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|Oral History Interview with James Darnell Watkins, class of 1971|
James Watkins and Walter McCall
High School Graduation (1967)
Kennelly: Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech?
Watkins: Ahh! Good question. Well, they gave me money. That's the one thing and partly because of a guidance counselor. It was the late sixties, and there was this influence or an interest in bringing in black students, and we were aware of it. And the guidance counselor that I had in particular always pushed that to the students that were members of the National Honor Society, that there were these opportunities that weren't there before.
Being from North Carolina, And close to Greensboro, I always had this interest in going back to North Carolina A&T, which was North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. It was close to where my grandfather was, and it was back in North Carolina. And there happened to be an alumnus of the school that was in Newport News and knew about me and knew where my parents were from. He was always over my parents' house making sure that I was going to put in my application to A&T. I always thought that I wanted to go to A&T.
So when my guidance counselor started putting emphasis on applying to majority white schools, I didn't really give it much thought because I knew that I was trying to go to A&T. So my application had already gone to A&T, but she said I should consider some of the other schools, and she mentioned Virginia Tech. I also applied to Duke, which was also in North Carolina. I applied to Cornell and Valparaiso. Then I applied to A&T and Howard University. So I applied to six schools. The deal was then, and actually it's the same today, that you apply to six schools that were your primary focus, and you get your SAT scores sent to them. So I applied to those and was accepted to them all and had scholarships to them all.
James Watkins with his mother Sadie Watkins
High School Graduation (1967)
Watkins: Well I was the valedictorian of my class. Even though it was an all black high school, valedictorian still meant something. It was interesting in a lot of ways that it was that much interest. From an SAT standpoint, I didn't do well. I don't know if it was an interest in having black students or whatever, each school -- Cornell was a full scholarship, Duke was a full scholarship, and Tech at the time was full scholarship. Everything was full scholarship, and it was just a matter of where you wanted to go.
Well, I became a little disinterested in A&T because of my mother. It's interesting, my mother and father are from the same area in North Carolina. My mother knew that I wanted to go because of my paternal grandfather and his influence. Now this grandfather is my father's father. She felt that I would be more distracted, and she basically told me that straight out. I was kind of surprised because as much as my mother influenced me I didn't know that she would be that perceptive about things with regards to me. When she pointed that out, I said maybe that wasn't the way that I wanted to go based on what she was saying. The funny thing is of all the colleges I applied to, which is different from today's world, I know--I never visited one of them. Never been on the campus of anyone of the schools that I applied.
Kennelly: I was going to ask you that.
Watkins: Now, I know with my kids, you go, you visit and take a look at it. I never had done that. So when the thing came up then I was really thinking. I didn't want to go to Cornell despite the fact that they were very interested in trying to get me there for whatever reason. I mean they had people calling me all of the time. It's not like I was an athlete or something. They had people to really call my home. None of the other schools ever called. Duke had me go and visit an alumnus who lived in our community, and he gave me the little spiel about why I should consider going and things like that.
James Watkins with his date Candise Williams
High School Senior Prom (1967)
Kennelly: A white alumnus?
Watkins: A white alumnus, yes. Of course Virginia Tech had no one. It was just--this is the application and this is what we have to offer you and everything. In my mind I had narrowed it down. Valparaiso, I'd never really heard of, I forget how and why I applied there. It was something that my guidance counselor told me about the school. When I first left high school, I was interested in going into engineering. So, because I was in engineering, that had a little to do with Duke and Virginia Tech being important to me. Once again, never been on either one of the campuses and didn't really say that I investigated their programs to the point to know that they were top schools in engineering. Once again, I thought I was leaning towards Duke because it was in North Carolina.
It kind of boiled down to the fact that the scholarship that I had gotten at Virginia Tech was interestingly enough the Rockefeller Scholarship that they were giving to the black students at that time. It only cost $900 to go to Tech, room and board and tuition my first year, and they gave me a $1,000 scholarship. I can do the math. They were giving me more money than I needed to go to school. What is this all about? But it sounded interesting that they would do that. I don't know if it was that much of a difference with regard to Duke because they were giving me a little more money too.
When I really realized that I couldn't make the decision, I couldn't make the decision on where I wanted to go, I flipped a coin. I literally flipped a coin. I mean, if you want to say that Tech won out, Tech won out. I had gotten to the point that I couldn't decide between the two, and I flipped a coin. My parents don't know this or anything. They just thought that I made the decision that I was going to go to Virginia Tech when I basically flipped a coin and Tech won out. My first visit to Tech was when my father packed me up and drove me up here. That was my first time being on campus, and that was how the decision was made.
Kennelly: Can you take yourself back to that time and talk about what your impressions were when you first came here?
Watkins: It was big. I thought it was big, and I wasn't seeing enough black faces. That was scary. All I was wondering on my way up was who my roommate was going to be and how this was going to be. I knew we were going to be paired two to a room, and that was in all the information that they sent me. I was a little leery about that because I was coming from an all black high school, an all black environment, and I was going to a predominantly white college. It was a little apprehension about what it would be like then.
I remember the drive up because my best friend was a track athlete who had gotten a full scholarship to Purdue. It so happened that we had to register at Virginia Tech before he had to go to Purdue, and he rode up with us.
When he came, it was somewhat relaxing, but all the way up we were talking about, "What is this going to be like? We are going to have to talk about this? You are going to be at Purdue, and I'm going to be down here. We're going to have to see what this is all about."
We weren't sure that we made the right choice because we are driving up thinking that we'd never been on the campuses, and we didn't know what to expect. But I was more leery about having a white roommate, and then we would have to deal with some things. What is that going to be like? But then, we are all going to college and all interested in education. Maybe it won't be so different. Just a lot of things that I didn't know how they would be.
I was eighteen years old, leaving home for the first time, and really didn't know what to expect. Needless to say that when I went into my room and found out that my roommate was black, it was a big sigh of relief. In some respects, that was one hurdle that we are over, now we just are going to take things from there. I think my biggest apprehension was who my roommate was going to be. Once that was over, it was just dealing with the other things.
Kennelly: So you didn't mind being put with a black person? That was good.
Watkins: Right, but interestingly enough, we--meaning the black students that came in--later questioned that. There were seven blacks that were in O'Shaughnessy on the top floor. We were on the top floor, which is the little short floor. It was not a long floor, it was the top floor, which did not have that many rooms. All seven of us were on the same floor. They paired us two to a room. That means we had three rooms, each having black roommates, and the odd guy, who was Larry Beale, had no roommate. They had a shortage of rooms and people needed a room, but he had no roommate.
But they claimed that we were paired randomly in the rooms, and we found that interesting that we each had a black roommate all on the same hall. Whether it was the selection of the other people on the hall had anything to do with it or not, it was actually a fun experience on that hall. We didn't have as many people to deal with as some of the other people that lived on the longer floors with more rooms. It's a lot of things that would go through your mind, and it goes through my mind now, why that particular room on that particular floor in that particular dorm was for these seven black students.
There was actually an eighth black male student that came who refused to send in his picture. All seven of us sent in our picture with our application. He refused to send his in and wound up as a freshman in Pritchard Hall with a white roommate. His name Dwight Crewe '71 was such that it might have given you an idea that he was white. As far as random, we saw that as random when you didn't have a picture to say that's a black student. But once again, that's what the administration had told us, that we were randomly assigned rooms.
Kennelly: Did he stick it out with the white roommate then?
Watkins: Well his roommate moved out. He wound up having a room to himself because his roommate elected to move out. For maybe about half of the first quarter, Larry Beale did not have a roommate, but he had a white roommate move in later. Like I said, there was a shortage of rooms. We knew that all the time coming in as freshmen. He did eventually get a roommate.
Kennelly: A white roommate?
Watkins: A white person, yes.
Kennelly: So it just wasn't those four rooms on the floor. There were other rooms too where you were staying?
Watkins: Oh yeah, but our floor in O'Shaughnessy, was like a half a floor. It wasn't as long as the rest of the building. All the other floors right beneath the seventh floor and down were longer and had more rooms. There were not as many rooms on our floor, so we were put in an environment where there were fewer whites to deal with.
But when we started putting everything together, we all attached that picture to that application like you were suppose to, and Dwight Crewe, who wound up being over in Pritchard Hall didn't. Well he said, "I didn't send any picture," and he didn't, and he wound up with a white roommate. But we were told that we were randomly given rooms.
I don't know if we looked at that as being negative because from my standpoint it was a sigh of relief. That was one thing that I didn't have to deal with that I thought I was going to have to deal with. There were other things that I knew I was going to have to deal with regarding the black/white relationship, but that was one thing that I didn't have to worry about it after the fact.
Kennelly: Did you stay with white roommates at all?
Watkins: We were on the quarter system then. The first quarter of our second year we stayed in Lee Hall. My roommate my sophomore year was a freshman named Robert Miller (class of 1972) from Lynchburg. After the first year, you could choose what dorm you wanted to be in, and you could choose your roommate too. So I took Lee Hall, and we stayed there for only a quarter. Then, my roommate and I decided to move off campus. So I lived off campus from the second quarter of my sophomore year on.
Kennelly: Did you have any problems renting a place in town?
Watkins: No, not a problem at all. I thought it was going to present a problem, because we moved out to what used to be Blacksburg Trailer Park, which doesn't exist anymore. It used to be out on Jackson Street by the graveyard. We rented a trailer. Evidently, there were a number of students that lived out there and didn't seem to be any problem. We moved out there one quarter, and the next quarter another black pair moved out there around the corner from us. So really there was no problem with that.
Kennelly: When you moved to Lee, did the other young men that were kind of on the block with you in O'Shaughnessy move over to Lee too?
Watkins: No, we moved to different places. They did choose roommates, but we all decided where we wanted to go.
Kennelly: And how was it eating in the cafeteria?
Watkins: After a period of time, it was understood that most of the blacks sat together. It wasn't by choice. We would literally sit at a table, and no one else--not too many whites--would sit with us. It was just that kind of thing. I don't know if I can say that I can recall anytime sitting down at a table and having someone turn around and get up that I would even be conscious of.
Most of the time when we went in to eat, or even if I went in by myself to eat, I sat down somewhere--I just sat where I wanted to sit. Whether someone sat there or not, I noticed it or didn't notice it as being a big issue. After a while, it didn't become a big issue to me. I think early on, there were certain things that I noticed, but . . . I don't say that I was that conscious of having a problem with the cafeteria. Not that big of a deal, anyway.
Kennelly: What were the certain things that you noticed?
Watkins: Well, like I said, if we were at a table, I would know that probably no one else will join us at the table. You could come in, and you would notice the people. It is kind of bad when you can say that you think people are looking at you, but I think I can really say that people were looking at me. I mean, there weren't many of us to look at then.
Most of my classes throughout my whole career, I was the only black in the class. It wasn't unusual. With the numbers we had and the size of the school, that certainly could not have been considered unusual at that time. You did kind of feel like you were always noticed. When you were the only black in the class, you certainly couldn't miss it too many times, because it's going to be the easiest person to notice when they're not there. That kind of stuff, that wasn't too big of a deal either because I did not miss that many classes.
As far as the cafeteria itself, I can't say that there were any cafeteria episodes where I felt there was blatant animosity taken out upon me because I was black. Not in the cafeteria. There were things that happened around campus. I would almost say that there was not a month that went by that maybe I heard someone yell the "n" word out of a window, where you really couldn't tell where it came from. As far as someone walking in my face and doing something, that never happened. But there were enough times that someone would yell it out of a window when you walk through the quad or something like that, whether you were single or with someone else. That would happen.
During that period of time too, our biggest issue and the biggest surprise that I had from a cultural standpoint and a shock standpoint, the Confederate flag hung blatantly in the coliseum, Cassell Coliseum, and "Dixie" was played so much. You just knew that was the fight song, and it really was. Everyone stood up and cheered when that was played, and the flag was waved. That to me was the biggest affront to my blackness than anything else.
For one, it was happening with the students that were here, and actively the school was starting to--from my sophomore year on--recruit black athletes. We knew that when they came, because they would talk to us about it, that they were aware of that, and it was something that definitely would influence their decision where they wanted to go.
The seven of us on O'Shaughnessy Hall were going to transfer. All seven of us were going to transfer. From one through seven, everyone was going to transfer. The big deal of it was the Confederate flag and playing "Dixie" and the fact that there weren't many black women here at that time. It was more of a shock than we thought it was going to be.
From the first week or two of being here and it wasn't so much that we felt like we weren't really accepted here, but we were here, and so what? It was probably rightly so, that no one needed to make a big attention to the fact that we were here, but that Confederate flag and the playing of "Dixie" was kind of hard to swallow at times. Especially to watch the cheering, and the screaming, and the yelling, and everything.
As a matter of fact--we were talking about this on the way up--a big change from the time we were here was the actual elimination of the Confederate flag and the playing of "Dixie." It happened in the 1970 and 1972 timeframe, and I think it made a difference in a lot of things.
The first Virginia Tech Groove Phi Groove membership card
As I was saying, we were all planning to transfer after that first year, but also after that first year in 1968 was when we started Groove Phi Groove. I often think back about something that makes a difference as to whether you feel like you made a decision on something, or is there something that you can really put up with to get to your ultimate goal of getting your degree. Having some organization that you can identify with or a group that you can identify with outside of all of the organizations on campus that you ever felt like you could be a part of because there was never any interest. At least on my part, I was never asked to join anything, and maybe it was my own fault that I didn't go out and seek something.
When we came to campus, there were no black athletes, that is no basketball players, and no football players. Jerry Gaines came in with me. He was the first black athlete, and he was in track. We rarely saw him. We had been told that the coaches' here did not want black athletes. They didn't want black athletes, and they didn't want them here. If you didn't want black athletes, at the time when there were a lot of super star black athletes, they certainly didn't want us here either.
There was a Confederate flag hanging in the Coliseum, and "Dixie" was played every time you turned around. But you needed something to identify with, and maybe white students were identifying with the Confederate flag and "Dixie," but when we started Groove Phi Groove, we found something to identify with too. It was an organization where we developed a bond.
It started at the end of my freshman year which was kind of awkward in some sense because we developed an organization thinking that we have something that we can identify with, we can have some parties, and find some girls to come. Then we found out that there were some black women at Radford, and that was like, "Ooh, yeah!" At least we could double the number if we go over to Radford and bring some people over. So we had an organization that at first went out and rented an apartment as an organization to have little parties for the black students.
at the Groove House on Jackson street. (1971)
We had somewhere where we could just congregate together and do some things off campus. From that, we developed some relationships where we were looking at how we could make that organization better. Each year, when they would bring in more black students, we were able to convince them, which probably wasn't difficult because we were the only black organization on campus. At least from the male standpoint, most of the guys got interested, and we started developing. It developed into something that was a friendship and that we knew there was an organization that promoted something that we were interested in doing. Even if it was just a matter of sitting around talking about a class or what to do on the weekend.
To me, it was a focal point for blacks in general on campus. Even though at one time, we would go other places and every time someone says that they met someone from Tech, they would say that they were a Groove. Well there wasn't any other choice. If there were a member of an organization, it probably would be that they were a Groove. There were no Q's, or no Alphas, or no Kappas, or anything like that. It hadn't happened yet.
But, by the end of that year, when we all realized that we were not going to punch out, because at one time we were so worried about being in a predominantly white environment that we might flunk out. When we all realized that we did not flunk out, we decided to come back. Part of coming back was going to be developing oneness and working on our degrees. We felt like we could do that, and we weren't going to be quitters.
The positive thing about it was nobody wanted to quit. No one really wanted to quit. They were just dissatisfied by some of the things that they found here. Now that we had Groove, we could have a little something that we thought was our own, that we could identify with, and that made Tech important to us. We just built on that. Going to class and working toward your degree became a little easier I would say.
Begin[Tape 1, Side B]
Kennelly: Did you feel like you were a pioneer?
Watkins: We had Stan Harris here. We had Chickie Harper. I came in 1967. The beginning of my freshman year, when I got here there were some black faces here. Of course, from a male perspective you kind of look for the female faces first. There weren't many of those. That was the thing. I know Chickie Harper and the others that were a year ahead of me, but there weren't many of them. That was kind of a hard part.
We were still in the South in the sixties, so it wasn't like you felt white women were an option to date. You didn't really think about that so much. As far as being a pioneer, I didn't really look at it like that because Stan Harris was here, Bill Shelton was here, Chickie Harper was here. There were some people in the Corps that we didn't see as much of because of the things they had to do from the Corps perspective. We didn't see some of those guys too often.
We actually had some of those cadets like Byron Rimm, Steve Pyles, Charles Beane, Eli Blackwell, Tom Dillard, Keith Pullens and Charles Cartwright that were in Groove Phi Groove too. They were able to get away enough to be part of the organization. But they were here, and we felt like they were the pioneers, because they were here when there were even fewer blacks. I think when we came we almost doubled the population, when our class came.
I know that that's also the year that on the Internet page you said there were 43 blacks. I don't know about 43 blacks. I don't know if I could count 43. We keep trying to figure out where that 43 came from. It may have been that. We really tried to figure out where the 43 was for the 1967-68 year. I thought there were 8 or 9 guys that came in with my year, maybe 10 because we did realize there was another one in that class that was in the Corps, and 3 women. That was about it. According to the class ahead of us there weren't many more.
We were thinking it was more like 30 at the most. Then again, it might have been 43. When it said 43, I thought maybe they weren't counting black students. Because one time, as I said earlier, we were really told the administration weren't keeping track of who the blacks students were. We always wondered about that because of the way we were paired up in the rooms. We said maybe we'll just attribute that to the fact that maybe they really weren't counting who were black students here at that time. But 43, we felt like 43 was pushing it between '67 and '68.
Like I said, that was my freshman year, and most of the guys we really got a chance to see. I know there weren't that many women that came in that year. But the next year there were quite a few. I think there were about 20 or 30 blacks that came here, but only 3 black women that came in the next year, the '68 year. At that time, the number came up that there were 100 blacks on campus, but there couldn't have been 100 blacks on campus because only 23 or 24 came in. Even if there were 43, that didn't even come up to 100.
But as far as being a pioneer, I guess pioneers would be like Essex Finney that came in early before that. We were definitely early. We figured as far as graduates, we had to be in the first 20 or 25 because there couldn't have been more that graduated then. I guess if you were in the first 20 to 25 graduates then maybe that is kind of being a pioneer, as far as being a black graduate.
Kennelly: I noticed that just looking at the pictures from the Groove, there seems such a difference looking at the first image and then looking at the next couple of images.
Watkins: They changed in appearance and everything.
Kennelly: The hair and everything.
Watkins: That was the Afro age back then. Of course, mine was supposed to be the biggest at that time. It was interesting. I noticed, and I always was curious about when this first picture was put in here because it mentioned something about being an organization of black and white students. Tom Dillard and Steve Pyles actually are rather light complexioned, but there was never a white member of Groove Phi Groove at Tech.
Kennelly: This is straight from the yearbook.
Watkins: I know that statement is straight from the yearbook. That was the first year it was put in there. Of course, we had nothing to do with what was actually written in there. That last line was not part of what we gave them to put in the Bugle.
Tom Dillard, who was in the Corps, people thought he was the first black in the Highty Tighties, and no one really addressed that because of his complexion. It may have appeared that he was white. I guess to somebody it might appear that way. That last line was not the line given to them in the Bugle to put in there. I think that was a line maybe to appease someone else but that wasn't what was given to them to put in there. There never was a white in Groove Phi Groove, but you were right, there were some changes.
Kennelly: I don't know if that was the times generally, or if it was peoples' sense of themselves. From this kind of image to that, it just feels a lot different.
Watkins: When we started the organization. here, most of us were from the same environment with, not a lot of money when we came to school. We went out to Drapers Meadows where we (Groove Phi Groove) had that apartment the first time and one of the guys stayed in it, but basically we used it for parties and stuff like that. Then we actually went over there to Jackson Street, and rented a house for Groove Phi Groove, so the next year we actually had a fraternity house. One of the members lived there, but we would congregate there and, the guys would go over there in the middle of the day and night.
James Watkins, Charlie Lipscomb and Muhammed Ali
at the Groove Phi Groove House (1969)
Typical fraternity type of thing. You would go over in the middle of the day, and maybe on the weekend you would have some affair there. When we were in school, Muhammad Ali came to the school to speak. Whenever they would have black speakers come, it was always a big thing with the white fraternities to try to get them to come to their place afterward and say something. Well, Muhammad Ali came to our house after he came to speak. Everyone else was trying to get him to come to their fraternity house.
Muhammad Ali came to our fraternity house with this few black guys-- he changed his flight home because he was supposed to have left out at midnight that night. He changed his flight, stayed, and spoke to us until three in the morning, just sitting around talking to these black students at a school out in the sticks that I know he probably never heard of until he came there. We were impressed by that.
Godfrey Cambridge came to the school to give a program. He came to our house. Dick Gregory came to the school, gave a program, came to our house.
Kennelly: Actually there's a picture of Myron Rimm (class of 1972)[with Dick Gregory]...
Watkins: Yes, that's Myron and the picture of the Human Relations Council. Obviously, the organization Groove Phi Groove, that focal point helped a lot of people identify that they did belong here. They could make it here, and they made it through. A number of people made it through. A number of the people in this picture you'll see tomorrow.
Kennelly: I wanted to ask more about that "Dixie," Confederate flag question. I was looking at some Student Government minutes today, and I see there was a proposal in 1970 to stop having "Dixie." I know there were students involved in the Human Relations Council who were active in that. I wondered if you were at all active in any of that?
Watkins: You have to understand, the Human Relations Council was a predominantly white organization when we came to campus. Then a few of the black students started attending. As the black students started to attend, fewer white students started to come until eventually the Human Relations Council became all black, but that still was after Groove Phi Groove. That's why I said Groove Phi Groove was really the first black organization on campus. Human Relations Council was an organization that already existed at Tech and was University recognized, and that was always a big issue--if you were University recognized. As we joined the Human Relations Council, fewer whites started coming.
This was also a time when "hippies" were around, if you remember the term hippies as people who where were a little bit more liberal thinking. A number of the so-called hippies stayed active with the organization. By the time Myron was a senior, it was all black. I think even before she was a senior it became an all-black organization. It was somewhat of an advantage, if you want to look at it as an advantage. The black students joined for an opportunity to be able to participate in something that was campus recognized and feel like this was an organization that should be pushing issues like the Confederate flag or the playing of "Dixie" and stuff like that.
Like I said it got to the point that then, when it became all black, then it became another issue of "here are the blacks trying to make their thoughts ours." If it had indeed stayed as it should have been from the start as a true Human Relations Council where there was a mixture of all races, then it might have seemed like there was an interest in trying to be fair for the diversity that was already developing on campus. But it didn't wind up being that way.
It was sort of like what I said to you about the cafeteria table. If you did happen to sit down at the table with a number of black students, the white students got up to leave, and I know that did happen. Even if there are instances I don't remember specifically, I know it did happen because I've been told it happened often enough. This is the same thing that happened with the Human Relations Council. When the black students started to join, the white students didn't. It became a black organization purely by default.
Kennelly: Were there any community people involved in Human Relations Council or any professors?
Watkins: There was a professor as an advisor if I remember correctly. There was a professor here from South Africa [Nagan]--the Poly Sci department--that later on became involved with it after it became all black, probably because he was an activist as a professor anyway. I think he had some view on apartheid and stuff like that were all well known. He became active in it, but I don't remember in the beginning who the faculty advisor was when it first started up. As a campus recognized organization there was a faculty advisor.
Kennelly: But there weren't community people?
Watkins: From Blacksburg you mean?
Watkins: No, this was a student organization.
Kennelly: Marguerite Harper said when she was involved in that, one of the things they did was they had this test case where a white young man came to pick her up for a date--
Watkins: Well I didn't know about that until I read about that in her interview.
Kennelly: Were you involved in anything like that, like testing interracial dating or anything like that as far as human relations go?
Watkins: No, I don't think that was even the purpose of getting involved with it. Like you said, it was 1970, and that time frame where the Confederate flag and "Dixie" became an issue, and the protests were coming from a small minority of students on campus. Even though there may have been a number of white students that might have supported us in that particular issue, I don't know that it was that well known. It was written up in the newspaper, certain views about certain things: the Confederate flag and "Dixie." I have to say the majority of blacks were offended by it on campus. Especially when we did get a chance to talk to some of the athletes they were trying to recruit and knowing that they had the advantage of coming to visit and then letting them see this. I mean, give me a break, don't you realize that someone must have a problem with this if they at least want to mention it as an issue to them?
Another thing I'll bring up to about the Confederate flag--it was interesting enough, it was the 1971 year, and I graduated in '71. My class ring, which I elected to purchase, had a Confederate flag on it, but after that they made it elective. It had become such a hot issue that they decided they would have two ring choices. You could choose one with the Confederate flag or without the Confederate flag. I don't know that the Confederate flag is even a part of it at all now. But my class ring has a Confederate flag on it only because I wanted to have a class ring from Virginia Tech. I felt negative about the Confederate flag. I wish I had had the option. I would have gotten it off.
But I felt more about the fact that I wanted a class ring from the school I graduated. Even though I didn't wear the class ring much that had more to do with me going on into dentistry. I didn't wear any rings when I started putting my hands in people's mouths all the time. It was more not wearing it from that standpoint than not wearing it because of any feelings I had about graduating from the school.
When I came to Tech the first year, as I said earlier, I felt like after the first year I wanted to leave and I didn't want to stay here. It was the worst place I'd ever been; I'd made a bad choice. In '71 when I graduated, tears came to my eyes, because I had developed those comraderies between Groove Phi Groove, people that had come here after me, the underclassman, that I was really unhappy about leaving these mountains of Blacksburg. I mean I really felt sad. Even though I knew I was heading off to dental school, and I was going somewhere else, and there was another direction I was heading in, but I was sad about leaving here. From hating this place to really somewhat finding I kind of loved it in a lot of different ways.
It had a lot to do with the people. From my perspective, it had a lot to do with Groove Phi Groove. Of course I was very active in Groove Phi Groove, and I'm sure you know I was one of the founding members, one of the charter members. The six of us that were charter members had to go to Virginia State College to pledge. We had to leave campus because you had to be pledged by another organization. So the six of us actually went to Virginia State University in Petersburg, and we had to go through our pledging period there and then we formed our chapter here, the Gobbler chapter. Everyone else came after us. So I did have maybe a little more of an attachment than some of the others, but part of being a member of it was developing that comraderie and a feeling of belonging. It really influenced a lot of my feeling comfortable here on campus.
One time I used to think that living off campus made a difference for me too. I didn't have to interact a lot. I could kind of go away from it. But that didn't mean anything because there weren't many blacks living in Blacksburg back then either. The black/white interaction didn't become such a big issue to me because in class you were in class. Everyone was there for a purpose. It was just the walking around campus and the going to the events on campus that you felt like there was a true interaction where maybe there was some friction you could feel sometimes. Like I said, when you would sit on a row. Because when we were in Groove Phi Groove, we all had these jackets with G Phi G's on it, and maybe a lot of people were wondering who are these guys? Is this some gang developing on campus? But it was no different than any other frat walking around with their frat jackets. We didn't look at it as being any different. I think after a while no one else did.
From an intramural standpoint, we had our own intramural team, all black. We played all the intramural sports, any sport that they had. We had an all black Groove Phi Groove team. Every year from when I was a sophomore on we participated. The thing with Larry Beale being on the basketball team, we had some very good athletes. Everyone was on academic scholarships. There were no black athletes, so all of us were academics. Surprisingly, there were a lot of good athletes in those very academic blacks they brought on campus. I would venture to guess that a number of them could have played on the team if there was a feeling that you could belong. But we would sit back and we would talk about the Confederate flag and about the "Dixie."
We would talk to the athletes that they would recruit and have them come in and see what their feelings were about it. Some of them I know expressed their feelings about it to some point in time. I think that had a little bit to do with it too. I think the coaches began to realize that something was going to have to happen. I don't think the big part of having to change came so much from the small contingent of blacks on campus, because we were a small percentage here. I think it had to be the realization from someone, whether it be T. Marshall Hahn and the rest of the administration, that something was going to have to change with that, or they were going to have problems with recruitment of these superstar athletes some of the other schools were getting.
They weren't having too much problem with getting the academic student that was interested in coming here in engineering or something like that. The school was well known for that. But if they wanted to get some of these athletes, they were going to have to make those changes along those lines. And maybe we just happened to be there at the right time to ruffle the feathers enough to make somebody realize they had to change.
When they decided to take the Confederate flag down, every student there, almost every white student came in with their own little Confederate flag at the basketball game. I'll never forget it. Here we were happy that the flag was going out of the Coliseum, but every student had a little flag. Their protest was "you can take our flag down, and we're going to bring our own flag." I think they did it toward the end of the season, where it was toward the last game or the next to last game. But it didn't happen long.
The next year we came back it wasn't there, and there were new students, and it had kind of fizzled down. It was a little less thing about it. Of course then came the whole thing about having it on your class ring. All of that was in the '70-'71 time frame. Like I said, there was enough of a protest in '70-'71 that it didn't get done for our class. For the next class they did have the option to get in on or off, and that was great. One time there was this rumor that we were bringing black students from a predominantly black college to come here to actually physically take the Confederate flag down. It was printed in the school newspaper that that was happening. None of us had ever heard of such a thing. I mean that was a ridiculous type of thing. They sent the football team to sit under the flag to protect the Confederate flag at that particular game.
One time we were wondering if it was to protect the Confederate flag or to protect those few black students that were there that were supposedly going to tear it down. That was never the case. I don't think anyone thought about climbing up there to tear down the Confederate flag. When "Dixie" would get played, everyone would stand up and cheer, and we would always sit, and we would never stand.
There were little incidents when someone would yell, "You go to school here. Why don't you stand up?" It was like something wasn't clicking with this person to realize why would we stand up to the playing of "Dixie." There have been some things like that.
In my particular case, I was at a football game--I'll never forget it because Virginia Tech was playing Kansas State. Kansas State was ranked in the country. They had two very good black athletes. One ran the kickoff back for a 100-yard touchdown against Virginia Tech. We didn't see many black athletes in the group that we had, and we were standing up cheering.
A student came back and shook his fist in my face. I'll never forget it, his big Tech ring in my face shaking his fist at me telling me I shouldn't be cheering for the other team like that and I shouldn't go to Virginia Tech if I was going to cheer for the other team. But in a way it wasn't so much cheering for the other team, it was cheering for this athlete that had really made a great play. I guess that's the closest I ever came to fighting someone. It was obvious he was intoxicated because his friends were grabbing him, pulling him back more so than anyone holding me back. He was very intoxicated as a matter of fact. That was the only real incident I had where somebody got on an issue about something getting physical with me about being at an athletic event. It wasn't so much about the flag or anything like that, it was just the fact that I was cheering for an athlete on the other team.
Kennelly: When you did those intramurals it was an all black team playing an all white team. Do you think that was a good positive interaction for people?
Watkins: I think it was. We always had our little cheering squad because we had some of the black females there cheering for us, and of course here we were an all black team, and we always were playing all white teams. We had some good athletes, and we were always winning most of our games. The thing that got to us was the first year we formed a team, we were winning too much because the years after that, the teams that were close to beating us merged and made another team. They were very good players.
This was particularly true in basketball. I remember basketball more because I know that happened in basketball. We were always in the playoffs, and we would always get pretty high in the playoffs. Then maybe a team from D. C. --D. C. always had some great athletes. There was this team from D. C. I think they were called the D. C. Club. They had some real good players.
I guess that on the athletic field maybe things are always different. In athletics there's always a chance to elbow somebody or fight somebody in any part of the game. I don't ever remember anything like that happening there. One of the organizations, for example, one of the Greek frats would have a team, or one of the other organizations that's a recognized organization of the school would have a team. Groove Phi Groove could have a team because we were one of the non-recognized organizations. I forget what the title was. We were able to have a team that way. One time I thought they changed the rule, and we had to play under the banner of the Human Relations Council. Maybe that was the first year, we had to play under the banner of the Human Relations Council. You had to be University recognized. That happened at first, but after that it changed.
As far as the intramurals, that was some of the fun times. You would think there would be more instances because there were chances to throw elbow or get in those little licks that you might have had some personal grievance about. I can't say that I ever think that happened. Even on the football field, flag football was an intramural thing. We had a flag football team, went to the playoffs, and did real well in the playoffs. There were never any instances that I would think would be physical. What could be more physical than football? Even flag football because you still hit people. Never a problem with that. With all our intramural teams, we always had an all black team. At some point, maybe a lot of the white students thought that maybe everybody belonged to Groove Phi Groove because there was still the issue of there were a lot of these black jackets with G Phi G on them walking around campus. Since there weren't many of us anyway, you might see most of the black guys wearing one. One pledge line we had once had 18 guys in it.
We would go to some of the black schools like Virginia State, Howard, or Hampton University. They wouldn't have 18 people in line pledging a fraternity. Here we are a predominantly white school, and we had 18 guys. Dirty Dozen and a half, that's what they called themselves who were pledging the fraternity. We were the only game in town, but we did have one of the biggest lines around, more that any other schools that were pledging Groove Phi Groove. Grove Phi Groove at that time existed in most the minority colleges. It actually still exists. It's not on Tech's campus, but it does still exist at most of the historically black universities.
Kennelly: Did you go to any of the school dances?
Watkins: I went to Ring Dance. Getting my class ring from Tech was a big thing for me, so I did go to Ring Dance. I think that was the only thing I went to. I went to Ring Dance.
Kennelly: Was it comfortable?
Watkins: Actually it was comfortable. My date is sitting right here. I have to say because the issue comes up often enough when we get together in a crowd, but Myron and I dated each other in college. We were comfortable at the ring dance. The year I was there, Larry Beale was there; Steve Fox who will be here tomorrow also went to this ring dance. So we had at least 3 couples there. It wasn't like we were solo. There were a number of black couples there. I think that was the only thing I went to as far as a dance here and there. They had other things at Burruss Hall that we would attend.
Kennelly: Did you make any white friends?
Watkins: A couple of men friends. It's funny because that really was my freshman year. Like I said they must have matched us up on that hall. A number of the people we had on that hall were from the D. C. area, and whether feeling that comfortable bringing people from the D. C. area-- I went to that same floor that had most of the black male students. Maybe there was some reasoning for that. There were a couple that were on that floor that were from my freshman year, and like I said, I only lived in the dorm one quarter of my sophomore year, but all of my freshman year. But I remember them more than any of the other people I met in any of the other years. Because quite frankly, the rest of my time at Tech revolved around the members of Groove Phi Groove, going to school, back and forth from class, some of the relationships we developed with people at Radford. Roanoke College when we realized they had black students, and they would come over.
Myron Rimm and James Watkins
All of the students coming from Radford and Roanoke College were coming to Groove Phi Groove events. We were meeting them through those things. We would have dances, Groove Phi Groove dances, at least once a month that were attended by other people, and that's where our contacts were. We had kind of developed that little community within a community. It helped us survive some of the other things going on. It wasn't like people were asking us to be members of the German Club or some of the other organizations. Those weren't memberships that were made; we weren't asked to join those. Even though I know there were one or two that would join here or there, but we weren't participating at levels where we were comfortable enough to attend at that time. Probably because we weren't asked, if we had been some of us might have been leery about joining anyway. There was still that Confederate flag and "Dixie" thing. It seemed like everything revolved around that.
Kennelly: You were a member of the Black Student Commission of the Student Government...
Watkins: I don't know if we even had more than one or two meetings, and it was sort of like trying to deal with the issue of the Confederate flag and "Dixie." It was really having our input and feelings about it--that's all that it really was. I think at that time--I don't remember if we had met with Dean about this--it was sort of an organization that was put together to get our input on the Confederate flag and "Dixie."
Kennelly: Through this organization did you really express your feelings about the Confederate flag to the administration, or was it more like a subtle thing?
Watkins: It was more a subtle thing. From our aspect of Groove Phi Groove actually presenting an issue, no we didn't. But if you asked any of the members, which I don't know that many were asked, then they would have given you their opinion. It wasn't like a lot of us were getting asked things like this. Interesting enough, they might ask Jerry Gaines because Jerry Gaines was a visible athlete, and he might get asked. He probably got asked things more than we got asked things. He was a track star; he was the only black athlete that was here then.
Of course, Jerry would have a different perspective. Most of us came from predominantly black high schools. Jerry was different in the aspect that he at the time he was recruited to Tech had actually transferred to predominately white high school. You know how I was telling you about the freedom of choice. He had actually been transferred from an all black high school to a predominantly white high school so he had had two years of experience of being around whites more than most of us when we came here. There would have been a different perspective from Jerry than from most of us.
For example, I listened to Chickie's audio on the Internet, and she had mentioned "Dixie" and the Confederate flag, and said about her mother calling and asking about them. As I said, I never visited the campus, and I think if I had visited and seen that, I probably wouldn't have come. It would have been an easy choice and, I wouldn't have had to flip that coin. I would have been at Duke University and not worried about the issue at all.
It did mean something to us. It didn't help to every now and then have somebody yell "nigger" out of a window or something like that. Like I said, no one ever got in my face and said it, it was always something from a window where you never knew where it came from. I know there have been some other instances with some other guys where things might have gone a little further or gotten physical from the standpoint of more yelling at each other. I don't know that I ever really felt intimidated by being here or anything like that. Once again, you went to class, and I don't think there was ever anything in class that was intimidating other than the class itself, trying to get your lessons, as anything else would have been. Still it was getting your college education, and I think that was what everybody was about here, but you still wanted to feel like you had a little life afterwards and you wanted to feel comfortable with your surroundings. "Dixie" and the Confederate flag didn't help that. Yet like I said, I purchased my Tech ring, and I knew the Confederate flag was going to be on it, but I also knew at the time too that the change was coming, and I could see it coming. I think the better came from it too.
Kennelly: Were any faculty sort of a mentor to you?
Watkins: I could not tell you the name of any faculty individual at all. I remember T. Marshall Hahn was the president, and I had a faculty advisor. I came in as an engineer and had one advisor. I changed from engineering after my second quarter here and went into general science because I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do, until eventually I decided I was going to go to dental school and wound up majoring in biology. I went through some advisors through the course of time. I know I don't remember any of them, and that may be my own fault because basically they just helped me develop what my curriculum so that I could get my degree. And everything necessary that I needed to go to dental school. That was all it was all about. Once I knew what subject path I needed to have, it was a matter of getting that subject and graduating. That was it. I didn't really identify with any faculty there. From a class standpoint, there was no one there that really stands out as doing anything special. I just felt like I went to class, got my lessons, got whatever grade I got, and moved on. There was no one that I can say was special. That's probably the best way to say it.
I only remember [Winston Percival] Nagan as the professor from South Africa because I did take his class because the word had just gotten around about his issue on apartheid. This was also the time when the anti-apartheid stuff was really being pushed as well as a lot of the civil rights things. Just to listen to him speak about some things that happened in South Africa was eye opening. I mean we thought we had it bad, then we listened to some of the things going on in South Africa, and that was just an interesting perspective. I remember him, even though from my perspective I only really needed one subject from him so I just took that subject. I knew who he was and would see him on campus. He actually even came to our Groove house a couple of times and would interact with us outside of being in the classroom.
There was another professor that was a graduate professor that did come, one that I would again qualify as the hippie type, because every time I saw him he had the long hair and the sandals. That was his routine. I think he was in sociology. I can't remember his name, I'm hoping that maybe somebody this weekend might remember his name. He actually came to the Groove house and interacted with us a little bit. Other than that, that was it. I couldn't call a name of anyone that stood out special. I basically just went to class and that was it.
Kennelly: Did you feel comfortable in class, you know, joining in?
Watkins: I think I felt comfortable there, but I know that I probably would have participated more if I was at a campus with probably more minority students. Like I said, most of the time I was the only black in each class, and somewhere in the back of my mind sometimes I would think I don't want this question because maybe it will sound like "oh that black guy, he's going to answer or ask this question," and somehow I felt a little leery about that. I don't know that that became so much of an issue for me.
Obviously, it got to the point where it was kind of understood that I was probably going to be the only black in every class I went to. Once that was behind me, it really didn't matter. That wasn't too much of a problem. It was just so different coming from an all black high school with all black teachers for the most part and then coming to this different environment. It was culture shock in a lot of different ways.
I think it would have been better if there were no Confederate flag or "Dixie," I think it would have been better. I guess in retrospect, when I look back on it, I know it could have been better if that hadn't been something to have to contend with. Like I said, I came in here hating the place, and I left here loving it.
At the first black reunion the school had, Charlie Yates was the speaker. The second black reunion they had, which I think was '89 or '90, I was the speaker. Because I was the speaker, I expressed some of the same things you just heard me say about the Confederate flag and "Dixie" just like here. And I thought about that and I said, you know, we went from Charlie Yates in '58 or '59 when he finished to me in '71 when I finished, and I knew there were some other people in between. The same kinds of things I mentioned were the focus of us being here and were the Confederate flag, "Dixie," and Groove Phi Groove. Those were the issues; those were the hot items at the time.
James Watkins and Jackie Dandridge (Class of 1971)
The first Groove Phi Groove cabaret (1971)
We would never have thought about walking across campus and seeing a black student and not speaking to him. The big difference I saw when I came here later on in '90 was you would see black students walking around... I mean I would venture to guess I knew the mothers' name of most of the black students that were on campus, and you knew where everybody was from because you knew everybody. If there was a new black face, you wanted to know who that face was. That was the way it was then. There were so few of us, it was easy enough to do that. At some point, they were going to see us through the Groove house or at some point they were going to interact with someone that was Groove Phi Groove or somebody Groove was going to tell them about it. If it was a woman, oh gosh, you couldn't let the opportunity of having a black woman not at least participate in some of your events.
Kennelly: But you got to know the students from Radford?
Watkins: Got to know the students from Radford quite well. The story was you used to know the exact mileage from Tech to Radford campus, so it wasn't "Were you going over to Radford today?" it was, "Are you going to make the 17.2 today?" You knew the exact mileage, and you never said you were going to Radford. It was, Are you going to make the 17.2? Some of the guys dated some of the girls from Radford. Actually, one of the Groove brothers married one of the girls from Radford. There were obviously some relationships that developed there that lasted.
Kennelly: How did you find the town of Blacksburg? Were you comfortable in the town?
Watkins: There was a town of Blacksburg? Oh you mean that little snitch out there. Small town, that was definitely a small town. Which I had no problem with. It actually reminded me of the town in North Carolina where my grandfather lived: Reedsville is like Blacksburg was. It was obvious this was a college town, it was a town that revolved around the college. It just happened to be the town where the college was.
Roses was the department store that was right downtown. We would go into Roses. I don't think we ever had a problem. We could sit at the cafeteria and eat at the cafeteria there. But we always felt uncomfortable there because we felt like we were always in the way. I don't know that we had to go there that often, but being in town, it was a very open town. Actually, the people were friendlier than I remember them being in Newport News.
As far as I'm concerned, the people were very friendly. Because we thought we were going to run into a problem getting somewhere to live off campus that next year, as people were having some problems with that. It was no big deal. When we first moved off into our trailer, we never locked the door. We would have some of our Groove brothers that might come over, and they just want to come over to nap or something, and we never locked our door. We never thought about locking our door. It was always open. Sometimes some of the ladies would come over. They would want to cook a meal or something. The door was always open. They would just go in and cook a meal and not have a problem with it. Nothing ever was stolen.
What they knew was that if we were here, we were probably students at Tech. Whether they knew it because we had on some Tech paraphernalia. Wait a minute that's got to be a black student from Tech because they had never seen us before. There were only two or three black families in town. I can't say there was any negative influence with regard to the town at all.
Kennelly: Did you get to know any of the people in the town?
Watkins: We got to know the Snell family. They lived right across the street from where we rented the Groove house. One of the black families lived right across the street from where we rented the house that was our fraternity house. One of them, Sydney, actually, went to Tech and pledged Groove Phi Groove later on. So we knew that family. There was another lady that lived at the end of the street that would come down to the Groove house every now and then and ask us if there was anything she could do to help us. I think she had a son that worked for the VA. Tech plant development here. We never knew what he did. He wasn't like a laborer type or something. I just can't remember what her name was right now.
Kennelly: Did you hear anything about a letter from the dean, or a memo to the Residence Halls regarding interracial dating that was given to the white students?
Watkins: No, I never heard anything about that.
Kennelly: It stated that if you were going to have interracial dating, you had to have a letter from your parents approving it.
Watkins: I don't remember that.
Green: I don't remember the details, but I do remember hearing something about it, but we never saw it.
Kennelly: I was told it was given to white students.
Green: We never saw the letter but I heard there was something.
Watkins: I wasn't aware of that.
Kennelly: When Reverend Martin Luther King died April 8 of your freshman year, there was a vigil to honor Reverend King. Were you involved in that?
Watkins: On the drillfield, right in front of the chapel. We basically were just sitting there listening to some people speak. We took it as a sad time, and it just seemed to have more of an impact... Actually, it was a little surprising at the number of people who attended. We were surprised from the black students perceptive to the number of white students that were there. I have to say I know I was in a positive way.
[Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Of course a number of them were once again, I hate to keep referring to people as hippies, you could see there was a liberal mind with regards to some other aspects of things. A large contingent of people who felt the need to at least come express some concern that they were also saddened by that event. But yes, the vigil on the drillfield.
Kennelly: Was there some problems with some students causing trouble about the lowering of the flag?
Watkins: I heard about that, and I knew about that going on, but that part of it I didn't have anything to do with directly. I just heard of it. I wasn't there when it happened.
James Watkins and Myron Rimm
at Tech Formal (1971)
Kennelly: Was there any support from the administration, anyway to make you feel welcome?
Watkins: I can't say that anybody walked up to me and said anything. No, I can't say that. My only real interaction with T. Marshall Hahn at the time had to do with marching up to his house regarding a contest they had here one time. They had this thing called the Ugly Man on Campus contest. The different fraternities, somebody would dress up in some particular way, and then there would be a judging as to who would win this prize as the ugly man on campus. It was a contest that was done every year.
One year, one of the organizations put up someone who had the appearance of being in black face. They had these pictures all around campus of what looked like someone in black face. We were very offended by it. A bunch of us marched up to T. Marshall Hahn's house. He and his wife had us in, sat on the floor, and we showed him the picture and told him our concerns about the fact that something like this would go on, somebody would be in black face with black students on campus. He was very receptive and said as far as he was concerned, these needed to be removed, and he thought it was offensive too, and they would be taken down the next day.
He didn't have to do that because we had already taken all of them down when we came to his house. We had given him all, the only one we couldn't get to was in Derring cafeteria because that was locked up. We couldn't get to that, but that was the only one that needed to be taken down. That episode, actually I gained a lot of respect for him because he could have called the police on us. Here are some angry black students showing up on his doorstep in the middle of the night. He sat us down and his wife made tea or something for us to drink. He listened to us and looked at it and said he was concerned.
Of course the organization that happened to be the service organizations on campus, I forget their names. It was like a Greek name. They actually had a black member. What had happened was he had put raspberry jam on his face, but in a black and white picture, it had appeared as a black face. What he said and what they said was this wasn't meant to be a black face, at least that was what was described to us. This was raspberry jam, but when a white student puts it on his face and his eyes, he looks like he's in black face, but supposedly it was raspberry jam but it was in a black and white picture so it appeared as a black face. Still it was offensive enough that they took the pictures down, and there was an apology in the campus newspaper to the black students for that appearance. That was about it. I'm sure that came from the influence of T. Marshall Hahn telling the organization that it offended a segment of students on campus.
But did we have meeting with the administration or even did the black students meet anywhere? You've got to realize there was no black student union. We weren't congregated to say welcome, we're glad to have you here. We were just here. Once we were here I guess it was just the fact that we accepted you here, so I guess we must have you here, so now you have to do what you're here for. I think we all took the responsibility that we were here to get degrees, and we did.
Green: When they had the black government commission, the student government commission, one other issue was during Kent State time there were a thousand students gathered to walk up to the president's house. There were six black females living in one wing of a dorm, and at the time we were sitting outside, and about five black guys had come over to us. All the campus security gathered in front of us on campus, and they wanted to know, What kind of trouble was here? What are you doing?
We told them it's not us you should be concerned about. Maybe you should be concerned about the thousand students marching on the president's house. But they came to the dorm because there were ten blacks in front of our door. We were standing outside talking. Rather than be concerned about the thousand marching on the president at that time. There was some discussion about that that when things get heated up, the first place you run is where are my black students. They went into town that night. They actually did some breaking of business windows because they marched in town and marched to the president's house and everything. The campus security went right to us because they saw ten blacks congregating.
Myron Rimm and James Watkins
at Myron Rimm's Ring Dance (1971)
Part One - Part Two - Part Three
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Tamara Kennelly, Justin Iovenitti, Mohamed Amin, and Oladunni Akinpelu
Last Updated on: Thursday, 27-Feb-2003 14:38:53 EST