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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

The Bridge Builders

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published (via Facebook) on August 30, 2016; Updated and Republished on April 27, 2018

IMAGE: The 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).

The Bridge Builder is a poem written by Tennessee poet Will Allen Dromgoole (1860-1934). I often read this inspirational poem, which was first published in 1900. It reminds me of my family’s purpose in life. We are bridge builders. Here is the poem:

"An old man going a lone highway,

Came, at the evening cold and gray,

To a chasm vast and deep and wide.

Through which was flowing a sullen tide

The old man crossed in the twilight dim,

The sullen stream had no fear for him;

But he turned when safe on the other side

And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,

“You are wasting your strength with building here;

Your journey will end with the ending day,

You never again will pass this way;

You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,

Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head;

“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,

“There followed after me to-day

A youth whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm that has been as naught to me

To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;

He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;

Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

Bridge building has been the hallmark of the Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family for five generations. It began in 1864 when Olivia Williamson, a 17-year old “mulatto” girl of African and Irish descent, met and fell in love with a 26-year old suitor of Scottish descent named William Carmichael. They both lived in Hinds County, Mississippi. Olivia and William were my great grandparents. They married in Crawford Station, Mississippi, on March 25, 1865, just two weeks before the end of the Civil War.

During the next 36 years, this young interracial couple would start a large family and build bridges for a host of former Hinds County slaves and their descendants to help them get a basic education, good jobs and ownership of land in Mississippi. On February 26, 1887, Olivia, who died on June 20, 1927, broke the color barrier in Mississippi by becoming the first black female to own land in her name, alone. William died on March 24, 1901.

Olivia and Williams’ nine children, one of whom was Oda Etta Carmichael (my maternal grandmother), engaged in a lifetime of bridge building as well. Etta and her eight siblings attended local schools for “colored” children, where they excelled in academics. They all did well and eventually became highly successful businessmen, educators, and homemakers. They are credited with starting the rise of the black middle-class in Hinds County during the Jim Crow era.

Bridge building continued when Etta and Willie Varnado’s five children, including my mother Lillian and her husband Levi Watkins, expanded the Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family’s educational reach into the college and university ranks. Lillian and Levi were successful in breaking the color barrier in Memphis by getting white educators from northern states to work on the faculty at Owen Junior College, where Levi served as president from 1954 to 1959. At the time, Owen had an all-black student body.

Bridge building ramped up within the family when my parents asked my brother Levi, Jr., to desegregate Vanderbilt University’s medical school in 1966, and later asked me to desegregate the University of Alabama’s law school in 1970. The State of Alabama, which had refused to admit Levi, Jr., into The University of Alabama’s medical school in Birmingham, paid his full college costs to desegregate Vanderbilt’s medical school. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York awarded me a Herbert Lehman Educational Fund Scholarship to facilitate the desegregation of UA’s law school. At the time, both universities had “vast and deep and wide” chasms “through which was flowing a sullen tide” of racism.

Before Levi, Jr., and I left home on this mission to desegregate these post-secondary academic programs, our parents made sure that we carried with us a copy of the Olivia and William Carmichael family portrait that has been passed down in our family for generations. This photograph would serve as a constant reminder of who we are and what the Watkins family’s mission is in life. We are bridge builders.

Levi, Jr., and I made it safely to the other side of the vast, deep and dark chasm of racism at Vanderbilt and UA “in the twilight dim”. As soon as we graduated, we “built a bridge to span the tide” of this racism for those who would come behind us. This is why Levi, Jr., a world famous heart surgeon and associate dean at Johns Hopkins Medical School, personally recruited a young, gifted black Alabama native named Selwyn M. Vickers to Johns Hopkins as a medical student and why Levi mentored Vickers daily on the rigors of medical school and life. Levi’s long and close friendship and mentorship with Vickers paid off when, in 2013, Dr. Vickers was selected as the first African-American dean of The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, the very school that had refused to admit Levi as a medical student in 1966 because of his race.

Levi and I, along with our talented and gifted siblings, would use our collective educational achievements to break color barriers in medicine, law, government, politics, academia, finance, insurance, telecommunications, fine arts, alternative energy, oil and gas, and international business. These breakthroughs, as well as the bridges we built, have made it possible for millions of Americans and indigenous people of color around the world to enjoy a better quality of life. Along the way, we would engage in nation building in various countries that were once occupied by European colonial powers. This is where and how we met legendary world leaders like South African President Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Namibian Founding President Samuel Daniel Nujoma, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma, and a host of other anti-apartheid and pro-human rights activists.

Our children have crossed the bridges we built and are now building their own bridges with breakthroughs in prostate cancer research, biomedical innovations, foreign history, electronic media content, transcendental meditation, insurance, financial services, genetics, and international entrepreneurship.

Today, my grandchildren are building cyber-bridges that cross cultural and language barriers. These bridges allow them to experience new worlds and different learning environments around the globe. Their friendships know no color or borders. As a result, they are growing in knowledge and wisdom at an accelerated pace.

Bridge building is a noble calling. It is fulfilling work that will last a lifetime and impact generations. All one needs to become a bridge builder is an open heart and an unwavering commitment to helping those who are traveling behind us along the road of life. As for this family, it all started with the bridges that Olivia and William Carmichael built across the “vast and deep and wide” racial chasm of Hinds County, Mississippi during the Civil War. Not only did Olivia and William love each other dearly; they also loved God and all of his children very deeply.


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