Oral History of Robert P. Watkins
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
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
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
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. WATKINS: No.
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
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. WATKINS: Right.
MR. McKEOWN: Tell me about your entering class. What was the entering class like?
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. WATKINS: Right.
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
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. McKEOWN: Why?
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
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
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
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
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.