Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 (FCC) 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 care, 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
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
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
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
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
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.