I Never Knew Her Name
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on January 20, 2019
I never knew her name, but I never forgot my chance encounter with her. It is as fresh in my mind today as it was when I was a young child. By today’s standards, what she did would be considered “ordinary” and polite. In the early 1950s, she could have been jailed for what she did.
Here is her story:
It was a hot and humid summer day in Montgomery, Alabama. My mother gathered her six children for a Saturday shopping trip downtown. She made sure all of us went to the bathroom before we left the house. She also gave each one of us a peppermint to put in our pocket. This was her routine for our trips away from home.
The peppermint had a specific purpose that had nothing to do with keeping our breaths fresh. If the “Colored Only” water fountain from which we could drink was not working, the peppermint would keep our mouths moist long enough for my mother to find a “Colored Only” water fountain that was working.
We had been walking downtown from store-to-store and it was extremely hot and humid. I became thirsty and asked my mother to show me where the water fountain was located in a store called Gayfers. When we got to the "Colored Only" water fountain, it was not working. My mother told me to suck on my peppermint until we could get to the next store. This is when I discovered that I had forgotten to bring my peppermint.
I begged my mother to let me drink out of the adjacent “White Only” water fountain that was working. At 5-years-old, I didn’t know what the signs meant anyway. A white woman was standing there drinking from the “White Only” water fountain. She heard me pleading with my mother for a drink of water.
My mother tried to calm me down and then looked at her. The two women never spoke a word to each other. After the white woman finished drinking from the fountain, she kept the water flowing. With her inviting eyes and body language, she gestured for me to come drink out of the “White Only” water fountain. My mother stared at her and she stared back with a smile that only another mother could give. I slowly walked over to the fountain and started drinking the “White Only” water. To me, it tasted just like the “Colored Only” water.
I drank and drank for what seemed like an eternity because I was very thirsty. After I finished drinking the water, the woman smiled, nodded her head in a farewell gesture, and slowly walked away.
At that moment, two adults and one child had broken Alabama’s strictly enforced laws on racial segregation in public accommodations. We became criminals that day because a young black child in the custody of his loving mother needed water and a caring white woman, who was a stranger to us, gave it me from the “White Only” water fountain.
What made her do it? Why did she care enough about me to risk being arrested and labeled a “nigger lover” by local police? Why did I matter to her?
In that moment, the bravery and kindness of this unknown white woman triumphed over the arcane social mores and legal code of the day. Simply put, I was an innocent young child who was thirsty and she gave me water. What is more, she broke the law to do it.
I never saw this woman again, but what she did that day helped to shape my view of humanity. Because of her, and tens of millions of Americans like her, I was eventually able to: (a) drink from any public water fountain that worked; (b) use any public toilet that was available; (c) eat at any public lunch counter that served food I could afford to buy; (d) work as the first black cashier for the Delchamps grocery store chain in Alabama; (e) attend the college of my choice; (f) desegregate The University of Alabama’s School of Law; (g) take and pass the bar exam without fear of sabotage in the scoring of my exam results; (h) practice law throughout Alabama’s 67 counties and in the District of Columbia; (i) apply for and receive the first bank charter issued to an African-American owner by the Alabama Banking Department; (j) own and manage international energy services companies; and (k) participate fully and freely in the political process across America.
When I started practicing law in Alabama in 1973, a few white state court judges openly addressed me as the “nigger lawyer from Montgomery” (as opposed to “Mr. Watkins”) in front of the all-white jurors who were trying my cases. When this dehumanizing conduct occurred, I saw her spirit emerge again and again in the eyes and faces of the jurors. I did not know them and they did not know me. Yet, they ALWAYS rose above this demeaning judicial bias and did the right thing out of a sense of personal honor and integrity.
I never knew her name, but her spirit has always been with me. She showed compassion to me as a child and treated me with respect as a human being. That fateful day, she gave me more than water. In her own way, she gave me enduring hope for a better world.
Throughout my life, I have embraced her spirit by trying to give as much love for humanity as I have received from the kindness of strangers.
PHOTO: The young Watkins siblings at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama in 1953. I am the second boy from the left on the front row.