Adam and Sallie Watkins: A legacy of Love
Updated: Sep 11, 2022
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on July 31, 2019
On July 21, 2019, I published an article titled, “Watkins Men Never Surrender Their Manhood.” The article pointed out that, for five generations in America, Watkins men (and women) have faced a vast array of daunting challenges in life and overcame them all.
In the article, I introduced my paternal grandparents, John Adam Watkins and Sallie Emma Darden Watkins. I described how they impacted my life as a man who values family unity, educational excellence, goal-setting, and hard work. Here is the rest of their story.
Family Always Came First
John Adam Watkins was born on February 18, 1890 in Wallonia, Kentucky (a rural community in Trigg County). He was the second son of George and Ellen Watkins, who lived in Wallonia. George Watkins had an African-American mother and a Caucasian father. George worked as a farm hand. His wife Ellen was a domestic worker.
John Adam Watkins, who called himself "Adam," received his formal education at Rev. George Harry Darden’s church-affiliated school in Wallonia. After completing his education, Adam was employed as a farm worker during his early adult years.
Sallie Emma Darden was born in Wallonia on March 12, 1896, approximately two months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation laws in the South were constitutional under the “separate but equal” doctrine. Sallie Emma was the daughter of George Harry Darden, a former slave of African descent who was born in the United States.
George Harry Darden taught himself how to read and write early in life. He received additional educational instruction from his half-brother, who was an educated Caucasian in Trigg County.
George Harry Darden became a Baptist minister and later founded a school that was affiliated with his church. This school provided formal education to "colored" children in Trigg County.
Sallie Emma’s mother was Sallie Cooper, a Native American Indian. Sallie Cooper’s parents eventually sold their farm in Wallonia to Rev. George Harry Darden and relocated to Waco, Texas.
Adam Watkins and Sallie Emma Darden married in Springfield, Tennessee in 1910. They had eight children: (1) Levi Watkins, (2) Mary Arzella Watkins, (3) Cammie Louise Watkins, (4) George Adam Watkins, (5) James Robert Watkins (who died in infancy), (6) Darvin Bell Watkins, (7) Benjamin Darden Watkins, and (8) Joseph Talmadge Watkins.
Between 1912 and 1924, Adam Watkins accepted jobs with McQuarry Brothers Highway Construction Company, where he worked as a skilled mechanic and an operator of steam rollers, graders, and other heavy equipment. He always worked hard and provided for his family.
[Editor’s Note: By the time I started working with granddaddy Adam Watkins in the 1950s as a young child, he owned and operated Adam Watkins Plumbing Company. I described this early economic empowerment experience in “Watkins Men Never Surrender Their Manhood"].
Educating Their Children Was A Family Priority
While traveling for the McQuarry Brothers Highway Construction Company in Kentucky and Tennessee, Adam and Sallie Emma arranged for their three school-age children to live with Sallie’s sister and husband (Rev. Joseph and Mrs. Felicia Irvin) in Montgomery, Kentucky. These children attended the “colored” school in Gracey, Kentucky. The non-school-age children traveled with their parents and lived in tents along and near various highway construction sites.
Eventually, the "colored" school in Gracey was closed because it had only twenty-one pupils; they wanted at least twenty-five to remain open. They would not let the colored students attend the "white" school in Gracey. Levi had to walk alone to the "colored" school at Cadiz, six miles away. He passed the "white" school in his community twice daily.
In addition to attending school in Cadiz, Kentucky, Levi Watkins (the eldest of Adam and Sallie Emma’s children) also attended a Normal School in Hopkinsville, Kentucky known as M & F Baptist College Boarding and Normal School.
The McQuarry Brothers’ last project was to build a highway between Clarksville and Dixon, Tennessee, after which time the company went out of business. When the company closed, Adam and Sallie Emma had to find a permanent place to live and raise their children.
The existence of a “colored” high school in Clarksville, Tennessee was a determining factor in Adam and Sallie Emma choosing Clarksville as a place to establish their permanent residence. The older children enrolled in Burt High School and the younger siblings attended the elementary school in Clarksville for "colored" pupils.
Levi Watkins graduated from Burt High School in 1929, as valedictorian of his class. After high school graduation, Levi enrolled in the Agricultural and Industrial State College in Nashville, Tennessee (now known as Tennessee State University), where he graduated with honors in 1933.
Making Lemonade Out of Life’s Lemons
After graduating from college, Levi Watkins accepted a position for the 1933-34 school year as a science and math teacher in Winchester, Tennessee, at a salary of $65 per month. When the county government became insolvent during the Great Depression, the school board paid Levi with warrants each month. These warrants were accepted by local merchants at face value if they were being used to buy merchandise, or they could be exchanged for cash at a discount of 20%.
In 1934, Levi Watkins accepted a position as a science and math teacher in Hopkinsville, Kentucky for one year. Upon returning to school after the Christmas recess, Levi learned that he and several other teachers had been replaced by local residents and property owners in Kentucky.
Unemployed and determined to find work, Levi Watkins started a weekly newspaper called the New Herald. He was the newspaper's editor, publisher, and reporter. The New Herald was devoted to reporting news of interest to the Negro community in Clarksville, Tennessee.
In 1935, Levi Watkins was given an appointment as a science and math teacher at his Alma Mater, Burt High School in Clarksville. In addition to his teaching position, Levi continued his association with the New Herald newspaper for four years.
During the summers of 1938, 1939, and 1940, Levi Watkins attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Education Administration.
In 1940, Levi Watkins met and married Lillian Bernice Varnado, my mother. They had six children: (1) Annie Marie Watkins, (2) Emma Pearl Watkins, (3) Levi Watkins, Jr., (4) Doristine Watkins, (5) Donald Varnado Watkins, and (6) James Allison Watkins.
In the fall of 1940, Levi Watkins was appointed (upon the recommendation of Northwestern University) as the principal of Douglas Junior High School for Negroes in Parsons, Kansas. He remained in that position until 1948.
In the summers of 1945, 1946, and 1947, Levi Watkins taught classes in Education at the Birmingham, Alabama branch of Alabama State College for Negroes. In 1948, Levi accepted a full-time position as the Veteran Affairs Officer on the Montgomery campus of Alabama State.
Because the Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family history in America has been meticulously documented, preserved, and widely publicized for the benefit of future generations of African-American families, the public knows the rest of this story.
We are a proud family. Our self-respect, independence, family unity, pursuit of educational excellence, commitment to equal opportunity for all Americans, political activism, and unwavering belief in God has always driven our service to humanity.
PHOTO: Adam and Sallie Watkins (circa 1962) were my paternal grandparents. They loved each other deeply.
PHOTO: Adam Watkins owned his own plumbing company in Clarksville, Tennessee in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Adam was strong, independent, and politically active at a time when very few black men in the South were in a position to demand respect for themselves and their families.
PHOTO: My paternal grandmother, Sallie Emma Darden Watkins, was a strong, smart, and classy woman. She feared no man or woman and loved everybody who treated her family with respect.
PHOTO: Ellen Watkins was Adam Watkins’ mother. She worked as a domestic in Wallonia, Kentucky, but she was a leader in her church and community.
PHOTO: My sister Doristine (right) and I (left) spent time with Sallie Emma Watkins (center) when we were young children. She was always full of love for us.
PHOTO: Lillian and Levi Watkins with daughters Marie (left) and Pearl (right) in Parsons, Kansas. Levi was the principal of Douglas Junior High School for Negroes in Parsons. Levi and Lillian believed that educational excellence was the best pathway to a successful life. Wherever they went, Levi and Lillian raised the bar for educational attainment.