Celebrating My Native-American Ancestry
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on May 26, 2022
I introduced Sallie Emma Darden Watkins to the world in a July 31, 2019 article titled, "Adam and Sallie Watkins: A legacy of Love." She was my father's mother.
Sallie Watkins, nee Sallie Emma Darden, was born on March 12, 1896 in Wallonia, Kentucky. She was the daughter of George Harry Darden, a former slave of African descent, and Sally Cooper Darden, a full-blooded Native-American.
I have written extensively about the experiences of my ancestors in America in articles titled, "Olivia and William Carmichael: A Legacy of Extraordinary Success," "The Bridge Builders," and "Sallie Emma Darden and My Indian Ancestors."
Sallie Watkins' mother, Sallie Cooper Darden, and her lineal ancestors were members of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokees were one of what white colonists called the "Five Civilized Tribes" -- Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles -- that were located in the Southern part of the United States from the East Coast to the Mississippi River.
The Cherokees were known for their entrepreneurial skills and thriving business activities. The Cherokee Nation had its own constitution, governing council, and newspaper, which was published in English and a phonetic Cherokee script devised by Sequoyah, a Cherokee scholar. Sequoyah's alphabet symbols enabled thousands of Cherokees to become literate in their own language.
Sallie Cooper Darden's maternal grandmother was known to us as "Ray." She was a prominent member of the established Cherokee business community in Tennessee and Kentucky. She is featured sitting in the photo (circa 1820) accompanying this article.
Sallie Cooper Darden's maternal aunt, Emma Ray, also owned thriving businesses. She is featured standing in the photo accompanying this article.
Both of these women are part of my Watkins bloodline. They rightfully took pride in their successes in business, as do we.
From the Beginning, Indians Sought Peaceful Coexistence
From 1622 to 1815, Native-American members of the "Five Civilized Tribes" tried to peacefully coexist with white settlers. The white colonists and their national government had no interest in a peaceful coexistence arrangement. They wanted the valuable lands that were occupied for centuries by these Tribes.
What is more, Southern slavers hated the "Five Civilized Tribes" because they welcomed, harbored, and protected runaway slaves.
The Seminoles' refusal to surrender their African-American members led to the First Seminole War (1816-18) and Second Seminole War (1835-42). The Second Seminole War was the longest and costliest war in the United States that was fought against Indians.
Despite their efforts to peacefully coexist with whites, more than 60,000 members of the "Five Civilized Tribes" were forcefully dispossessed of their Tribal lands and exiled to Oklahoma after Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Most of the Tribal members lost everything they had. More than 2,000 of them died along the "Trail of Tears" from their Tribal lands to Oklahoma.
Sallie Cooper Darden's parents, who were my great, great grandparents, sought and found refuge in a "triracial isolate" in the rural community of Wallonia, Kentucky (a rural community in Trigg County). In Wallonia, Native Americans, former African slaves, and whites of interracial goodwill peacefully coexisted for over a century.
Sallie Emma Darden, my father's mother, eventually met and married John Adam Watkins in Springfield, Tennessee in 1910. John Adam Watkins was born on February 18, 1890 in Wallonia to Ellen Tandy Dunkerson, an African-American farm and domestic worker, and John Adam George Watkins, a local white farm worker.
My father, Dr. Levi Watkins, Sr., was the oldest of the Sallie Emma Darden's and John Adam Watkins' eight children. I am the fifth of six children born to Levi Watkins, Sr., and his wife, Lillian Bernice Varnado.
Lillian Bernice Varnado Watkins' maternal grandmother was Olivia Williamson, a mulatto girl whose mother was an African slave and father was an Irish slaver/landowner near Canton, Mississippi. Lillian Watkins' maternal grandfather was William Carmichael, the son of Scottish immigrants who came to America in the early 1830s.
Lillian Watkins' father was Rev. Willie Varnado, the son of a Choctaw mother and her African-American husband.
I am the oldest surviving son of Levi and Lillian Watkins and the patriarch of the Watkins family.
Our Past Has Prepared Us for Our Future
The Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family is a blend of Native-Americans, African-Americans, Scottish and Irish immigrants, Eastern Caribbean (Dominica) immigrants, and their respective cultures. Our history is well-documented back to the early 1800s by the Carmichael family for my mother's ancestry and by Joseph T. Watkins (the youngest child of John Adam Watkins and Sallie Emma Watkins) for my father's ancestry.
Today, the Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family is considered a legacy family in America with a network of interracial goodwill and humanitarian outreach activities that spans the globe. This family has established endowed college scholarships at educational institutions across America. Buildings around the country bear the names of our family members.
Our bloodline has broken the color barrier in America and advanced the human race in technology, medicine, music, literature, multi-media content, business, and education for more than 200 years.
For eight generations, the Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family has embodied the best of American values. Much of what this family accomplished occurred in the face of vicious white hatred and the sweltering heat of Jim Crow racial oppression.
We have always pursued educational excellence, even when it was a crime for black slaves in Old Confederate states to learn reading and writing. We have also published newspapers of interest to the African-American community since 1935.
We have always rendered unselfish service to our home communities, with no expectation of recognition or a reward. We have always loved humanity, unconditionally.
We have always fought all forms of racial bigotry, even when we had to stand alone to do so.
Our family members registered to vote in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky long before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. They paid the state poll taxes and took the literacy tests that were designed to prevent black voters from exercising their Fifteenth Amendment right to vote. When they did so, it was usually under the threat of bodily harm or death.
We fought for America in World War II against Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, only to face white supremacy deeply embedded in the fabric of American society when we returned home.
We desegregated all-white schools, colleges, universities, government agencies, and licensed professions in America, with only God there to protect us.
Our class action lawsuits, as plaintiffs and lawyers, in Alabama, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. have made it possible for hundreds of thousands of African-Americans to enjoy equal educational opportunities and fair employment opportunities.
Throughout it all, we never bowed down to anyone, but God.
Based upon the positive international footprint that has been established by seventh and eight generation Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family members, our family's future appears to be very bright for generations to come.
Every day, I celebrate my membership in the Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family. It is the gift that keeps on giving.