By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Originally Published (via Facebook) on October 28, 2015; Updated and Republished on November 20, 2017; Updated on August 11, 2023
My family’s story begins in the early 1800s when Dogold A. Carmichael and his wife Catharine, both of whom were born in 1817 in Scotland, migrated to America. The new immigrants initially settled in South Carolina. Dogold and Catharine, who were white, had six sons -- James, George, John, Thomas, William and Robert -- and one daughter named Ann. By 1850, the Carmichael family was living in HindsCounty, Mississippi.
William Carmichael, who was born on December 5, 1838, met and fell in love with a beautiful “mulatto” girl in Mississippi named Olivia Williamson, who was born on April 20, 1847. Olivia’s biological father is reputed to be Michael Daley, an immigrant from Ireland who deeded his property in Madison County, Mississippi, to Olivia on February 26, 1887, to hold in her name alone.
Olivia and William married in Crawford Station, Mississippi, on March 25, 1865 -- about two weeks before General Robert E. Lee surrendered his 28,000 confederate troops to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Their love for each other was more powerful than the entrenched racial customs in Mississippi at the time.
This young interracial couple began a family of twelve children. One of these children was my maternal grandmother, Oda Etta Carmichael, who was born on January 12, 1890. Etta is the little girl in the first photo below who is standing next to her mother Olivia (second from the left on the front row). Three of Etta’s siblings died in early childhood.
Even though Olivia had no education, she and William made sure that their surviving nine children were formally educated. Etta and her siblings attended local schools for “colored” children. They all did well and eventually became highly successful businessmen, educators, and homemakers.
As a young adult, Etta met an astonishing young minister named Willie L. Varnado. They married on February 21, 1912. Etta became a mother to Willie Varnado’s young daughter (Pearl), who was born during Willie’s marriage to his first wife. Etta and Willie also became the parents of four children of their own. One of those children was my mother Lillian, who was born on March 13, 1917.
Lillian’s childhood years were spent in Canton, Mississippi with her siblings. Later, the family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where Reverend Varnado secured a bigger and more prestigious ministry. It was there that Lillian and her siblings finished high school at the laboratory school associated with Jackson State College. Lillian and her siblings went on to receive their college educations at either Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, or Jackson State College. All of them enjoyed highly successful careers in education, government, and business.
In the second photo below, Etta and Willie Varnado are seated in front of their five children. My mother Lillian is the second woman from the right on the back row.
In 1939, Lillian met and fell in love with Levi Watkins, Sr., while teaching at Burt High School in Clarksville, Tennessee. Levi was also a teacher at the high school. The couple married in 1940 and had six children. I am the fifth of their six children.
My parents and siblings are depicted in the third photo below, which was taken in Memphis while my father was the president of Owen Junior College in the 1950s. I am the second child from the left on the front row.
As was the case with Catherine and Dogold Carmichael, Olivia and William Carmichael, and Etta Carmichael and Willie Varnado, Lillian and Levi Watkins stressed educational excellence and leadership with courage as core family values. Lillian and Levi sent all six of their children to college and saw each of them earn postgraduate degrees. Four of these six children earned terminal degrees in their respective fields of study.
My oldest sister Marie has a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California at Berkley. Her pioneering mathematical algorithms and inventions for Bell Laboratories and Lucent Technologies paved the way for the modern era of telecommunications and the electronic transmission of data around the world. My sister Pearl, who died in 2009, became a nationally known concert pianist and popular music teacher. My brother Levi, Jr., who died in 2015, became a world-renowned heart surgeon whose implantable defibrillator has kept more than three million hearts beating in a regular rhythm since he made medical history at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1980 by implanting the first automatic defibrillator in a heart patient. My sister Doristine became a highly successful educator and school principal. My brother James became a well-respected surgeon/wound care physician in Charlotte. I became a lawyer, banker, and international entrepreneur.
I, along with the two wonderful mothers of my five children (i.e., Donald, Jr., Derry a/k/a “Light”, Drew, Dustin, and Claudia), also stressed these legacy family values. Each one of them is continuing a long family tradition of educational excellence and leadership with courage.
This legacy has been spread throughout our extended family and has been passed down to every new generation within the family. This is why there have been teachers and principals, college professors and presidents, doctors and nurses, lawyers and judges, biomedical innovators and surgeons, mathematicians and inventors, concert pianists, bankers, entrepreneurs, engineers, authors, governmental officials, and a host of other professions represented in our family for over one hundred and fifty-two years. At least four buildings in America are named after descendants of Olivia and William Carmichael.
Our family’s tradition of excellence in medicine continues today through the work of my nephew, Dr. Levi “Alec” Garraway, who is a cancer doctor and biomedical researcher. In 2016, Alec became the Senior Vice President of Global Oncology at Eli Lilly and Company. Alec graduated from Harvard University with a Ph.D. in biomedical research and a M.D. in medicine, both of which were conferred simultaneously.
My niece, Dr. Isla Garraway, is also a pioneering cancer researcher. Isla is an associate professor and the director of research in the department of urology at the University of California, Los Angeles. A surgeon-scientist, Isla is the principal investigator of a basic and translational science laboratory at UCLA that is focused on characterizing human prostate stem and tumor-initiating cells, examining the biological and environmental interactions that influence the growth of cancerous tumors. Isla is a member of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and of the Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. She is an attending urologist in the Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare System. Isla holds Ph.D. and M.D. degrees from the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine in the same fields.
Alec and Isla, who are Marie’s children, were featured on the February 11, 2009, edition of the CBS Evening News. The feature was titled "A Deeper Reason for Cancer Research". Their sister Doris, who holds a Ph.D. degree from Duke University, is an Associate Professor of French and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in French at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean (Duke UP, 2005; reprint 2008).
Alec, Isla, and Doris have first cousins who have achieved award-winning accomplishments in electronic media content (accumulating 16 Emmy Awards), transcendental meditation, insurance, financial services, and entrepreneurship.
Today, my grandchildren and their cousins are competing in learning environments that know no cultural or language barriers. Their friendships know no color or borders. As a result, they are growing in knowledge and wisdom at an accelerated pace.
Olivia and William Carmichael started it all. Everything we are as a family can be traced directly back to them. We are their ambassadors to the world. All of us strive everyday to make Olivia and William Carmichael proud of our family.
Olivia and William Carmichael Family. My maternal grandmother, Oda Etta Carmichael, was born on January 12, 1890. Etta is the little girl who is standing next to her mother Olivia (second from the left on the front row) in the photo below.
Etta and Willie Varnado Family. Etta and Willie Varnado are seated in the photo below in front of their five children. My mother Lillian is the second woman from the right on the back row.
Lillian and Levi Watkins Family. My parents and siblings are depicted in the photo below, which was taken in Memphis while my father was the president of Owen Junior College in the 1950s. I am the second child from the left on the front row.
Lillian and Levi Watkins Family (Christmas 1993). This family photo of my parents and siblings was taken on Christmas Day 1993 at my parent's home in Montgomery, Alabama. My father was president of Alabama State University from 1962 to 1981.
DeAndra and Donald Watkins Family (Christmas 1993). The family photo below shows my former wife DeAndra and my four sons (i.e., Dustin Watkins, Drew Watkins, Light Watkins, and Donald Watkins Jr) was taken on Christmas Day 1993 at my parent's home in Montgomery, Alabama. My daughter Claudia Watkins, who was born on October 22, 1995, would come into our family two years later.
My Five Children. The photo below shows my five children: Donald Watkins Jr, Light Watkins, Claudia Watkins, Drew Watkins, and Dustin Watkins. They make me proud everyday. This photo was posted on Mother's Day 2015.
Donald Watkins Family (Memorial Day Weekend 2017). All of my children and grandchildren gathered with my former wife DeAndra and me in Atlanta to celebrate Memorial Day Weekend 2017. My grandson Levi "Seth" Watkins (back row, third from the left) will be studying in China in the summer of 2018. My daughter Claudia Watkins (second row, second from the right) studied in Italy in the summer of 2017summer and will be enrolled in the London School of Economic and Political Science in the summer of 2018. All of my school-age grandchildren are enrolled in advanced academic programs.