisely where I was going. Did the Robinson case in any way
change or somehow inform your views about law enforcement given what
happened with the officials running that operation?
MR. WATKINS: To be brief, no. I knew policemen. I knew what they did, and I knew they
would do almost anything to get a conviction if they thought a defendant
was guilty, whether he was or not. So it didn’t surprise me at all that the
sting operation was so successful with many people getting caught. Quite
frankly, I was surprised that Robinson would fall for something like that.
MR. McKEOWN: From beginning to end, how long did that case take from the time you
took on the representation to the acquittal?
MR. WATKINS: I don’t know. David Povich and I had tried a number of criminal cases, as
you recall. They were not particularly well-known cases, but they were
well-known to the U.S. Attorney’s Office because we won more than we
lost. The case came to us because, I believe, Joe Califano asked David to
defend Robinson who had just been arrested and David called me. We
spent four or five months getting ready to try this case, and we worked
every day for five or six hours on this case alone trying to get all of the
faces, figuring out who the witnesses might be, and putting together a
theory based on the facts that we had. So I guess it’s fair to say that we
spent at least six months getting ready to try this case.
MR. McKEOWN: Were there any kind of cases that Williams & Connolly would handle pro
bono? This seems like heavy lifting for the average guy to afford legal
counsel with such talent.
MR. WATKINS: Cases like Robinson would probably not be taken on by the firm unless
there was some reason for us to do so other than money. Most people in
such a situation could not afford us. Joe Califano is important because an
old friend and colleague called him about Robinson and he asked the firm
to take the case. It might have been a lawyer that Joe had once worked
with at the White House. David and I tried some cases that appeared to be
losers, and we won most of them. We took the case because Califano
wanted us to because it was challenging and interesting. We didn’t take it
for the money. We took it because someone we knew and respected had
asked us to do this.
MR. McKEOWN: I’m sure that you had a number of cases on your plate at that time.
MR. WATKINS: Yes. That was not the only case on our docket. Civil cases don’t move
along very fast, and when there were times that either David or I had to do
things for other clients, we did them. We’d then go back to the Robinson
MR. McKEOWN: Would you say that most of your docket matters were civil matters?
MR. WATKINS: I was involved in criminal cases for the most part when I first joined the
firm because I came out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I began to take on
other kinds of cases afterwards. I represented Georgetown Hospital in
malpractice cases. David and I found someone to work with us or be part
of our team.
MR. McKEOWN: There were labor negotiations?
MR. WATKINS: No, This is all of the cases I’m talking about. Not just labor negotiations,
but in all the cases we had. I was the senior lawyer on some of them. I
was the number two attorney tasked with examining or preparing a
particular witness on other cases. I had a chance to work with very
experienced old attorneys and very smart young people.
MR. McKEOWN: What was the longest trial you’ve ever been involved in while at
Williams& Connolly?
MR. WATKINS: I guess my first trial. This was the case, U.S. v. Walter Jones, which I
briefly told you about earlier where our team stayed in an apartment in
New York and we were driven to and from Newark, NJ every day.
I was the third lawyer for the Williams and Weinberg team;
Williams represented a businessman in New Jersey who was charged with
buying and selling ships in a way that violated some criminal statute.
Williams was going to try the case, Weinberg had many ideas, and I
handled the documents. We rented space in a building across the street
from the court house to maintain files of case documents. Williams asked
me to produce a document that he needed during cross-examination of a
very important witness. He gave me enough information about the
document that helped me locate it before cross-examination ended. We
won the case.
MR. McKEOWN: Was it a maritime case?
MR. WATKINS: It was a criminal case.
MR. McKEOWN: How long did the case go on?
MR. WATKINS: It went on for about three weeks; it started on a Monday and only went
through Thursdays. Fridays was motion day for the court. This was a
non-jury trial. Everyone knew that the trial needed a judge who paid
attention all of the time because he would have to make the ultimate
determination whether our client was guilty or not. We returned every
Monday from NY to resume the trial for four days. The trial was over in
three to four weeks.
MR. McKEOWN: During the trial, did you have a sense that the judge really was paying
attention? Did you have some way to gauge that?
MR. WATKINS: He was very attentive. I had a feeling that when he came in, he wanted to
make sure that Williams did not take over his court room. He spent the
first day being very strict with all of the attorneys. There were several
reporters covering the trial and throughout it, the judge paid close attention
to the evidence and testimony.
MR. McKEOWN: Was the prosecutor up to it?
MR. WATKINS: Oh yes. Jonathan Goldstein was very good.
MR. McKEOWN: What sort of time was the defendant facing if convicted? I assume it was
a felony case?
MR. WATKINS: It was a serious felony case, but, I don’t recall the amount of time Mr.
Jones was exposed to.
MR. McKEOWN: Did the defendant testify at the trial?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, I believe he did testify.
MR. McKEOWN: Did the memory of that document stick out in your mind?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I knew if I didn’t find that document, my time at the firm would be
very short.
MR. McKEOWN: How long had you been with the firm at that point?
MR. WATKINS: I was assigned to the case shortly after I arrived, which was in the fall of
1972. I spent a lot of time during the winter and spring going through
those documents. I believe the case was scheduled to be tried in June but
the judge had surgery and the trial was postponed to the fall. So, my wife
and I took a week and went to the Caribbean since the trial was delayed.
MR. McKEOWN: How did you keep track of five cabinets of documents since this case
occurred during pre-computer days? What did you do personally to try to
get your hands around them?
MR. WATKINS: I wrote summaries. I had five or six notebooks of the significant
documents and my summaries of them. When we went to trial in New
Jersey, we had a secretary in the office building across the street from the
court house. We generally knew the documents that Williams needed
because he carried the most important documents with him. There were
times that he needed other documents. They were used address issues that
came up in the trial.
MR. McKEOWN: What do you think the staffing would on a case like that today?
MR. WATKINS: I think it probably wouldn’t be the same. There might be three or four
document people today. Weinberg would be Williams’ particular assistant
because he knew the case thoroughly. I think there would be a lot more
people at my level when we tried the case.
MR. McKEOWN: Thank you for answering my question/. What other cases in the time that
we’ve been talking are memorable that you think you’d like to have as
part of the record? Is there anything in particular?
MR. WATKINS: There were some antitrust cases that Buck Seymour run. The Wallboard
case is one that comes to mind. Buck convinced a judge that this was a
class action suit; he had a whole class of clients for this case.
MR. McKEOWN: Is this wallboard like what’s used in construction?
MR. WATKINS: That’s right. Seymour had named about six of the major Wallboard
companies as defendants. There were many plaintiffs because there were
many contractors who used wallboard, you know, construction people
who built and repaired houses–anyone that bought large amounts of
wallboard were plaintiffs in this case.
MR. McKEOWN: Was this a price-fixing case?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, it was a price-fixing case. I was asked to take depositions of several
people in the wallboard industry. I went to different places in the country
to find out how they sold wallboard, how they established prices for it,
who they sold it to, how much they sold, and who they sold it to. It was a
really big case; I assisted on it. David Povich also worked on the case.
The class representative was Joe Tydings, the former senator from
Maryland. He was handsome and socially prominent. The case was filed
in California where we all had to travel to on several occasions. Seymour,
David Povich and I worked on the case.
MR. McKEOWN: Why does that particular case stand out in your mind? Was it the amount
of traveling that you had to do?
MR. WATKINS: It stood out in my mind because there were so many parties and so many
witnesses on both sides; the issues were complex and it involved lots of
money so I travelled a lot.
MR. McKEOWN: Were you still an associate at that time?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I was the low man on the totem pole. Four or five attorneys in the
firm were working on the case. There was much travel and many
depositions were taken. I was involved in most of the things that were
very interesting. I had a great deal of responsibility as a new lawyer at the
firm; this was a big case.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you work with economic experts on this case?
MR. WATKINS: I did not. There were economic experts who were on call to testify if and
when the case went to trial. Seymour left the firm and took the case with
him. I don’t know what happened to it after that.
MR. McKEOWN: Was Buck Seymour an antitrust lawyer most of the time?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. Did you know him?
MR. McKEOWN: No. This was the first time I’ve heard of him.
MR. WATKINS: His real name was Sam but everyone called him Buck. He was about
6’5’’ and had played basketball at Georgetown University in D.C. He
went to Harvard Law School after that.
MR. McKEOWN: When you became a partner five years later, what cases stuck out in your
mind where you had a lot more responsibility for the client? Were there
any clients that particularly affected you? Were there particular types of
cases that you still occasionally think or thought? What about the
Robinson case?
MR. WATKINS: The Robinson case was an infamous criminal case because it involved a
Federal prosecutor who took bribes on two different occasions.
Remember, that was the case that David Povich and I worked on; we
represented a numbers backer and numbers runner. The judge did all that
he could to sure the jury find the defendants’ guilty; he wasn’t successful
though. We won that case before the jury. At the end of the trial, the
prosecutor asked a few of the jurors how they could have found the
defendants’ not guilty when they weren’t called to the stand to testify; the
jurors told him that they already knew what our clients were going to say;
because Mr. Povich told us in his opening statement.
David did some things in stunts on that and other cases we worked
on together that I’d never have been able to get away with! He always
introduced some form of levity in our cases. I enjoyed working with him.
MR. McKEOWN: There’s a theory out there that contents that cases are largely won at the
opening statement. Is that true?
MR. WATKINS: I don’t know if that’s always true, but, in this particular case, we had
confirmation that the opening statement was important.
MR. McKEOWN: Is the voir dire important?
MR. WATKINS: The voir dire was important. The prosecutors objected to our opening
statements. We knew that if we did not get any objections were not doing
our jobs.
In another case, a congressman was charged for mishandling
government funds. We tried the case and we put him on the stand in spite
of our advice not to testify. He told his story and the jury found him
MR. McKEOWN: Was he still a sitting congressman?
MR. McKEOWN: If you were someone thinking about pursuing a legal career today or a law
firm looking to hire a potentially good young trial lawyer, what would be
the attributes that you would think would be most important for a young
person to have, realistically, if they planned to be a good trial lawyer?
MR. WATKINS: They should have expertise in some specific area of the law, be a good
trial lawyer, and be able to bring in clients for the firm they work for.
Being a good trial lawyer today is just not good enough.
MR. McKEOWN: Don’t they have to have court room experience?
MR. WATKINS: A lawyer has to have more than court room experience. With the advent
of class action cases that expose a client to lots and lots of liability, most
of the class actions settle; they don’t go to trial. Being able to try a case is
one great attribute to have, but, it is not everything.
MR. McKEOWN: I’m going to ask my question in a slightly different way. Was there one or
two attributes that good trial lawyers had in common?
MR. WATKINS: They should be very smart, work hard, know how to bring in clients, and
provide what clients want and need. Williams exhibited that when he first
appeared before the judge of that trial in New Jersey. He was extremely
deferential to him.
I remember one incident that happened. Williams was managing
partner of the Redskins. We went to court on Monday, and the judge said
to him, “How was your weekend?” “Not very good, Your Honor. I took a
beating at Redskins stadium. I don’t want to take a beating here.” The
judge thought that was very funny. Before presenting evidence, the judge
would have all of the lawyers come to his chambers. They would talk
about all sorts of non trial. Williams knew how to deal with people that
gave him a terrific advantage with juries, judges, attorneys, and clients.
It’s something one can’t teach. Either you have it or you don’t. Williams
had it.
MR. McKEOWN: So is what you are saying is that Williams knew how to engage in small
MR. WATKINS: He did. He had an innate ability to read people really well.
MR. McKEOWN: How would you describe your courtroom style when you became partner
at Williams & Connolly?
MR. WATKINS: I knew that certain jurors responded to me. I seemed to connect with
middle aged to old ladies. So whenever I could, I tried to get middle aged
or older aged women on my juries. I didn’t want the court room judges to
criticize me. I tried not to object too often and I did so only when
absolutely necessary.
MR. McKEOWN: So, you weren’t one of those trial lawyers that would be subject to a threat
of contempt holding by the judge?
MR. WATKINS: It depended on the issue. When I was in the court room, I had to be aware
of the judge and know what he liked and disliked. I also had to be aware
of the jurors who were listening to the arguments and the judge’s rulings.
MR. McKEOWN: Even in Superior Court?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. Another case that I tried was for Howard University where a white
professor claimed that he had been fired because of his race. Howard had
won a summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial
judge’s decision in and a very critical opinion, saying the trial judge’s
interpretation of the facts was “wooden.”
Howard came to me and said this case is going to trial before a
jury. Can you try it? I said that I would and I could present a strong
defense. The trial judge was quite angry about the comments in the Court
of Appeals opinion.
McConnell was a math professor who taught an elementary
calculus course at Howard. During one of his classes, he compared a
Black Washington Redskin player who’d played the day before to a
monkey that died because he’d put his hand in a bottle and didn’t know
enough to remove it. When a female student confronted McConnell for
what he’d said, he told the class that day that he wouldn’t teach the class
until that student apologized to him for her remarks. She would not
apologize and continued to attend the class and he refused to teach the
class caused him to be fired. His refusal to teach the class caused him to
be fired. I won the case for Howard at the trial.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you ever feel that race had anything to do with your relationship with
a judge?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, the case that David Povich and I defended the numbers backer and
numbers runner who were African-American. That white judge made side
remarks about them in the court room. I think race had something to do
with the result. We won the case in spite of the judge.
MR. McKEOWN: Let me close with this question. Did you ever feel that there was any
personal animus towards you as a man of color by a judge? You don’t
have to name names.
MR. WATKINS: I don’t know. I’ll tell you what I think. I grew up in Boston, and my view
is race is almost always a factor unless you do not allow it to be made a
factor. I did all that I could to neutralize it. In court, I try all the ways that
I can to make race not a factor in any dealings or relationships that I have.
That is what I have done all of my life. Now has racial animus been a
factor? Maybe it has. I try not to let it be a factor in my life.
MR. McKEOWN: That’s a good way to end this. Let’s stop for today.
Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
Seventh Interview
September 19, 2019
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is James McKeown, and the
interviewee is Robert Patterson Watkins III. The interview took place at the law offices of
Williams & Connolly on Thursday, September 19, 2019. This is the seventh interview.
MR. McKEOWN: Good afternoon, Mr. Watkins.
MR. WATKINS: Good afternoon, Mr. McKeown.
MR. McKEOWN: I think we spent some considerable time talking about your days with
Williams & Connolly, and I guess by way of wrapping things up on that
subject, unless there’s something you want to add that’s occurred to you as
part of our conversation, when did you retire?
MR. WATKINS: November 2016.
MR. McKEOWN: Is there anything, aside from a partnership agreement, that brought you to
your decision to retire?
MR. WATKINS: I decided it was time. I had been in the hospital earlier in the year for
almost a month. Other things were happening to me medically and
physically. I decided that I had been at Williams & Connolly for 30 years,
I had enjoyed it, and I was doing interesting things. My wife had retired,
and my sons were out of the house. I thought it was just time for me to
MR. McKEOWN: Did your duties at the firm change in any significant way or as you
approached the latter years of your career?
MR. WATKINS: I guess I would say yes and no. At this stage in my career, I was assigning
cases out to younger lawyers and that was fine. I wasn’t doing a lot on my
own. I felt the trend was not going to change, so, it was time to go.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you see any change in the way law was practiced over the years,
maybe became more complex or more paper-oriented?
MR. WATKINS: It did change. When I first came to the firm, when cases came in, lawyers
decided to take them or not take them and get what help they could to
service the client. I think I’ve said this before. I was the 21st lawyer in the
firm. When I left the firm, I’m sure there were more than 200 lawyers
there; there are probably over 300 now. I didn’t know as many people as I
should know. I knew all the people that were in my generation. I didn’t
get to know or work with some of the newer lawyers at the firm who were
doing significant things. I knew their names, but I didn’t know them.
MR. McKEOWN: Was there much in the way of committee structure or did you serve on
many committees in the firm?
MR. WATKINS: When I came to the firm, there were no committees. I handled the cases I
brought in; it was up to me to staff and take responsibility for what had to
be done. There was an executive committee formed shortly after
Williams’ first illness. I understand now that there’s a management and
hiring committee. I don’t know what the committees were when I decided
it was time for me to retire. There were committees that I knew existed,
but I didn’t know what they did. So that was it. It was a change from the
way I started practicing law, and I practiced for 25 or 30 years. It was
changing so much that I just thought it was time for me to leave.
MR. McKEOWN: I noticed that your resume indicates that you were involved with several
volunteer organizations. Were they taking up a lot of you time while you
were practicing law at Williams & Connolly?
MR. WATKINS: They were not. That was not a factor in my deciding to leave the firm. It
was family more than anything else and my health to some extent.
MR. McKEOWN: Did some of your contemporaries also retire at around that time and
become involved in similar activities?
MR. WATKINS: You’re right in talking about people of my vintage who left. Bob
Weinberg, David Povich, and Paul Wolf left before me. There were
others who were not of my vintage that left the firm.
MR. McKEOWN: Is there anything that you would like to memorialize in your record since
we’ve been talking about your practice?
MR. WATKINS: You remember your wins with a great deal of affection. You’re less likely
to remember your losses, and there are two or three cases that I did not
prevail in; they’re not fun to recall.
MR. McKEOWN: There’s an old saying. Success has many parents and failures are orphans?
MR. WATKINS: That maybe it. That’s not quite what I was thinking of. It’s easier to think
of things you did that turned out successfully. There were other things
you did that are harder and more painful to recall.
MR. McKEOWN: Did the losses live with you for a long time?
MR. WATKINS: I would say no. I tried to put the losses out of my mind as much as I
could. I didn’t want to dwell on them. Some things I learned from them
were helpful, but it was the issue that I recall and not that I lost.
MR. McKEOWN: I know that in some firms there was a practice of going over why the case
may have been lost. Was that something you have done in your practice?
MR. WATKINS: No. Everyone knew about your successes. Lawyers called you and
wanted to talk about them. You didn’t want to discuss your losses. Your
colleagues, other than the people who tried the cases with you didn’t want
to discuss them. My approach had been to put them away as much as I
MR. McKEOWN: Let’s go back a moment, outside the offices of Williams & Connolly.
What kinds of things were your particularly heavily involved with outside
the day-to-day practice of the law, and, of course, outside of your family
obligations? Were any causes near and dear to your heart?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I was appointed to be a member of the ABA Standing Committee on
the Federal Judiciary. This committee consisted of fifteen prominent trial
lawyers, one for each judicial circuit. Its mandate was to write a report on
every candidate for a federal judgeship and then informing the President
and the Congress of our findings and evaluations.
MR. McKEOWN: Do you know what year this was when you were chairman?
MR. WATKINS: I was a committee member for three years. I was chairman in 1992, my
last year on the committee.
MR. McKEOWN: So, you were a member of the committee in the early 1990s?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. During my time on the committee, we evaluated Clarence Thomas,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer for the Supreme Court. I
interviewed all of them. The only evaluation criterion was competence,
temperament, and integrity. The committee members spoke to all the
lawyers and judges who had cases with or against the candidate. They
wrote a comprehensive report setting forth their findings and conclusions;
the reports were often 20 or 30 pages long.
In case judges were going to be elevated to a higher court, the
chairman selected a law school dean to analyze the opinions of those
judges and write a report. It would be circulated to all members to discuss
and voted on. The chairman then sent a short letter of the committee
findings saying that the candidate was well qualified or not qualified only
to the President. The process was fair, especially to candidates found not
qualified. The work on the committee was very rewarding but very tiring.
MR. McKEOWN: Was this at the appellate level of the bench level?
MR. WATKINS: Every level; the District Court, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme
Court. During my year as chairman, we vetted over 120 candidates.
MR. McKEOWN: Would the level of due diligence increase as you went up from District to
Appellate Court, or, was it pretty much the same?
MR. WATKINS: Yes, it was pretty much the same. We evaluated everyone in terms of
competency, integrity, and temperament; that’s the way the questions were
structured. One had to be very careful when speaking to lawyers who had
cases with or against these candidates, particularly when they had
something negative to say; their statements could be repeated. If the
President revealed the negative comments, that person (i.e., lawyer) could
be called to testify about what they found negative. It didn’t happen very
MR. McKEOWN: Thank goodness.
MR. WATKINS: In a couple of cases, there were several found not qualified, not because of
temperament or integrity, but their lack of experience. One nominee that
I recall that came out of law school, had done very well, went to a firm for
about two years and became the state attorney general. He was smart, and
temperament was fine, but the committee felt he was too inexperienced to
sit on a bench. So, he was found unqualified. The White House did not
take our recommendation that the candidate was not qualified, and the
thing died without any publicity.
These nominees claimed they were qualified. Our Committee
chairman had to testify before the Judiciary Committee as to why this
person was found unqualified. One of the reasons was they lacked
experience and integrity.
MR. McKEOWN: I think I would choose inexperience if I was going to be disqualified.
MR. WATKINS: You didn’t have a chance to have any input on that. There was one time
that we had an attorney that was nominated who had enough experience,
but, more than one lawyer on the committee questioned his integrity. I
said we may have to call you, or the committee may want to talk to you
about some things. Most of them said that we can’t have judges whose
integrity is in question, so, I’ll testify if necessary.
When the committee found him unqualified. The White House
didn’t push the nomination forward.
MR. McKEOWN: Were these nominees’ potential candidates?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. They were candidates. Let me explain the process. In one of the
cases where we found someone unqualified, a senator called me and said
I’d like to talk to you. He was in Washington. I could not refuse to speak
with him. I met with him, and he spent two or three hours trying to
convince me that the nominee was qualified. Finally, I agreed to resubmit
the nominee to the committee; they found him unqualified again. Then I
testified against the nominee and despite the Committee’s findings the
Congress confirmed him to become a District Court judge.
MR. McKEOWN: That was probably less painful than talking about someone whose integrity
was lacking.
MR. WATKINS: I didn’t want to trash any potential nominee because it could ruin his life
and career; we tried to be as factual as we could about a candidate.
MR. McKEOWN: Did you interview the potential nominees for the Supreme Court yourself?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. The circuit representative would at some time call judges. If a judge
indicated that he had appeared before them or knew them in any way,
shape, or form, the committee would speak to them. The interviews with a
nominee usually lasted three to four hours. We would ask them about
MR. McKEOWN: Could the questioning, at times, result in some hot sessions?
MR. WATKINS: Not in my experience. I had one nominee who was very cautious. They
answered questions as if they were in a deposition. They answered only
“yes,” or “no.” They opened a bit more when I said these questions don’t
come from a hostile source.
MR. McKEOWN: Okay. Fair enough. How long would it take, for instance, on average, do
you think to vet one of these candidates?
MR. WATKINS: I don’t want to give a deadline; our goal was to complete the interview
with the candidate and conduct the assessment by the committee and
judges in the circuit within 60 days from receipt of the candidate’s name.
MR. McKEOWN: Given what you said, I think about 120 candidates were interviewed
during your tenure as chairman. Is that correct? That must have put a
dent in your law practice.
MR. WATKINS: Yes. But the firm was very, very generous with me. They let me do what
I had to do.
MR. McKEOWN: Were most of the people on this committee people similarly situated– trial
lawyers from well-known firms?
MR. McKEOWN: When did you roll off the committee?
MR. WATKINS: I was on the committee for three years. In my last year, I was chairman.
As chairman, it was my job to ensure that the committee members adhered
to the 60-day goal. Close to the 60th, day, I’d call the member responsible
for the candidate and ask how are things coming, what’s going on, and are
you going to have your report ready within 60 days? All the reports would
come to me, and then I circulated them to all the members of the
committee. We’d discuss the nominee via telephone conference call, after
which we would vote, either “well qualified”, “qualified” or “not
qualified.” That would sometimes take place at one of the ABA
MR. McKEOWN: You did your part.
MR. WATKINS: It was fascinating. I met some great lawyers from other parts of the
country whom I would have never met had I not been on the committee.
MR. McKEOWN: May we talk a little bit about your family? Maybe this is recalling
something that’s incorrect, but I have the impression that you met your
wife while you were at Cambridge. Is that right?
MR. WATKINS: No. I met my white before I went to Cambridge. We were married in
August of 1969 and went to Cambridge in September; we came back after
we had both received academic degrees.
MR. McKEOWN: What is your wife’s name?
MR. McKEOWN: My wife’s name is Ann. It’s spelled without an “E.”
MR. McKEOWN: Where did you meet her?
MR. WATKINS: I met her here in Washington. A friend of mine in law school who is a
class behind me married a woman who lived in Massachusetts, and I
attended their wedding. They came to Washington to clerk for a judge.
His wife was working for the Department of Labor. They had a Christmas
party in their new apartment. I had to walk up three flights of stairs to
attend the party. I met her at this party.
MR. McKEOWN: This would have been 1968 or so?
MR. WATKINS: I guess it was 1968. She was working at the Department of Agriculture at
the time, but the following September, she was going to Alabama to teach
in one of the small Black colleges there. She was interesting and
attractive, but I did not want to spend time with a woman who was going
to be leaving town within the next eight to nine months, so I didn’t call
About six months later, I saw her on the street, and I couldn’t
remember her name. I called my friend and asked him about her. He said
the job in Alabama fell through and she’s still here. He gave me her name
and telephone number. I called her and we started dating and ultimately
got married.
MR. McKEOWN: Was she a teacher by training?
MR. WATKINS: No. She went to Nebraska Wesleyan and then went to Johns Hopkins
International School. She spent a year in Bologna and the other year in
Washington. She was very interested in international politics. She was
working on grain agreements at the Department of Agriculture, which had
international implications.
MR. McKEOWN: Probably more today.
MR. WATKINS: Today it’s very important. She liked her job, and she knew about farming
and grain agreements.
MR. McKEOWN: What made her then think that she, to the extent that you even know, what
was the attraction to teach at a Black school in Alabama?
MR. WATKINS: She’s a good person. In the summer of 1964, a friend of hers from
Nebraska Wesleyan went to Mississippi and talked about what a
worthwhile experience it was. Ann’s father did not let her go to the South
in 1964; she regretted that.
MR. McKEOWN: I take it she was from the Midwest? She was a Nebraska girl?
MR. McKEOWN: When did you get married?
MR. WATKINS: We got married in August of 1969. We went off to Cambridge in
September of the same year. We took our honeymoon in Europe and
traveled to Spain, France, and Belgium for about a month. Courses at
Cambridge did not begin until October. Ann had friends in Bologna who
were working on international matters in Belgium, so we spent some time
with them.
MR. McKEOWN: So, she got her master’s from Bologna?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. She did a degree in development economics with Professor Joan
Robinson who is one of the leading academics in development economics.
MR. McKEOWN: Is development economics for developing countries?
MR. McKEOWN: Did your wife specialize in an area?
MR. WATKINS: I don’t think so.
MR. McKEOWN: At some point you had two children. Can you tell us about your kids and
when they came along?
MR. WATKINS: We have a son, Robert, who was born in 1975. We went to Boston for a
funeral, and Ann was very pregnant. My sisters and aunt said that if it’s a
boy; it’ll be Robert Patterson Watkins the fourth, right? They backed me
into a corner and said the first boy in a generation our family has always
been named that. My wife said that was fine with her, so that’s how he
became Robert the fourth.
He went to Sidwell Friends in D.C. through the eighth grade. He wanted
to go someplace else after the eighth grade. He wasn’t having any
academic problems; he played football. He corresponded with people at
prep schools up in New England. I told him that if you want to leave
Sidwell, you must go to a place that’s at least as good as Sidwell. The
public schools in D.C. were not good after 6th grade. After the eighth
grade, he won a fellowship from Greenpeace that took him to Russia for
six weeks. He had a great experience. He told us that he wanted to go to
St. Albans. My wife was not happy about his leaving Sidwell. She said
that I’m not going to fill out any papers. So, Robert, on his own, gathered
the papers, filled them out, had the interview, and was admitted to St.
Albans. He graduated from the school and was admitted to Williams
College, in Massachusetts.
He enjoyed St. Albans, went to Williams, and then to Georgetown Law
School. Now, he practices in the Appellate Section of the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He handles claims of
government employees who claim they were discriminated against by the
federal government.
MR. McKEOWN: Is he still there?
MR. WATKINS: He’s still there.
My second son, Matthew, is three years younger than Robert. He
went to Sidwell and he wanted to do everything his brother did. So, after
eighth grade, he thought about leaving Sidwell. I said okay, where do you
want to go? He didn’t know. So, we went to one prep school
recommended to us. We took him there for a weekend. My wife and I
stayed in a hotel while Matthew stayed with one of the students, was
shown around the school, and went to classes the next day. Coming back
on the plane, I asked him, what he thought about the school. He said he
was going to stay at Sidwell because he said, “There, I’d be dumber.” A
senior student read an essay that he had written for class and Matthew
said, “I can write a better essay than that. I’m not coming up to this place.
I’ll be dumber.” So, he stayed at Sidwell, and then he went to Williams
like his older brother.
MR. McKEOWN: What did Matthew study?
MR. WATKINS: Matthew wanted to be an architect, and Williams had a program for
architectural studies. The year after he arrived, Williams discontinued that
program because there were not enough students taking it. When he
returned home, he was very upset. I asked him if he wanted to leave. He
said that he would take a related program of art history. So, he studied art
history. Then he took a semester abroad in Italy where he studied
architecture. When he left Italy, his Italian was fair. When he returned,
his Italian was excellent. He traveled in Europe, became fluent in Italian
and learned a lot about architecture.
He went to the University of Michigan architecture school. When
he graduated in 2003, the market for new architects was not good. So, he
found a position with the Washington Business Improvement District
(“the BID”) in downtown D.C. The BID is an organization that
coordinates the needs of the community and business owners. It is a group
that finds what the business needs or like or dislike about the area in which
they are located. Then the BID goes to the government with that
information and helps negotiates changes. He did that for a few years then
he worked for a developer; now he is working for another BID in
Southwest Washington.
MR. McKEOWN: With all the activity going on in D.C., I expect he’s a pretty busy person?
MR. WATKINS: He is busy and happy about what he is doing now.
MR. McKEOWN: Was your wife ever able to jump back into the workforce?
MR. WATKINS: No. She worked for a time at the Brookings Institute assisting a scholar
who was writing a book on developing countries. Then she worked for the
American Bar Association (ABA) here in D.C. She then did economic
studies at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from which she
MR. McKEOWN: So now you’re blessed with a third grandchild.
MR. McKEOWN: How old are the other two?
MR. WATKINS: My oldest son, Robert, has an eight-year old son, Aire. My youngest son
has a two-year-old daughter, Lucia, and a three-week old daughter whose
name is Simone.
MR. McKEOWN: So, there’s no Robert Patterson Watkins IV?
MR. WATKINS: Not currently.
MR. McKEOWN: Let me ask you this, Mr. Watkins. Is there anything else you think that
you’d like to share on the record about your life, professional
achievements, family, or anything that you think ought to be memorialized
that we might have missed?
MR. WATKINS: I have a wonderful wife and clever sons. They have families. I’m very
proud of them; they’re great guys.
MR. McKEOWN: Is your greatest achievement your family?
MR. WATKINS: Yes. I look at them and see that they are good people. They work hard,
and they are good family men. My granddaughters are charming and
beautiful. My grandson is handsome and talented. Who could ask for
MR. McKEOWN: Well that should go on the record. I want to thank you for your time.
MR. WATKINS: You are very kind to do this. I appreciate that.
Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
American Colonization Society, 7
American Tennis Association (ATA), 12
Bergan, Ray, 88
Bowser. Bill, 10
Bres, David, 67, 74
Breyer, Stephen, 133
Bridges, Ruby, 83
Bryant, William B., 64-66
Califano, Joseph (Joe), 86, 88, 99, 106, 117
Champney, David, 32
Cheney, James, 50, 55
Collias, Arthur, 2-3
Collins, Jerry, 88
Congress of Federated Organizations, (COFO), 48
Connolly, Paul, 86, 88
Cooper, Nancy, 48, 51, 53
Court of General Sessions, 71-72
CSX, 106, 109-12
Davis, Wally, 31-32
Dees, Morris, 80
Dennis, Marbu (brother-in-law), 7-8
Deutsch, Phil, 112-13
Federal Maritime Commission, 63, 67
Fisher, Bob, 36
Flannery, Thomas, 71, 74-75
Freedom House, 51, 53-55
Freedom Riders, 50
Galbraith, Kenneth, 38
Ginsburg, Ruth Bader, 133
Goldstein, Jonathan, 103, 120
Goodman, Andrew, 50, 55
Grace, Charles (“Daddy’), 65
Gray, Stefan, 111
Hall, Carsie, 53
Harrison, Bill, 14, 15
Harvard Crimson, 28, 112
Jones (case), 119
Jones, Walter, 100, 102-03
jury nullification, 97
Kendall, David, 112
Kerner Commission, 70
Kerner Commission (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders), 69-70
Kerner, Otto, 69
Knott, Paul, 30
Leventhal, Harold, 77
Liberia, 7- 8
Little Rock Nine, 83
Lusky, Louis, 59
Martin, John, 31-32
McConnell, Alan, 127
McDaniels, William (Bill), 84-85, 91, 99
McMullen, Ronnie, 5, 10
Moore, Luke, 83
Morgan, Ellsworth, 30
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 48
Nebeker, Frank, 76
New York Times, 45
Paulsen, Monrad, 60
Peori, Mike, 51
Povich, David, 92-96, 114, 117, 122-24, 127, 131
Povich, Maury, 93
Povich, Shirley, 93
racial segregation, 17
Raymond, George, 49
Robbins, Dave, 32
Robinson case, 116
Robinson, Bill, 48
Robinson, Charlie, 50-53
Robinson, Don, 114, 117-118, 123
Robinson, Eddie, 30
Robinson, Joan, 139
Scarne on Gambling (Scarne), 94
Schwerner, Mickey, 50, 55
Seligman, Nicole, 112-13
Seymour, Gordon (“Buck”), 121-23
Shapiro, Dan, 48
Smith, Gordon, 32
Smith, James, 32
Socratic method, 58
Starr, Mike, 48, 53
Stern, Herb, 103
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC),, 48
Superior Court of the District of Columbia, 71-72, 78-79, 84, 89, 93, 98, 111, 126
Tashner, Hans, 10
The Man to See (Thomas), 98
Thomas, Clarence, 133
Titus, Harold, 83
United States v. Zirpolo (case), 92
Vardaman, Jack, 112
Voting Rights Act., 57
Wald, Harkrader & Ross, 88
Wallboard (case), 121
Washington Post, 93, 102
Watkins John (uncle), 12
Watkins, Ann, 140
Watkins, Ann (wife), 137, 140, 142-43Watkins, Jane (sister), 7
Watkins, Janet (sister), 7
Watkins, Kate Marian (mother), 6
militant, 17
Watkins, Robert – Personal
Alcott School, 1-6, 14
Boston Latin School, 3-5, 14-16, 18- 25, 29-31, 35, 37, 39, 41, 58, 60
Boy Scouts, 12, 33
Columbia Law School, 46-47, 81-82
Dwight School, 2-3
Ford Foundation, 68
Freedom Summer (voter registration project), 48
Girls Latin School, 22
Harvard, 9, 14-15, 24-27, 29, 31- 43, 47, 51, 60-61, 66, 112
Harvard Crimson, 28
July 6, 1937, in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Boston City, 1
Law Students Civil Rights Council, 47
Omega Psi Phi. fraternity, 36
Sherwin, 3-6, 14
U.S. Army, 32, 45, 82
Watkins, Robert – Professional
attributes for a good trial lawyer, 134
change in the way law was practiced over the years,, 140
changes in the practice of law, 140
Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC, 67
Federal Maritime Commission, 67
Court of General Session, 76
Maritime Commission, 68, 70, 85
Social Security Administration, 43-44, 47, 49
U.S. Attorney’s Office, 68, 75, 80, 83, 85, 99
Assistant U.S. Attorney, 65, 67, 70-71, 86, 104-05, 116
Civil Rights Division, 56, 63, 67, 79-81, 83
Williams & Connolly, 83-85, 87–92, 96, 98-99, 105-06, 112, 114, 116-18, 126, 129, 131-32
Watkins, Matthew (son), 8, 62, 141
Watkins, Robert (son), 140
Watkins, Robert Patterson (father), 6
Watkins, Robert Patterson (grandfather), 9
Weinberg, 90, 92, 102, 104, 119, 121
Weinberg, Bob, 89-91, 98-99, 102, 104, 119, 121, 131
White, Frank, 83
Wickersham Commission, 70
Williams & Connolly, 83-85, 87-92, 96, 98-99, 105-06, 112, 114, 116-18, 126, 129, 131-32
Williams, Edward Bennett, 24, 25, 30, 83- 92, 98-106, 108, 116, 119-21, 125-26
illness, 130
Wolf, Paul, 131
Wright, Nancy, 51

Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
Table of Cases and Statutes
Alan McConnell, Appellant, v. Howard University, 818 F.2d 58 (D.C. Cir. 1987), 127-28.
In re: Domestic Drywall Antitrust Litigation, (E.D. Pa., MDL No. 2437 and 13-MD-02437), 2018, 121-
Matter of Robinson, 70 A.D.2d 209 (N.Y. App. Div. 1979), 113-115
United States v. Walter Jones, 380 F. Supp. 343 (D.N.J. 1974), 100-01.
United States v. Zirpolo, 288 F. Supp. 993 (D.N.J. 1968), 92.
Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437, 57.

ADDRESS: 7944 Orchid St NW
Washington DC 20012
(202) 607-7817 (mobile)
(202) 829-5780 (home)
EDUCATION: Harvard College, A.B., 1959
Columbia University Law School, LLB, 1965
Ford Foundation Fellowship to
Cambridge University (England), Diploma in Criminology, 1970
MILITARY STATUS: Veteran, U.S. Army, Active Duty, Oct. 1960 – July 1962
Reserve Duty, July 1962 – Oct. 1966
Honorable Discharge, Oct. 1966
Williams & Connolly LLP, Washington, DC
October 1972 – November 2016; Partner 1977- 2016
For over 30 years at Williams & Connolly LLP, one of the nation’s leading trial law firms. I have
represented individuals, business organizations, and universities in civil matters including libel, contract
disputes, discrimination, antitrust and labor, medical malpractice and general civil litigation. Have
represented both individuals and organizations in a wide variety of criminal matters involving both street
and white-collar crime.
My areas of specialty are civil and criminal litigation. My practice has been quite varied. The
following is a description of the types of cases and clients.
Civil and Criminal Litigation Case Summaries
▪ Defended a railroad corporation in two class action suits; the first was involved a $25,000,000 case
tried in Jacksonville, Florida involving hundreds of foreign employees. The second involved race
discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama.
▪ Represented an auto dealership in a complex race discrimination case and against claims of sex and
age discrimination in Northern Virginia.
▪ Represented a major supermarket chain in two class action race discrimination cases; one in
Washington, D.C., and the other in Baltimore, Maryland.
▪ Represented the owner of a shopping center in a wrongful death action.
▪ Represented a D.C. area hotel in a sexual harassment case.
▪ Defended a D.C. area hospital corporation in a complex medical malpractice case involving surgical
CASES – CIVIL (cont’d)
▪ Represented a major real estate broker in antitrust suits and in various real estate licensing
▪ Represented a German beer company in a contract dispute with U.S. beer company.
▪ Represented Black employees of the Library of Congress in labor disputes with the Library
▪ Prepared and argued pre-trial motions to dismiss in civil securities fraud suit involving over ten
million dollars.
▪ Represented the South Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) against a lobbying arm of the
Namibian Government in a dispute about SWAPO’s status in United States (U.S.).
▪ Represented company in litigation against the Federal Government for Federal agency’s breach of
contract in connection with its purchase of computer hardware and software.
▪ Represent minority union members in action against a union for discriminatory practices.
▪ Defended national newspaper in action for libel.
▪ Defended major manufacturer of asbestos products in series of Wrongful Death and Survivors Act
▪ Defended major natural gas transmission company in a contract suit by an electric utility.
▪ Represented plaintiffs in an air pollution suite against a major coal company in West Virginia.
▪ Defended major pesticide producer in cancellation proceedings before the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency.
▪ Represented national food distributor as creditor in commercial loan action.
▪ Defended international oil exploration company in civil securities action.
▪ Represented major auto manufacturer in products liability litigation.
▪ Represented a major university in a variety of litigated cases:
Libel actions and advising the newspaper on potentially libelous articles.
Contract matters, claims of race and sex discrimination, and claims of wrongful denial of tenure.
Hospital medical malpractice actions.
▪ Represented another university in the negotiation and administration of the following:
lective bargaining agreements.
Claims of discrimination before the D.C. Human Rights Commission.
Regulatory matters before the local transit commission.
Litigated real estate matter.
▪ Defended U.S. Congressman charged with mail fraud and making false statements.
▪ Represented public official charged with bribery, willful failure to pay income taxes, filing fraudulent
claims against the government, making false statements to the government, and obstruction of justice.
▪ Defended complicated securities, criminal mail fraud, and securities fraud prosecution.
▪ Represented local official charges with bribery and fraud.
▪ Defended a number of clients (in federal and local courts) charged with offenses of murder, burglary,
grand larceny, embezzlement, kidnapping, bribery, obstruction of justice, maintaining an interstate
gambling operation, and violation of the federal narcotic laws.
August 1971 – September 1972
Chief, Misdemeanor Section, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia
Trained all new employees entering the U.S. Attorney’s Office in law, procedure, and trial tactics
for criminal cases. Supervised, controlled, and had responsibility for 20 to 25 Assistant U.S. Attorneys
and for supporting personnel, including the training and evaluation of personnel performance. Made
policy decisions about how certain classes of cases, such as narcotics and weapons cases, were to be
disposed of. Personally made tactical decisions on how a case would best be tried; tried major felony
August 1970 – 1971
Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Appellate Division
Wrote briefs and argued criminal and civil cases in both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C.
Circuit Court and in the D.C. Court of Appeals.
September 1968 – August 1969
Law Clerk to the Honorable William B. Bryant, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
Researched various criminal and civil matters coming before the Court; advised the Court in their
December 1966 – January 1968
Trial Attorney, Office of Hearing Counsel, Federal Maritime Commission, Washington, DC
Wrote the briefs and argued cases before Hearing Examiners, now Administrative Law Judges,
and the full Maritime Commission.
September 1965 – December 1966
Attorney, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.
Investigated various civil rights complaints in various counties of Mississippi and Alabama and
assisted in the preparation of trials of more senior attorneys.
Bar Association and Professional Organizations
Advisory Committee on Procedure, U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit) 1984 -1985
American Bar Association, 1967- Present
American Bar Association Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary, member 1990 -1993;
Chairman 1993 – 1994
Bar Association of the District of Columbia 1964 – Present
American College of Trial Lawyers, 1992 – Present
Thurgood Marshall American Inn of Court, January 1990-1993
Charles Fahy American Inn of Court, September 1982-1985; 1989-1990
American Trial Lawyers Association, 1988-Present
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Association, 1975-Present
Black Assistant U.S. Attorneys, 1982-2016
Board of Governors of the D.C. Bar, June 1980-June 1983
Columbia Law School Alumni Association, 1980s-Present
District of Columbia Bar Disciplinary Board, 1974-1977
Board of Trustees, D.C. Public Defender Service. Member 1976-1982; Chairman 1979-1981
District of Columbia Bar Association, Sections on Criminal Law, General Practice and Litigation,
Young Lawyers Section, 1968-1972
Federal Judicial Nominating Commission for the District of Columbia, 1976-1980
Fellows of the American Bar Foundation, 1993-Present
Flannery Lecture Committee 2005-Present
Lawyer’s Club of Washington, 1997-Present
Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 1983-Present
Lawyers Guild, 1964-1992
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, 1970s-Present
National Bar Association, 1975-1996
National Conference of Black Lawyers, 1971-1994
Bar Association and Professional Organizations (cont’d)
The American Law Institute 1995-Present
The Defense Research Institute, 1980s
Phi Delta Phi, 1962-1965
Washington Bar Association, 1967-Present
Educational Organizations
Boston Latin School Association, 1985-Present; Board of Directors, 1992-1995
Director, Associated Harvard Alumni, 1979-1981
Columbia Law School Association, Board 1997-1980
Harvard Club of Washington, 1968-Present; Vice President for Administration, 1983-1984
Board of Directors, 1975-1978; 1984-1988;
Harvard Schools and Scholarship Committee, 1986-1994
Williams College Parents’ Council, 1994-2001
Civic and Charitable Organizations
Environmental Defense Fund, 1970s-Present
Friends of Drayton Hall, 1980s-Present
Friends of the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1972-Present
Friends of the National Zoo, 1980-Present
Museum of African American History and Culture
Charter Member, 2016-Present
NAACP, 1970s-Present
National Trust for Historic Preservation 1980s-Present
Neighbors, Inc., Member, 1973-Present
Schomburg Society for the Preservation of Black Culture of the New York Public Library, 2003-2010
Smithsonian Associate, 1980-Present
The English Speaking Union, 1988-2005
The Phillips Collection, 1980-Present
Religious Organizations
St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, 1979-Present; Usher, 1984-1986; Sunday School Teacher, 1982-1990
Space Allocation Committee, February 1985-1986
Vestry Member, Finance Committee, 1990-1995
Search Committee, 1994-1995
Religious Organizations (cont’d)
National Cathedral Chapter, Board 1997-2005
Vice Chancellor, Episcopal Diocese of Washington, 1996-2004
Social and Fraternal Organizations
Aspen Hill Racquet Club, 1987-2004
Capitol PC Users Group, 1984-1990
DePriest Fifteen, 2009-Present
Metropolitan Club, 1983-Present
Omega Phi Psi Fraternity, 1957-Present
Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Epsilon Boulē, 1995-Present