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

Date of Interview: 31 March 2000
Location of Interview: sound booth, Media Building at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va
Interviewer: Tamara Kennelly
Transcriber: Emily Allen
Note: Myron Rimm Green (class of 1972) was present at the interview

Part Three

Graduation Graduation`
Myron Rimm and James Watkins
Virginia Tech Graduation (1971)
Jackie Dandridge and James Watkins
Virginia Tech Graduation (1971)

Kennelly: You graduated from Tech in Biology in '71. What did you do after graduation?

Watkins: Went to dental school, I applied to Medical College of Virginia Dental School and was accepted and went to dental school and four years later became a dentist.

Kennelly: Was that at VCU?

Watkins: VCU/MCV

Kennelly: That must have been a big change to go to VCU from here.

Watkins: Believe it or not, you talk about pioneer, and you're probably going to throw this pioneer on me again, but when we went to MCV, dental school is a four year program, and they had a hundred students in each class: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year. Or at least you start out with a hundred. Well the year I started MCV happened to be the first year they had started letting blacks attend again. So here I was one of two black students in a class of a hundred with no upper class black dental students at all. Nobody in the sophomore class, nobody in the junior class, nobody in the senior class. Actually when I look back on it, Tech was a little easier in that at least I had some upper class black students that I could say, "Okay what's this about? What's going on here or there?"

Another student that came from Virginia State College entered dental school with me. They did have some black students that had graduated from the dental school. One had graduated in the fifties, one had graduated two years before we got there, and one had graduated a year before him. There had only been three black graduates in the dental school when we entered. We were number-- 4 and 5. His last name was Nelson--so I'll say he was number four, I was number five that actually had gone through the dental school. We had started a trend, well, I won't say a trend, but a decision had been made that they were going to try to have a number of blacks in each class, and we just happened to be the class that they started to have black students again. There were two of us and no upper class.

Family picture
From Top Left: James Watkins, brother; Roynel, sister; Felecia, sister; Theresa,
brother; Donald, brother; Clayton.

My next year, my sophomore year they brought in two, my junior year they brought in two, each year they brought in two black students. It was almost like that was the magic number out of a hundred that they decided they were going to have. As far as preparation for it, I felt very prepared for it from my Tech education, so that wasn't too much of an issue. It was just that here I was again. At least there was no Confederate flag or "Dixie." Although, MCV is right next to the block where the Museum of the Confederacy is located, or the Confederate Museum, that's what it's called. It was in the very next block from the school, but I didn't have to go in that. And they didn't have a Confederate flag hanging out front. There might have been one inside, but there certainly wasn't one hanging out front, and it was in the very next block. Then it was in Richmond too and Richmond isn't exactly a predominantly white town. It's probably closer to 50/50, or it was at least then as far as percentages. It was a little different environment being in a town like Richmond than being in a town like Blacksburg.

Kennelly: Did you feel prepared going to college, or at least equally to the other students?

Watkins: It was kind of interesting. I was valedictorian of my high school. That says something about my high school in one respect and maybe about my feelings about academics from another. When I got to Tech, I had taken college level English and math when in high school. So when I came to college I had one credit of already for college math and one credit for English as a result of doing it. I came in and I thought this couldn't be too bad, I had taken those things and had done well in those classes, but when I got here, it was a whole different thing.

I can't say I felt as prepared as I thought I was, and the stuff was hard. Stuff that I had had was hard. It was harder than I remembered that it was. Some of that I attribute to that I really did come in with somewhat of a lack of focus that I had when I was in school because I was not comfortable. I really was not comfortable. That was the black/white thing. I mean I was not comfortable. It just wasn't the same. It wasn't like you'd look over and see somebody that you'd been seeing for three or four years or you knew you were going to see in your neighborhood. It just wasn't quite the same.

After those first couple of quarters, I felt better about some things, and I felt better about being here once I got into the mind that I felt like I could handle more or less. Then Groove Phi Groove came, and I was a little more comfortable with the people here, and the friendships were there. Like I said, it was just the group that came in. Maybe if it had been a different group of guys that had come in with me especially or a different group of students, or maybe there was a different group of students that were here. It might have even been different from that perspective too. It was like the right group of students were together, and the timing was right, and we all just seemed to mesh, and I think everybody was supportive of everybody as far as the black students. I don't think anybody was trying to down anybody. I don't think there wouldn't have been a black student that I felt like I couldn't ask to do a favor for me. It was like having a family away from home.

Once I realized that, which took probably the first year to realize that, and the Groove Phi Groove thing came along, it wasn't so bad. It was hard, it was harder than high school was, there's no doubt about that. I always kind of felt like high school was easy, and this was a lot harder. I didn't realize how good of an education I got until I went to MCV because it made things a little easier at MCV. It definitely made it easier to deal with whites.

Here I was in another type of environment where the percentage was worse than it was at Tech. I didn't really have a problem with the black/white thing there. I shouldn't say not a problem. I knew there was a problem because dentistry is the type of profession where there are a lot of old school mentalities. The reason is that it's kind of a basic profession where a lot of things are done the same along different ways, and there are a lot of professors in dentistry that feel comfortable with the old way. I got the impression that I probably got graded down more in dental school because I was black then I ever did at Tech because I got the feeling that some people felt that I didn't belong there. I look back on Tech as being an even better experience. If it weren't for the Confederate flag and "Dixie" it would have been definitely a better experience. But MCV, I know there were some professors there that really didn't want us there.

The year I started MCV was the year they had their first new dean. They had previously had a dean that had been there almost forever. They named the school after him; that's how long he had been there. He had a concept about the type of person they were going to bring out of their dental school, and obviously with the support of whomever, it didn't include blacks as part of the class. It wasn't an issue then. I met him since then because he was dean emeritus, and I don't mind calling the name Harry Lyons because I know he's a big name in the state. The new part of the dental school is called the Lyons building after him. But he's part of the old school, and there were some professors there with the old school with him too.

James Watkins
James Watkins
At graduation from Dental School (1975)

In dentistry you can physically do something with your hands and look at it and compare it. I know there were some people who didn't do some things as well as me that got better grades. It was unfortunate that that was the case, but the fortunate part of it was it didn't hold me back. It was a four-year program; I did it in four years. There were some other people in the class that took more than four years and didn't finish on time, and some that didn't finish at all. I felt prepared from the standpoint of Virginia Tech helping me with that. Looking back on Tech, it really wasn't as bad as I thought it was, but I wouldn't have wanted my child to go through it like it was when I went through it.

As I said for my speech when I did the speech for the second year of the black reunion, I would've been very happy, I would be very happy if either one of my kids had wanted to go to Tech right now. I wouldn't have a problem with it at all. I would be proud if they wanted to go. Whether it was because I went or whether they just liked the school.

Kennelly: Do you have kids who are...

Family Picture
Back Row: son; Daryl, nephew; Chris, James Watkins, brother; Roynel, sister; Theresa, sister; Felecia, brother; Donald, brother; Clayton.
Mid Row: nephew; Anthony, Father, Mother, Niece; charlene, daughter; Deveda, niece; Christina.
Front: niece; Ashley

Watkins: Yes, but they decided to go to JMU. My son is at JMU now, and my daughter is a senior in high school. She got her acceptance letter to Tech two weeks ago, but she's already let us know her first choice is JMU too. She wants to join her brother at JMU. I guess I'm just going to miss out on having either one of them come. But she did apply, but I think she applied only because she knew I wanted her to apply. She did get her acceptance letter. Now, JMU is her first choice; supposedly Tech is her second choice. She's a very good student, so I wouldn't think she wouldn't get accepted into to JMU. Right now I'm just thinking she's probably going to JMU. I tried to get her to come up here this weekend to look at some things, but I think they're having an orientation the weekend of the fifteenth or something. I think she and her friend are coming up that weekend.

Kennelly: Did you have a scholarship to dental school?

Watkins: At the time for professional school they were loans; they were in the form of loans. Bill Cosby had a Colgate scholarship loan that was for minority students, and it was part loan, part scholarship the first year. Then the second year, which happened to be the year that President Nixon and the Republican Administration wound up changing some of the programs and it became all loan. Actually, my last three years were from the Bill Cosby loan program. Of course it didn't cost as much then as a dental school education costs now.

James Watkins
Lieutenant James D. Watkins
As a dentist in the Navy (1975 - 1977)

When I finished Tech, I didn't owe any money as far as loans for school because it was all scholarship. When I finished dental school, I did owe some,(about $8,000) but it was nothing like what the kids borrow today to go to dental school. That wasn't too bad. I went into the military after I finished dental school. I was a dentist in the navy for two years. They would offset a certain percentage for each year you did in the military, which was a good thing. It wasn't a big percentage, but it was something. It wasn't so much than five years later the loans were paid off so it wasn't that big of a deal because it wasn't a large amount, and the interest rate was great, it was three percent only. That was the other advantage of it too.

Kennelly: Where do you live now?

Watkins: I live in Hampton, which is the sister city right beside Newport News. I actually went back home, because I had lived in Newport News. I went to Tech, here, went to dental school in Richmond, joined the navy because I was single and wanted the navy to send me somewhere to see the world. They stationed me in Norfolk, so I never got out of the state of Virginia. When they stationed me in Norfolk, the first year I was in the navy, I was a dentist in Norfolk, at the main clinic in Norfolk for one year. They had four opportunities for dentist for independent duty at different stations. One was at Newport News at the Newport News shipyard. The second year I was in the navy I was actually in Newport News right at home.

James Watkins' wedding to Hardenia Ruth Jefferson
with his parents Sadie and James Granderson Watkins
July 31, 1976

Of course, the second year I did get married. Because I got married I bought a home in Newport News for the second year I was in the navy. After that I went into private practice and just happened to go into the city of Hampton because there was a dentist there who was looking for an associate and I went into practice with him. He happened to be in Hampton. Hampton and Newport News sometimes you don't know if you're in one or the other; they're right there together. I even live in Hampton, we moved from Newport News to Hampton about ten years ago.

Kennelly: What's your wife's name?

Watkins: Hardenia, Hardenia Watkins. She was a Jefferson. I met her at MCV. She was at MCV working on her master's in microbiology when I was in dental school so we met when I was in school and dated throughout dental school and got married after my first year in the navy.

Kennelly: Were there a lot of black graduate students?

Watkins: There were black medical students and black graduate students.

Kennelly: What's her maiden name?

Watkins: Jefferson, she went to Virginia State which was the college then in Petersburg in undergrad and actually did a med. tech. program in Washington Center Hospital in D. C. She came out to MCV, got her master's in microbiology, and went out to Western Carolina University in the western part of the state of Carolina and taught there for two years. Then we got married, and she came to Newport News.

Family Picture
Standing: James Watkins with his father; James Granderson Watkins
Sitting: His grandfather Granderson Watkins and Son Daryl.

Kennelly: In your practice now do you have white and black patients?

Watkins: Yes, probably about 80/20 ratio, 80% black, 20% white.

Kennelly: Do you live in an integrated community?

Watkins: I live in an integrated community, right. It's integrated, but I live on a private road with just two houses. It's my builder's house and my house. We don't live in a housing development. It just so happens my builder owns some property that was out away from everyone else, and he had a lot that he wanted to subdivide so we purchased a lot, and it's just his house and my house. We live off a private road, which happens to be in Hampton. It's just some property that happened to be at the end of the city limits. The community around us is integrated. But if you really look at where we live, it's just him and me.

Kennelly: Do you have white and black friends?

Watkins: Yes, that came more from the dental profession than anything else. Most of my friends are dentists or physicians or professionals or most of them are in some form or fashion. Now being from Newport News, I have a lot of high school friends that are still there that are like teachers or classmates of classes ahead of me, classes behind me. It was kind of an advantage, being in my hometown. People either know me or know of me when I come back home like that. Most of my friends are either other dentists, or physicians or lawyers or something like that. It's just the community; we have a little community organization that meets. Most of them happen to be professionals or teachers or something like that.

picture with actress
James Watkins, actress Debbie Allen and wife Hardenia

My high school doesn't exist anymore. George Washington Carver was phased out. It's now a middle school, (the facility itself.) We still have an alumni association for that high school as if it still existed. They have a number of meetings for the people that graduated. The last class that graduated from G.W.Carver high school was '71, which happened to be the year I graduated from college. The Carver high school alumni association that still meets, and on a local level, and a number of people I know are in that organization.

Dental Board
Dr. James D. Watkins, Dr. Sanford Lefcoe and Dr. Roger Wood
Installation of Dr. Watkins as president of the Virginia State Dental Board

For the dental profession, I've done a lot of things professionally in dentistry. The Virginia State Dental Board is a big thing in the State of Virginia. It's a governor appointment. There have been two blacks that have been appointed to the dental board for the entire history of the board, which has been a hundred years. In 1989, I became the third black that was appointed to the board. None of them became president of the board, but in 1992 I became the first black president of the Virginia State Dental Board. As a result of that, I've participated in dentistry on the state and on the national level on committees. I've met a lot of other people through those connections. Once again, they happen to be dentists. Just dealing with dentistry from a professional standpoint.

James Watkins and wife
Induction into the American College of Dentists

From that presidency of the Virginia State Dental Board, the president of the American Dental Association selected me to serve on the council and commission on dental accreditation which is the national organization that does the accreditation of dental hygiene, dental assistant programs throughout the country. I was the first black dentist to serve on that board. They had a black citizen member, but I was actually the first black dentist to serve on that board. It meets in Chicago, and that's one of the main reasons I had the Chicago connection. I go up there usually twice a year to serve on the committee in that respect. This happens to be the 25th anniversary of my graduation from dental school this year. We're having our 25th anniversary at the end of April in Richmond. Think about all this stuff--it's been 25 years from dental school. Of course next year is my 30 years from Virginia Tech, the year 2001. Gosh I didn't think about that, I'm dating myself.

Kennelly: Do your children have black and white friends?

Watkins: Yes, because they went to integrated schools. All the schools are integrated now, and both the kids have black and white friends. Both applied to predominantly white schools. They each did apply to two predominantly black colleges. My daughter had an interest in Spelman, and my son had an interest in Moorehouse, but once again they didn't win out either. The choice was theirs. We did have the advantage of visiting the campuses and things like that which like I said I didn't have so they did get a chance to visit, and whatever they felt comfortable with.

Interesting enough, as negative as I was about the fact that I couldn't get anyone to go to Tech, I was somewhat envious of the fact that they really chose in JMU a school that was like Tech was when I first came to Tech: about ten thousand students, a little higher percentage of black faces on campus especially in the faculty and staff. I was mentioning this to some Alumni coming up, that when I visited JMU's campus, it reminded me of Tech when I first came to Tech, the size, some of the buildings are even in the same stone, the little mountains here to there go back and forth to class. I kind of like the campus too. But by the same token I would have wanted either one of them to go to Tech. My son was accepted to Tech also. He applied; he was accepted. We had actually paid the housing deposit for him to come to Tech, and he changed his mind at the last minute, so Tech lost out.

Kennelly: Is there anything else you'd like to say that I haven't asked you about?

James Watkins
Dr. James Watkins

Watkins: No, I think you asked me about most of the things I probably would've wanted to say. I found it rather interesting Peter Wallenstein who did the history book. I haven't read it from cover to cover. I was kind of looking for sections in it to see if he was addressing in his history some of the issues of the Confederate flag and "Dixie." Surprisingly he didn't. I just thought at some point if he revises it, he at least addresses their impact on the campus. Once again it may be there, and I missed it. Also, the black perspective because he had that section in there on the blacks on campus, the black perspective on some of the things. I know Chickie Harper has mentioned some things about it. I think I touched on most of the things I wanted to touch on.

Kennelly: Do you think the fact that I'm not black, that the interview would have gone different or you might have felt freer to say things if I was?

Watkins: Actually I've been thirty years away from here now, and I've gotten to be kind of old, I think. No, I don't think that would've influenced anything I said or would've made a difference. I honestly don't think I could say anything different. I didn't call on me or lock me into not saying particular things. I might have even said the "n" word, and I said I wasn't going to say it. I think I said it. I think I was going to refer to it as only the "n" word because it was something we heard on campus. Surprisingly, I have to say too, that probably happened the first couple of years I was here.

Whether it was because I lived off campus the next couple years or not and didn't have to walk through the court area there as much in that period of time, I don't know. Maybe someone that was there later might address it differently. I know I have spoken to people who graduated later, and they have heard it yelled from a window too. I know it has happened. But in every case, I think it's been the same way, someone yells it from a window, nobody's gotten in anybody's face and said something like that. Mentally I had this block that I wasn't going to say that but I probably did.

Kennelly: Let me ask you about Groove Phi Groove? Groove is not a take off of a Greek letter.

Watkins: Groove is not a Greek organization. Groove was a social fellowship; it's not a Greek fraternity. I guess the best way to describe it is there are fraternities and there are other organizations that are non-fraternities. That's why it's called Groove Phi Groove Social Fellowship. It's not Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity or Omega Psi Phi fraternity. They are actually fraternities. But Groove Phi Groove never put on itself as being a fraternity. There are other organizations that are not fraternities from that particular standpoint. Maybe I will say this part, because even though I hate to mention it, I know that a couple of our members including Myron's brother have now pledged another fraternity called Omega Psi Phi. Groove Phi Groove came about because most of the guys here wanted to pledge Q, and I know the Q's will love to hear this, you know Omega Psi Phi.

It's just that Stan Harris, who was instrumental in the organization, he was the one who made the contacts to the people at Virginia State that got us to start Groove Phi Groove. He was trying to make connections for us to start Omega Psi Phi. Here we were poor little black students at school. We had limited resources to be able to do things. The Omega Psi Phi fraternity wanted us to do some things we physically and financially could not do to form it on campus. They wanted us to come down to the place every weekend for a long period of time to pledge to start the charter chapter. Because they did this we just got disgruntled with the fact that we would not be able to do that. We had to study; we were trying to stay in college too. Our parents expected us to study.

When Stan Harris made contacts with Virginia State's Groove Phi Groove chapter, they were more receptive to making it easier for us to be able to pledge a starter chapter. That's the reason we formed Groove Phi Groove, because it was easier to start the organization on campus. I will let the Q's know, and I know my friends who are Q's, Omega Psi Phi, we had a couple. Myron's brother who was a Groove and now he's pledged Q and Calvin Jamison (Admissions Office at Tech) who was one of the Groove's here later on after us has now pledged Omega Psi Phi as a result of being able to pledge on the graduate level and are no longer what we consider Grooves. But Groove Phi Groove came about from us trying to form Omega Psi Phi on campus first, but we weren't able to do it because there were too many restrictions and restraints on how they wanted us to start. That will make the Q's happy to hear that we wanted them first!

Kennelly: Myron is there anything you would like to add?

Watkins: I think she should talk about the Delta Sigma Theta sorority because I know Delta Sigma Theta started their own sorority on campus at whatever year you have in your history. Myron, Chickie Harper, and Sylvia Swilley, (Another young lady coming to the reunion tomorrow came from California.) I want to mention that Sylvia came all the way from L. A. to come to be with us. She's the one who hasn't been back to campus in 28 years. She was Myron's roommate her freshman year. They pledged Delta Sigma Theta in 1970 by going to Norfolk to pledge at a national convention. So they were really the first Delta Sigma Thetas that were on campus. I think the rules were they had to have seven members to form a chapter, and they didn't have that many..

Green: At that time there were only nine black females on campus, and you needed seven who had to be sophomores to start a chapter. Marguerite Harper, it was her senior year, and she pledged two days before her graduation. We moved our final exams up so we could travel to Norfolk and go to the regional convention. Jim actually drove us to Norfolk. My brother was graduating; Marguerite was graduating. We went, spent a night there, had to take the national exam, got inducted in, traveled back to Tech the next day for graduation only to travel home after graduation. We did that thousand miles in two days just round trip up and down. We had to study for national delta exams and study for Tech final exams all in the same time frame so it was sort of hectic.

[end of interview]

Part One - Part Two - Part Three

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