By Matt Harrelson | [email protected]ivitasmedia.com
ROCKINGHAM — In 1943, James Clyde Watkins began his first year as a teacher at Rockingham Negro School, now known as Leak Street School. He said the computer lab is where his classroom was located back then.
Ruth Perry was hired in 1944 to be the French and social studies teacher, and her room was next door to Watkins’. He called it a blessing.
The rest, as they say, was history, and 67 years later, Watkins and his wife were down the hall from their first classroom standing on the stage of the Leak Street Education and Cultural Center while he accepted the title of chairman emeritus. This is the house that Watkins built.
According to biographer Naomi Daggs, Watkins’ life story is a textbook case of rising above the hardships and restrictions of poverty and racism to become a successful role model who stayed in his home community and gave back.
A child of the Great Depression, Watkins grew up on a tenant farm in the Beaver Dam community. He attended the segregated Lincoln School and then Rockingham Colored School. Recognizing early the importance of education, he sought and won a scholarship to Shaw University and later earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and an educational specialist degree from Appalachian State University.
Unlike many Southern people of color, Daggs said, he chose to stay and make his way in his home county, taking a teaching job at Rockingham Negro School, later renamed Leak Street. Thus began his journey as a committed educator.
It was along this journey that so many people of the roughly 50 in attendance Friday night came to know him. Several former students gave tributes to Watkins while telling a few of their favorite stories about him.
“Our desire is to extend to him thanks for the impact he’s had on so many,” said Hazel Gales Robinson, class of 1965. “If it weren’t for Mr. Watkins, there would not be the Leak Street Cultural Center.”
The night’s honor could be called a lifetime achievement award if it were left up to those who had been influenced by Watkins. One of the first to do so was Beulah Wall Crenshaw, who was in Watkins’ first class in 1943-44.
“He was the youngest male teacher in ‘43-‘44 in Rockingham public high schools,” said Crenshaw. “He came to us as an eighth-grade teacher. He had many things to say. He said, ‘I was raised as a farmer.’ He said, ‘Here I am to do what I can to help you.’ The girls and boys loved him. He said, ‘I demand respect, and I will give you respect in return. You must give respect to adults, to classmates, to all. I’m teaching you all of this because one day you can come back and work with the students of Richmond County.’ Let us get them beyond high school. That was his biggest theme.”
Another former student, Ruth Allred Robinson, class of 1960, put Watkins’ place on scale of one to 10 at 10 to the second power.
Others like Rachael Legrand Jackson, class of 1967 and president of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Leak Street Alumni Association, called him “a pillar.”
“Without this pillar we could not stand,” she said. “We could not have done it without you. Your strength is what we’re built on. You planted these seeds and watched them grow.”
Willie Williams, vice president of the association’s national board, recognized how sharp Watkins’ mind still is at the age of 93.
“How does it do that?” Williams asked. “He keeps something to do. All his life and career, he’s been busy thinking, ‘How can I make life better for my neighbor, my county, my state and my country?’”
Watkins first recognized his wife once he took the stage to accept his award. The two were married on Aug. 10, 1946 in Plainfield, New Jersey and will celebrate 69 years of marriage next month.
“I have to thank God first, but I have to thank her,” Watkins said of his paramour. “I’m not supposed to be here physically. Shorty after I was born I was diagnosed with whooping cough. Somebody prayed for me. Later on, I weighed about 95 pounds in the seventh grade. They said, ‘That boy’s too small to get a job, let’s send him to high school.’ At the end of the year I had the highest average for that grade.
“I was in the first class to walk on this stage. I wasn’t supposed to be here. That was the end. When I finished college and came back, I started teaching. There’s been a lot of ups and downs. You were patient with me. This board has been patient with me. I don’t know what this title means, but it’s gonna take more than chairman emeritus to stop me.”
Reach reporter Matt Harrelson at 910-817-2674, listen to him at 12:10 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on WAYN 900 AM and follow him on Twitter @mattyharrelson.