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Oral History Interview with James Darnell Watkins, class of 1971 Picture of James Watkins from 1971 Bugle

Date of Interview: March 31, 2000
Location of Interview: Media Building Sound Booth, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va
Interviewer: Tamara Kennelly
Transcribers: Cherisse Marshall

Part One

James Watkins and brother
Left: Roynel Watkins, age 4 and James Watkins, Age 6
[Tape 1, side 1]

Kennelly: You are listed in the Bugle as being from Newport News. Is that where you were born?

Watkins: No, actually I was born in North Carolina.

Kennelly: Where in North Carolina?

James Watkins at 6 months
James Darnell Watkins (Born: August 29, 1949)
Age: 6 - 8 months

Watkins: A small town called Reidsville, North Carolina, which is near Greensboro. I was there until I was three years old and my parents moved to Newport News. So I was actually in Newport News from the age of three on. So as far a birth place it was really North Carolina.

Kennelly: What did your parents do?

James Watkins with father
James Darnell Watkins at age 2 with his father James Granderson Watkins and younger bother Roynel

Watkins: My father was a laborer in a Newport News shipyard, and that's what took him to Newport News. He was raised on a farm. He left the farm, moved the family to Newport News so he could take job at the shipyard as a rigger at the Newport News shipyard.

Kennelly: And what about your mother?

Watkins: My mother was just a housewife. No general job.

Kennelly: Pardon me?

Watkins: She was just a housewife. No job. Just a housewife. Nowadays you don't say just a housewife. No, she did not work.

Kennelly: How many children are in your family?

Watkins: Six kids, I'm the oldest. Neither one of my parents finished high school, so I guess the opportunity for the oldest child to go to college was a major thing. So I was the oldest of six; there were four boys and two girls.

Kennelly: Did you have a sense, when growing up, that you were expected to go to college?

Watkins: Later on, as I got into high school. Initially, I didn't know that that was going to be an option for me. In my younger years, I don't know if I really thought so much about college, but when I got into high school, it seemed that I had the aptitude for at least the academics. It was kind of understood that I would at least take the opportunity to try to go to college.

Kennelly: When you moved to Newport News, did you grow up in an integrated community?

Newsome park james Watkins with friend
Newsome Park
Newport News, Va.
James Watkins' home from 1953 - 1963
James Watkins (on the right) with a friend Benton Jeter (1963)

Watkins: (he laughs) Well, growing up in Newport News in the fifties, especially at that time, there was no such thing as an integrated community. No, we lived in the projects. Most of the shipyard workers that had the kind of jobs as my father did, we all kind of lived in what would be called projects. Unit-type homes with partitions for families. Maybe about six families to a unit. That kind of thing, you would really call them projects.

And then, we eventually got to the point where the projects where we lived were being torn down, and we were forced to move. When we were forced to move, we moved into our first, house. We moved into a home that was an actual separate unit, when I was in the eighth grade.

Kennelly: What was it like living where you lived? Was there a real sense of community?

Watkins: A real sense of community? Of course! I guess the one thing, that you even hear about now, is we didn't have just one parent. We had a bunch of parents living in the projects. You couldn't do anything without someone knowing what you were doing and that you are James Watkins' son, at such and such a place, especially if you weren't supposed to be there.

You were almost raised by a lot of different people, but I had both of my parents at home. That was kind of good, because some of my friends didn't have both parents there. I know it made a difference in our upbringing.

There were some difficult times, but I don't know if I thought about it being very difficult. When you are at that age, it seems like everything is fine: food is on the table, and things were happening that you thought should be happening. I knew we weren't well off because of where we lived and knowing that there were some people that at least lived in a house. I always equated the "living in the projects" thing to one type of environment. Then we had friends that went to school with us that lived in an actual house instead of a unit.

Kennelly: Did it feel dangerous where you lived? Were there gangs?

James Watkins with brother and Sisters
James Watkins with brother and sisters
From left: James, Roynel, Theresa and Felecia

Watkins: Were there gangs? I don't think there were any real gangs. If you understood the Newport News environment in the fifties, what happened was we had two predominantly black high schools in Newport News. One was Carver, where I went to high school--George Washington Carver. The other was Huntington high school. It happened to be a railroad track that separated the two. It was a dividing line for the city that determined which high school that you went to. Mostly what happened was if you went to Carver and lived on the Carver side of the railroad tracks, you tried not to venture over to the Huntington side of the railroad tracks because there was just this unity and you were not accepted. There was this big rivalry from athletics to everything else between the two high schools. There was also this "danger" of the fact that you might get into a fight if you went on the other side of the railroad track and you didn't have particular people with you or you weren't supposed to be there at a particular time.

But as far as gangs, I don't really identify with the fact that there were gangs there. I know that there were individuals, certain guys in the community, that you don't mess with. They were the fighters, the ones that . . . you just don't mess with them. That was the only thing that I remember; things like that.

The other thing I would say is our biggest problem about being there was not during the school year. You know, you went to school everyday, you got home. At least in my family the rule was at dark, you came in. My parents were real strict about that. Problems came in the summer time, when school was out...


Reidsville, North Carolina
Aerial view of James Watkins' grandfather's farm
Reidsville, North Carolina

Where I was from in North Carolina, my grandparents still lived there. They still farmed. Every summer, as soon as school closed, my brother, who is two years younger than me, and I were farmed off to North Carolina, and we spent the summers on the farm in North Carolina where I was born. I think that had a big thing to do with me not getting into some trouble that I knew my friends would get in because they had idle summers where there wasn't a lot of jobs for young black youth. So your summers were really just milling around, playing around, doing mostly things that led to trouble. But we never did that, until I was in tenth grade.

Every summer from when I was four years old, literally four years old, until I was in the tenth grade, every summer we would spend on my paternal grandfather's farm. They were tobacco farmers, and we basically worked with them in the summertime until it was time for school to start. School always started after Labor Day. You knew after Labor Day, it was time to go back and start school again. We went back and did the routine and it happened every year like clockwork.

Then when I was in tenth grade, the only difference was I could get a job because I was old enough. Then I was able to get a little summer job in Newport News. Up until my tenth grade year, I thought I wanted to be a farmer. I mean, I loved those summers on the farm. I thought I wanted to be like my grandfather, I wanted to be a farmer, just like him-- raise tobacco, do all that stuff like that.

But there was something about turning sixteen that makes you realize that farming was hard work and that it was not fun anymore and maybe there was something better to do. By then, I felt that I was a fairly good student. I was then looking toward something that required a college degree. Even if it was in agriculture. At one time, when I did realize that maybe I would go to college, I would go into agriculture so college could develop me into the farmer that I wanted to be.

Kennelly: What would you do on the farm?

Watkins: Once again, my grandfather was a tobacco farmer, with a small number of acres who did things the old-fashioned way. Other people had tractors, but he basically had mules. I felt like it could have been taken to another level if you were looking to do something like this. So I knew with a college education that I certainly could come back, do it better than my grandfather had done it.

One thing I did know was I didn't want to be the type of laborer as my father was. He worked hard, and everyday when he came home, he was smelly. His hands were always dirty, and even though farm work was something similar, it seemed like growing things seemed a little better. I never understood why he moved from the farm to the city after I spent all those summers there. It was always fun for us. Here we were city boys coming back to the country just for the summer, but it was always fun for us. My brother and I, would cry when it was time to go back, and at times, we wished we had stayed there year round. Maybe things would have been different.

Kennelly: And you just helped with whatever they were doing on the farm?

Watkins: Whatever in regards to the summer work. In the summer time, they were raising tobacco, that's when there was growth. They were leaving the planting portion to the pulling tobacco leaving it and hanging it on sticks and curing it to take it to the market.

Kennelly: And you were stripping it and everything?

Watkins: All of that. The younger you were, you did less tedious things, but as you got older, they let you do more involved things. It's like you moved up the ladder or chain. I went from a handing the leaves to the people that were stringing it on a stick to eventually curing it, to driving the mules back and forth, bringing the tobacco from the field to the barn. That was a big thing to do, a big responsibility. Eventually, you had to hang it in the barn and be responsible for curing it and everything.

But it was interesting, and I thought it was the best thing since Swiss cheese for those years. My grandfather and I were very close, closer than my father and me. Even though I only spent three months year with him, we were rather close because I enjoyed what he did. He was a very soft-spoken man, and I kind of appreciated the type of person he was.

James Watkins' grandparents
James Watkins' paternal grandparents
Granderson and Pensacola Bigelow Watkins (1967)

Kennelly: What was his name?

Watkins: Granderson Watkins. Actually, my son's middle name is Granderson, named after my grandfather because I really thought they bonded. Now, of course, my father's middle name is Granderson also, so you look at it either way. But, he was Granderson Watkins. And I named my son in honor of my grandfather.

Kennelly: I just wanted to ask you one question about the two schools and the railroad tracks. Was there an economic difference between the two schools?

Watkins: Oh no, on the other side of the tracks, there were projects just like on our side of the tracks.

Kennelly: It was just rivalry?

Watkins: Just a rivalry of the two schools. It was more of a rivalry of the schools than your living environment or anything like that. Basically, there were single family homes and projects on that side of the tracks too. That was the dividing line that the city used to determine because at that time the black students didn't go to the white schools. We actually passed a white high school to get to our school because we were bussed to our school. So you didn't go to the same school, and it was just kind of understood.

Of course, later on, (I graduated from high school in '67) around '66 or '65, there was a freedom of choice where you could choose to go to wherever you wanted to go; supposedly. At that time, there were very few blacks that chose to go to the predominantly white schools. You could count them on one hand, the number of students that went to the school that we passed. At that time, we didn't make that choice as an issue because it was still somewhat understood what your place was, I guess that is the best way to put it. There were still certain places that you didn't go in the city of Newport News. There were actually still a few little "whites only'" signs around certain places. They might not have been sitting out for you, but you knew where to go and where not to go.

Kennelly: Where were they?

Watkins: Restaurants and places like that. You knew that you were not expected to go into this place because you never saw any blacks there. And it was still the fact that there was freedom of choice, there weren't any white students choosing to go to any of the black schools either. If there was freedom of choice, what that meant was, if you were a black student you could choose to go to one of the predominantly white schools. But none of the white students were choosing to go to Huntington or Carver, the two black schools.

Kennelly: Did you or your friends consider going to the white high schools?

Watkins: White high schools? No, that wasn't even a consideration. When that happened in '65, I was already a sophomore. To change schools after you were a sophomore was no point. The freedom of choice was really meant for kids about to start high school, and because we didn't have middle schools then, the kids that were starting eighth grade would be entering high school. So you could choose to go after your seventh grade year. It's not like if you were in the tenth grade, you would choose to go to another of the high schools.

There were some families that challenged it and did put some black students in the schools, but for the most part, the choice was meant for seventh graders going to the eighth grade about to be in high school. That was the intent, so I guess you haven't developed friendships or whatever, and you could still say that you went through a high school starting in eighth grade for your whole high school career. There were a number of some students that did transfer over because the freedom of choice was challenged by a number of people to the point that parents elected to put their kids into the Denbigh High School or the Newport News High School, which was really the thing there, and Warwick High School. They were the three schools that were majority white at that time.

Kennelly: Did you have much contact with white people when you were growing up?

Watkins: Not very much at all. They didn't come into our neighborhoods, and we didn't get an opportunity to go there, other than sometimes there were little odd jobs that could be done. My father did some odd jobs on the weekends, and he would take us with him sometimes to do yard work. So we would go into the neighborhoods and do stuff like that. Plus the neighborhoods were completely separate. It was like the projects and everything was downtown, and when you left you had to cross a dividing line, and in this case, it was Mercury Boulevard. When you went on the other side of Mercury Boulevard you knew it was going to be predominantly white. Usually, if you were seen in those areas, you were doing some kind of job. You didn't go to those areas too often.

Kennelly: You didn't go to shop or go to a movie?

Watkins: The shopping downtown was really kind of central because it was in between both areas. Like we would be coming from one side of town, the south side, and going toward where the shopping areas were and the whites would be coming from the north area back. The movie theatre in this part of town was for whites only.

Kennelly: So those were integrated as far as shopping?

Watkins: They eventually became that way, but there was a black shopping area with black movie theaters. There was actually an area that was run by black merchants and Jewish merchants. It was considered the black downtown, and you didn't see many white people shopping there. It was mostly blacks that shopped there. The other area was integrated, the main area with the big stores. They were integrated. You could go in and buy things. It wasn't a big issue.

Kennelly: Were you as a child conscious of experiencing racism? Were there things that happened that were hurtful to you in that way?

Watkins: There weren't many things that happened like that because we got up and went to school, a black school. We passed the white school. That's all we knew was that we were going pass it. Until I was a senior in high school, we didn't have any white teachers, so all of our teachers were black. Then you came back home, did your playing in the evening, and that was it. So there wasn't a lot of contact. My contact primarily came when my father did these odd jobs.

Actually, I had more contact when I went back to N.C. in the summers with my grandfather because in a farming community, it was a little different. Even though, you kind of knew your place, there was interaction that you really didn't have in the city. There were certain overlaps that really didn't happen in the city. They went to buy supplies at the same place. My grandfather also sold vegetables in a little farmer's market on the weekends, and mostly whites would come to those.

I would see them more in that environment than I did in the city in Newport News. Even when we had all the athletic teams, we played in a whole different league. The black league, VIAA (Virginia Interscholastic Athletic Association), didn't play the white schools. Even though Carver-Huntington was the big rivalry because we were in Newport News, Hampton had a black high school, Crestwood was the black high school over in Chesapeake over on the Norfolk side. Each city had all black high schools. We played all of those schools. So there was no interaction even on the athletic field with whites. It was really different.

Kennelly: What was that first job that you had?

Watkins: I was a busboy at Vic Zodda's Pancake House on Jefferson Avenue in Newport News.

Kennelly: Was that a black or white restaurant?

Watkins: It was a white restaurant. All the waitresses were white, and only the busboys were black. All I remember is that waitresses could get tips and the busboys couldn't, but they shared the tips with us. It was an all right job.

Of course then after that, I was old enough to work in the shipyard in the summers after my junior and senior years. That was actually the best job in town because it paid better than any other jobs. So I was able to do that a few summers and a few summers while I was in college too. After that tenth grade year in high school, I didn't want to go back to the farm that much to work, just to visit. It started to hit me that farming was hard work and harder than I wanted to work.

Kennelly: You said you had some white teachers?

Watkins: We had white teachers at the school, but they only taught seventh and eighth grade. I don't think they wanted to subject the white teachers to juniors and seniors because there might be more conflict, but there was one white female that came in that taught eighth grade. She was an eighth-grade homeroom teacher.

That's all I can really remember because after that, when I was a junior at Tech, I actually came back on spring break. A couple of my teachers that knew I was good in math would let me be a substitute teacher for them without even getting my degree. Which was kind of interesting. There were also a couple of other white teachers there, but I never got a chance to meet them and find out what they taught. My senior year, there was one white eighth-grade homeroom teacher, and I think she taught English.

Kennelly: At that time, if you rode the buses, could you sit wherever you wanted?

Watkins: Well of course, the school buses were all black. But the city buses, I don't ever remember having to go to the back. I don't remember that, but I think it was that way at that time. I think I was too young. That was the fifties, and at that time we didn't do too much on the bus. If our parents would go somewhere, we wouldn't ride the bus. But by the time I was in high school, I did more riding the bus and by then, they had gone through the business with the back of the bus, and you could sit anywhere you want to sit. So I'm not quite that far back, I'm not that old. (He laughs.)

Kennelly: Was anyone in your family politically active?

Watkins: No. Oh no.

Kennelly: Was church important?

Watkins: Church was very important. We were expected to be there every Sunday. Mostly from my mother, but not from my father, because he didn't go as much. That was my mother's emphasis that we go to church. Now, sometimes it didn't mean church, but Sunday school. But we are going to do something on Sunday. And, that was always the case at my grandfather's farm.

Another good thing I liked about being on the farm was that in a farming community, they only went to church once a month. They had a church Sunday, like third Sunday or fourth Sunday. In my grandfather's case, it was fourth Sunday, so when we were there, they worked seven days a week. On Sundays, they wouldn't do as much, but they were expected to work all of the time. I always felt like it was less pressure to go to church because at most during the summer, we would only have to go to church three Sundays because we were only there for three months. I mean, if you really looked at it as being bad to have to go to church. For a kid, sometimes it was, because you most times wanted to do other things.

But my mother was hard on us, because it was either Sunday school or church. As we got further along, we got a little involved. There was a boy scout troop in the church, and I got a little more involved. So actually, it got to be fun. So it wasn't a matter of making us go because it got to be fun. Surprisingly when I got older, it wasn't a big deal.

Kennelly: Were you in a boy scout troop?

Watkins: I was a boy scout for a while.


Part One - Part Two - Part Three

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